Oktoberfest beer to go along with that oompah tune you can’t get out of your head
I like to think that my affinity for beer is in my DNA. This microscopic blueprint weaves a genealogy that’s dominated by two beer-loving cultures: Irish and German. My paternal great-great grandfather, Peter Driscol, emigrated from Ireland and headed inland to fulfill his own manifest destiny on a plot of farmland in central Iowa. The German blood trickled down from both sides of my family. A large chunk of it came from my father’s maternal side, which bore the strong family name of Rinderknecht, and splashes here and there from my mother’s mother, who claimed Pennsylvania Dutch, a mish-mash of immigrants with descendants from southwestern Germany.
Right about now, my distant German cousins are gearing up for the 180th Oktoberfest celebration. They will be setting up massive tents that hold as many as 10,000 people, stocking them with liter-sized glasses and wheeling in kegs of Munich’s finest.
The rules surrounding the beer served at Oktoberfest are fairly strict. By definition, only beer brewed in Munich can be served and can claim the moniker of Oktoberfest Beer. The Oxford Companion to Beer says that even Luitpold, prince of Bavaria and a member of the Bavarian Royal House of Wittelsbach, was denied entry of his beer into the festival, as it was brewed just outside of town.
As Americans, we feel for Luitpold. We can’t all brew in Munich, but we can use the annual Oktoberfest celebration as inspiration for some pretty awesome beers. Though these craft brews can’t be considered official beers of Oktoberfest, there are some pretty tasty options for us to enjoy on this side of the pond. Here are a few to look for:
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Samuel Adams Octoberfest
This is the oldest beer in the Samuel Adams seasonal collection, originating with founder Jim Koch’s first Oktoberfest experience in 1971. Koch fell in love with the “gorgeous malt aromas and creamy, smooth, Malbec-scented flavor” of the beers he had in Munich that year. When he returned to Oktoberfest 15 years later, the beers had become lighter, less flavorful and easier drinking.
“When we first brewed Samuel Adams Octoberfest in 1989, I wanted to re-create that classic Oktoberfest taste that I remembered — big, malty, smooth and almost creamy, and that’s what we have in Samuel Adams Octoberfest,” Koch said in a video on the brewery’s website.
Koch calls the beer “autumn in a glass,” with its red-brown color reminiscent of fall foliage. The beer’s aroma has a sweet, malty, roasted toffee or caramel characteristic, and the taste also brings out the five varieties of malt the beer is made with, adding Noble hops to balance the sweetness.
Victory makes its Festbier with imported two-row Vienna and Munich German malts and whole-flower German hops for a delicate aroma. The beer is brewed using a traditional German decoction mash brewing process, where the various required temperatures for the mash are reached by boiling parts of the mash separately and then infusing them back into the main batch to raise its temperature. It’s a labor-intensive process, but it results in a very full-bodied, amber-colored beer.
“It’s got a delightful, malty nose, malt being the sweet component in beer,” said Bill Covaleski, president and co-founder of Victory, on the brewery’s website. “And a deliciously sweet initial characteristic to it. It ends with a really nice, dry, almost nutty character, so there’s a lot of complexity in a beer like this.”
Covaleski calls Festbier a party beer, as it starts with a sweetness that sticks to the tongue, encouraging the drinker to wash it away with another sip. At 5.6 percent alcohol by volume, that cycle should be heeded but, hopefully, not too vicious on the drinker.
Left Hand Oktoberfest
Like many Oktoberfest beers, Left Hand brews its version in the traditional marzen lager style. “Marzenbier” is German for “March beer” and was developed by brewers in the 1500s when the Bavarian monarchy decreed that all beer had to be brewed between Sept. 29 and April 23 to avoid spoilage, which was common with beer brewed in the summer months (due to bacteria, though they didn’t know it at the time).
The beer cranked out in March was brewed stronger and fermented in cool places, or lagered, so it would keep better, and the last of the spring stock was guzzled as the fall brewing season came around again in September. Left Hand’s Oktoberfest is made with Munich and Pilsner malts, with Magnum and Spalter Select hops for balance. It’s got a brilliant amber color and that rich, malty hit on the nose.
I always think of Oktoberfest beers as a little funky, which could be attributed to their biscuity, earthy aroma or lack of bitterness (Left Hand’s is only 24 International Bittering Units). But funky is a good thing — the flavor is distinctive and crisp, with a lovely aftertaste.
So however you decide to celebrate this Bavarian tradition, be it with authentic Oktoberfest beers or their American counterparts, be sure to raise a glass and toast the founding fathers for their inspiration and throwing one hell of a party. Prost!
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