Saving Oktoberfest…

Oktoberfest is an unavoidable tourist trap of a beer drinking holiday in much of the world, with perhaps no greater faux revelry than in the United States. With no ties to any continental or European history or tradition, bars simply stock up on some half-liters (often plastic, ugh), some white and blue checked flags, and maybe even an oompah band, and they’ve got instant fest-in-a-box. Zum what?

And despite being one of the most popular seasonal beer drinking occasions, American brewers sure do make some shitty Oktoberfests. While giving a required nod towards the tradition of Germany, many so-called American versions of this historic style, their resulting beers fall so wide of the mark as to be unrecognizable. Often cast as ales, the trademark smoothness imparted by extended cold conditioning is replaced for a ubiquitous and yawn inducing fruit character. For many U.S. crafts, Oktoberfest beers also just mean a lightly red-hued beer, with no toasted or bready malt character, and little to no soft and subtle beauty. Often brewed without the addition of German or Euro malts or noble hops, the beers offer little if anything beyond the chance to slap an Oktoberfest label on the bottle and score some easy seasonal sales.

In the last decade, Americans have grown quite adept at celebrating if not quite replicating Belgian beer culture, with pubs and restaurants dedicated to all things Flemish and Wallonian. With classy and well-appointed gastropubs popping up in cities throughout America, the future of the Belgian beer bar seems undeniable. These upscale, Belgian themed establishments offer dozens of characterful and diverse styles, distinctive and well-presented glassware, and rough approximations of traditional pub fare. Belgian brewers often marvel at how well-established their nation’s beer culture is here. Between these dedicated pubs and the wide varieties of Lambics, Tripels, and Witbiers available at even your corner packie, Belgian beer culture is arguably more popular now in the United States than in its home country.

The same cannot be said of poor old Deutschland. While the development of the United States market has saved many traditional Belgian beers from extinction, German imports into the country have stagnated. Sure, we’ve got a handful of Hofbrauhaus knock-offs popping up around the country, but few bars let alone American craft breweries look to Germany for inspiration and great beers.

That brings us back to the saddest German beer story of them all: Oktoberfest. Perhaps the world’s quintessential and most iconic beer event, the original beer festival now largely masquerades as a beer selling bonanza for massive, foreign owned corporate behemoths. While some glorious, rich, toasted and malty beers still exist in Germany, they are increasingly difficult to find, having been replaced at the fest either by lighter colored facsimiles or just plain Helles beer.

Oktoberfest is undoubtedly one of the most enticing and saleable beer drinking occasions on the global beer calendar and its charms are appreciated across the world. Despite its obvious appeal, brewers, bar owners, and consumers often just treat it as a German Cinco de Mayo, an excuse to eat vaguely foreign food and get trashed, with a little polka mixed in. German beer culture deserves better and it’s time to start treating traditional German brewing styles with respect and not just as novelty.

That leaves us here in the states with a task ahead of us. As a beer loving nation dedicated to preserving and promoting great and classic beer styles from around the globe, however obscure (Gose anyone?), we need to step up and help resurrect Oktoberfest beer. To date, we’ve sufficed with the production of bland, traditionless Autumn or Harvest Ales posing as Oktoberfests.

-Article appeared in Issue 57 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Six Beers For Autumn…

A Handful of Autumn Beers to Consider

The seasonal appeal of beer has also been one of its greatest selling points. With every change in the weather, from cool to scorching, a beer style is there to meet the occasion. In the chilly winter months, shivering beer drinkers sooth themselves with dark, hearty beers. With the brightening days of summer, a new selection of beers, including Hefeweizen, Dortmunder, and India Pale Ale, is required. For the most contemplative and mellow time of year, the fall brings a new pace of beers. Two classic but sometimes under-appreciated styles tend to bring out the harmonies that exist when the leaves change and the air turns crisp.

Weizenbock

Consider this style an amped up version of the Dunkelweizen, with a dark lager history lurking deep within its body. Weizenbocks usually pour amber ruby to dark brown in color and with a hazy appearance and impressive foamy head. While offering the usual fruit and clove dashes, a Weizenbock’s aroma possesses noticeably more alcohol and malt warmth than standard issue Hefeweizen and Dunkel beers and is more in line with the classic German bock style. Beers of the style maintain a difficult to achieve equilibrium, with matching parts dark, zesty fruit and toasted, bready malts, all resulting in a smooth, drinkable, if potent, offering. Weizenbocks offer a last fond look at the fleeting warmth of summer.

