Although German in origin, Oktoberfest is, in some ways, very American: a festival mainly known outside of its country of origin for the consumption of large quantities of beer, roasted meats and saus
Although German in origin, Oktoberfest is, in some ways, very American: a festival mainly known outside of its country of origin for the consumption of large quantities of beer, roasted meats and sausages. That is to say, the modern version of Oktoberfest could easily be enjoyed by Americans. The original festival was more of a suit and tie affair however—it was initially held in 1810 to celebrate the wedding of two nobles. The horse races that closed that occasion were so popular that it was decided a festival would be held around the same time the next year, in the same place, right outside the city of Munich. The tradition continued every year following that, the festival expanding in terms of how it is celebrated (nowadays it’s somewhat like a massive state fair) as well as how long the festivities last; in the present day, the festival is a full sixteen to eighteen days leading up to German Unity Day on October third. Since its inception, Oktoberfest has only been cancelled a few times, due to war and outbreaks of cholera. Germans obviously like a good party, so along with the festival itself, something else has endured over the centuries—the beer style named after it.
Oktoberfest beers are technically known as Märzen lagers, as the brewing process is traditionally initiated in March (März in German) and the beers are allowed to continue fermenting for several months. Lagering is a time-sensitive process: lagers are traditionally fermented at lower temperatures than ales, for longer periods of time, with different yeast strains, resulting in low alcohol content and subdued, approachable flavors. The style predates refrigeration (Oktoberfest beers have been brewed since 1818), so brewers making beer in those days needed to avoid starting the brewing process during the summer, as the chances of the beer being infected, or the heat of summer throwing off the initial stages of the brewing process were dramatically higher. Given that Oktoberfest starts half a month before October begins, brewing a palatable lager beer in the early fall would simply not be feasible, so starting the process in March makes the most sense. Modern brewing technology allows brewers to make beer during the summer, provided the ingredients, but most Oktoberfest beers are still released to coincide with festival time.
Considering the popularity of the Oktoberfest style in America, and the generally venerated position of German beer all over the world, the thought occurred to me that it would be interesting to compare traditional German beers to their American counterparts. So, a plan was hatched by two close friends and I, that we would accomplish this through a blind tasting. Joshua Franklin administrated the tasting, ensuring that the glasses of my tasting partner (Brent Taylor) and I were cleaned between pours, and that we would remain blind to what was being poured into our glasses. With the help of my tasting partners, I selected three American examples, and three German examples of the style. For the American brews, I included a regional example, Blue Mountain’s 13.Five OFest, another craft example, DuClaw’s Mad Bishop, and a more widely-known example, Boston Beer Company’s Samuel Adams Octoberfest. As far as the German beers go, I included those of three well-regarded breweries, Weihenstephaner’s Festbier, Paulaner’s Oktoberfest Märzen, and Ayinger’s Fest-Märzen. Of the three German examples, only Paulaner’s is served at Oktoberfest in Germany, so it might be the best representation of the style, at least as far as this panel goes. During the tasting, Brent and I conferred on the subtleties, or lack thereof, in each beer, what he and I thought the origin might be, and even the specific beer he and I thought each one might be. Although my tasting partner and I went in with certain preferences and preconceptions in our minds, the impartial nature of the test provided he and I with some surprises upon the revealing of each beer’s identity. In order to provide the reader with some surprises as well, I will recount the tastings in order, complete with the final unveiling.
The first beer my tasting partner and I tried was not to either of our liking; it was my second-least favorite, and the worst of the panel in his eyes. The beer’s appearance was of a warm, copper color. The aroma was pretty weak, featuring some mild malt with notes of toffee and caramel, and a slight hop scent. The taste was also fairly underwhelming, with some slight malt sweetness, noble hop spiciness, a slight citrus character, and an off-putting buttery taste coupled with a residual waxy feeling in the mouth after the somewhat perky carbonation faded away (likely the indication of diacetyl, an organic compound, traditionally considered a flaw in many beer styles). We both guessed that it would turn out to be American, and that it might have been from DuClaw.
The next beer Brent and I sampled was a step up. The appearance was only slightly different from the first beer, appearing as a clear amber in the glass. A significantly more present aroma, consisting of a prominent noble hop character (indicated by notes of tea leaf and citrus), vanilla, licorice, cereal-like malt, and a spicy yeast character. The taste followed with much of the same, with some sweet corn in addition to those aromatic aspects, and a slight bitterness on the back end. The mouthfeel was more pleasant than that of the first beer, with a less aggressive effervescence, and none of the waxiness. We attributed this beer to Germany, and guessed that it might be Paulaner’s Oktoberfest.
