Tastes Like Fall To Me (Hello Again, Oktoberfests)
Is there one season of the year which is so closely tied to any one beer style than fall? We find ourselves nearing the end of September, and for so many beer lovers, it is always with a sweet and reassuring sense of joy – like running into an old friend – when they find the Oktoberfest beers have sneaked back onto store shelves. For the next month or so, these beers of German origin which instantly invoke visions of massive parties filled with tipsy stein wielding revelers being served by German beer maids while swaying to oompah bands will be available to enjoy, only to (somewhat) disappear until next year. Stereotypes and truths aside, my own personal better-beer-history owes quite a bit to the Oktoberfest style, as it was one of the first styles that got my taste buds watering for different and better beer. It was an experience I’ve always thought might work well for other beer curious folks. Oktoberfests typically are amber in color, medium to full bodied, have a somewhat rich, toasted malt flavor. When done well, they have an outright delicious taste, are easy to drink brew for anyone who is curious about quality beer.
So what is the connection between fall and the beer? And why do we instantly think of parties of epic proportions when Oktoberfests are mentioned? So much of beer history owes itself to the days before refrigeration, and this beer style is no different. More than five hundred years ago, German brewers began to get a hold on at least how to produce a consistently good beer for their times, if not exactly why a particular result would occur. They knew that beer produced and then stored in colder temperatures would yield just that – a beer with a reliably consistent taste. Beer produced during warmer times was prone to spoilage, and therefore of some hit and miss kinds of flavors, such as sourness. So brewers began working to produce mass quantities of beer in late winter, and then stored the brew often in ice lined caves or other storage areas. Over the spring and summer, the beer was released on an as needed basis. As each summer came to a close and fall began however, the beer that was still left needed to be drunk, as new batches of beer would soon be produced from the summer harvests and would need to be stored in the same casks housing the existing beer. The need to get rid of the beer met the idea of holding a festival to do just that, and the history of the world’s biggest beer festival had been born.
Interesting storylines and subplots don’t end there. Throughout the years, the beer many of us refer to today as simply the “Oktoberfest” has gone through enough changes to rival any cheap romance novel, and there is, to this day, plenty of confusion still surrounding the history of the beer. As in, for those of you following along, you might want to take notes here. Of course, the two nearly synonymous names for the style – Marzen, and Oktoberfest – are timelessly linked due to the beer’s heavy production in late winter, ending in March (“Marzen” in German), and the beer’s celebratory release at the beginning of fall (as in, Oktoberfest celebrations). Style wise, the beer also went through a few notable changes – according to a great article on the German Beer Institute website, a mid 1840’s shift to a paler malt would yield a slightly paler marzen, and in Austria this beer would become known as the Vienna Lager. Thirty years later, the renowned Spaten Brewery switched things up once more by making a return to perhaps more of an “original” form, if there is such a thing, and once again brewing a darker beer. It seems that this was the first official time the beer was referred to as “Oktoberfestbier”.
Now I would be completely in the wrong if I did not mention some of the outstanding imported Oktoberfests which well known German breweries put out each year. Although the focus of the blog is always about American craft breweries, the bottom line is that many of these are absolutely great tasting, well made beers. Among the well known German imports, two of my favorites are Paulaner’s and Hacker-Pschorr’s seasonal Oktoberfest. As with any beer, but especially with imports, if you’re out to try these, watch out for freshness dates. These beers of course are not bottle aged and the style is best when tasted as fresh as possible. These two imports have exactly what I personally look for in this style: big toasted malt flavors, slight caramel and sweet flavors, and the occasional slight hop presence for a bit of balance but is nevertheless pushed out of the way by the malt.
There are plenty of American, craft brewed Oktoberfests though to watch out for as well. Among regional ones that I’ve personally tasted and enjoyed are Legend’s (VA) version and Blue Mountain’s (VA) Humpback Oktoberfest. Other well reviewed examples from BeerAdvocate.com include Left Hand Brewing’s (CO) Oktoberfest and Avery Brewing’s (CO) The Kaiser, both of which are available here in Roanoke, as well as Great Divide’s (CO) The Hoss and Great Lakes (MI) Oktoberfest.
Here’s another tip. If you’re looking for a true Oktoberfest, here’s another reason to label watch: many breweries latch onto the Oktoberfest craze without actually brewing a true to form version of the beer, instead turning out an amber ale (yes, ale…remember, Oktoberfests are lagers) and slap the word “Oktoberfest” on the label somewhere. It’s not to say these aren’t good beers, but if you want a true taste of the style, a quick read on the outside of the bottle might mean you get the real thing on the inside.
Good Oktoberfests are quite simply delicious, easy to drink beers. Whether you haven’t tried one yet, have so far tried only one, or know them well and find yourself, like I did, standing in the beer aisle the other day smiling at the reappearance of the style like running into that old friend, it’s time to acquaint – or reacquaint – yourself. Personally, I do not find myself in need of gigantic festivals or oompah bands this time of year. Although not necessary to enjoy one of these beers, cooler weather is finally on the way, and the smooth, malty tastes of a good Oktoberfest will soon feel right in place with the days to come. Welcome back the beer that somehow just tastes a lot like fall. Prosit!