Slam Dunkel from Weyerbacher Brewing Company in Easton, Pennsylvania.

With its deep chestnut color, hazy ruby hues, and mild-mannered boost of foam, the creatively named Weizenbock from this Pennsylvania craft brewer offers wave after gentle wave of neatly folded caramel malt alongside accompaniments of classic Bavarian Hefeweizen yeast notes, including banana and clove. Translated into the tall, slender weizen glass, the Slam Dunkel indeed shuts the door on many other versions of the style, carefully meshing the complex worlds of sweet caramel and chocolate malts and banana and spicy clove phenolics. A touch light on the palate, the beer sneaks up on you with a developing mouthfeel that ends with a velvety wash of caramel fruits.

Moonglow Weizenbock from Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown, Pennsylvania

As a master of German styles, it comes as now surprise that Victory’s Moonglow is a fantastic Weizenbock. With its mildly hazy rouge-apricot tone and pronounced and pillowy soft beige colored peak, the aroma blends restrained doses of spiced fruit, including cinnamon coated apple pie, with touches of peppery clove, all tucked into a glove of tangy and sweet bready malt. In the glass, the beer transforms into a drinking marvel, with luxuriant toasted malt swirls mixed with touches of cocoa and dry wheat, all surrounded in a cocoon of spicy clove and mild banana fruits. A mild tanginess pervades the heavenly mixture, bringing order where needed to keep this medium-bodied beer in proper order.

Hang Ten Weizen Doppelbock from Clipper City Brewing Company in Baltimore, Maryland.

A classic looking Weizenbock with a tawny copper base coat accented by a serious cocoa wheat plume of foam, the nose greets you with subtle layers of caramel malt wrapped around a partially phenolic clove and modest banana dusting. A slow starter, the Hang Ten starts to build momentum as it warms, with additional sheets of toasted malt peeling back to reveal new layers of caramelized fruit, chocolate malt, and a warming alcohol base. Silky smooth in body into the finish, Clipper City’s offering is a welcome addition to the stable of great Weizenbocks.

Marzen

One of the most popular seasonal beers, the Marzen style derives its history from the German brewing center of Munich. Developed by Gabriel Sedlmayr II, owner of the Spaten Brewery, in association with his brother Josef and adapting the Vienna style created years earlier by Anton Dreher, the amber-hued, full-bodied, toasted malt lager was served during the annual Oktoberfest celebration, from which it takes its other name. Sometimes known as “Fest” beer, the Marzen was originally brewed in spring and cellared during the warm summer months for service in the fall, a practice less followed with modern refrigeration. Versions at today’s Oktoberfest celebration are substantially lighter in color and flavor, while American versions tend towards deep gold to copper colors, with strong Vienna or Munich toasted and bready malt aromas, and a slight but present noble hop aroma and bitterness. Oktoberfests are clean lagers with dedication to classic German and European malts and around six-percent alcohol. Many American brewers produce toasty amber ales with a decided fruit aroma and flavor and call them Marzens or Oktoberfest beers.

Balto MärzHon from Clipper City Brewing Company in Baltimore, Maryland.

Playing off the local tradition of calling everyone ‘hon,’ this Marzen glows with a brilliant amber-orange body and undulating off-white head, wherein clean and nuanced rows of sweet malt pack together, with bready and toasted malts predominating over lesser notes of caramel, honey, and earthy fruit. Well-balanced from start to dry finish, the well-proportioned malt base glides with nutty and bready sweet notes, which are prodded into form by a residual but mild, earthy bitterness. The MärzhHon is a well-crafted fall seasonal.

Oktoberfest from Stoudts Brewing Company in Adamstown, Pennsylvania.

A celebration of robust Munich and Vienna malts, Oktoberfest starts with a bright copper hue and a khaki ripple of foam before unleashing a toasted malt nose, replete with bready and caramel notes, all drenched over a reserved earthy noble hop character. In the glass, the aroma transforms into a more moderate experience, with toasted notes predominating in a creamy formation while subtly spicy hops bring a bitter counterbalance to the moderate sweetness level. Clean and crisp to the taste, Oktoberfest draws to a close with a dry, nutty finish.

–Selections taken from Great American Craft Beer, the most recent book from author Andy Crouch.

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