The third beer in the panel was by far my least favorite, and Brent ranked it only slightly above the first. The appearance was a bright golden/orange color. The aroma was bizarre; I got a very specific candy corn smell, with a hint of vanilla alongside that. Brent got a hint of pie spice in addition to some of the sweetness, as well as a mild hop scent. The flavor was much the same as the aroma, with the sweetness being a bit overwhelming, a very slight noble hop taste in the form of tea, citrus, and mild bitterness. Neither Brent nor I wanted to finish our sample pours of the beer. He and I concluded that it had too much malty sweetness to be German, and we both thought that it might be Sam Adams, as we had already ruled DuClaw out.
The fourth entry was a pleasant change. Appearing as a deep copper/amber color, the beer had a robust aroma to accompany that hearty color, with a unique umami character reminiscent of soy sauce and beef, noble hop aroma, and some sweet vanilla. The flavor featured a pleasant array of malt tastes, some of which were highlighted in the aroma, a nice amount of noble hop flavor, and some saltiness. The mouthfeel was spritely and effervescent, pleasantly cutting some of the richness of the flavors, although there was a bit of a residual waxy feeling in my mouth, indicating a possible diacetyl presence. Overall, the beer was very enjoyable. Brent and I attributed the beer to Germany, and felt that it could have possibly been the work of Ayinger.
The fifth beer in our panel presented us with some surprises. The copper/amber color seemed in line with the rest of the beers on the panel. Notable in terms of aroma was an apple/apple cider character not present in any of the beers preceding this one, along with toffee, caramel, butter, noble hop, and some sweet malt. The taste followed with some apple, toffee, noble hop, some butter, roasted nuts, toast, sweet malt, and Brent detected some scallop-like brine. The mouthfeel was fairly low in carbonation, and of medium fullness. Brent and I found the beer very pleasant, and due to some of the atypical notes in the flavor and aroma, we attributed it to the creativity of Blue Mountain.
The sixth and final beer in our panel had a somewhat unique presentation; it exhibited a pale straw color, like that of a filtered wheat beer. The aroma was very pleasant, featuring the most prominent noble hop character of the whole panel, some sweet, cereal-like malt, and a pleasing yeast character resembling spices like clove. The flavor followed with all of the same, as well as some grassiness. The mouthfeel was effervescent, yielding a slightly dry finish. Brent and I found this last beer very pleasant, and attributed it to the German brewery Weihenstephaner. Admittedly, I had experienced this beer before, so I was somewhat thankful that I couldn’t pick it out earlier in the tasting.
As it turns out, Brent and I were only correct in our assumptions about two beers: the second being Paulaner, and the sixth being Weihenstephaner. The weak first entry turned out to be the Sam Adams, the bizarre third entry was the disappointingly unpleasant Ayinger, the fourth entry turned out to be Blue Mountain, and DuClaw’s Mad Bishop surprised both Brent and I as the fifth entry. In conclusion, it would seem that German beers are somewhat easy to identify, due to their distinctive yeast and hop characteristics, and these characteristics owe mainly to tradition—Weihenstephaner touts itself as the oldest brewery in the world. However, Ayinger threw this off. Perhaps the particular sample bottle wasn’t fresh, or had been stored improperly. Regardless, it threw off the tasting in an unexpected way, showing that German beers (or maybe the importers and sellers) are not necessarily beyond reproach. American craft beer is new to the global beer scene in the grand historical sense, and sometimes it shows. While DuClaw and Blue Mountain made tasty entries in the genre, all of the American beers in the panel had evidence of diacetyl, traditionally considered a flaw in lager styles; it can cloud subtle, nuanced flavors that should be presented clearly. The ambition and bold flavors offered by American craft brewing are certainly appealing, but there is definitely room for improvement; there could certainly be something gleaned from the restraint of German brewers. While big beers like barrel-aged imperial stouts and double IPAs have become a staple of American craft brewing in recent years—and those are fantastic styles to explore—brewing a quality lager is a matter that still needs to be taken seriously by craft brewers. In a way, crafting a truly exceptional lager is one of the greatest tests of a brewer. The stripped-down nature of lagers serves as a crucible, as there is no massive amount of hops or malt (as there may be in say, an American barleywine) to mask what may be subtle off-flavors. While beer in America continues to evolve, and breweries become more and more experimental, perhaps the most revolutionary thing for craft breweries to do is brew truly world-class lagers.