The Beer Olympics: Oktoberfest
The festivities in Munich may have wrapped up this past weekend, but Oktoberfest is just getting started in the United States. Perhaps our loyalty to this bastion of Bavarian culture is due to the fact that by 1910, 18 percent of all US immigrants (or 2.5 million of them) were of German descent (what, did you think Ben Franklin invented the pretzel?). Today, the greatest number of Oktoberfest celebrations outside Germany can be found right here in the States (Ontario, Canada, may be home to the largest, but we have more, dammit!).
Yet, as enjoyable as it may be to slip into a pair of lederhosen, we all know the real excitement of the festival is over its tasty, tasty brew. Traditional Oktoberfest beer conforms to the 16th-century German Beer Purity Law known as Reinheitsgebot (bless you!), which permits only water, barley and hops in the recipe. The Oktoberfest style is a dark gold to deep orange–red lager of medium body with a soft, clean, slightly toasty malt character.
Of course, we innovative Americans are not content to merely consume beer made overseas. Over the past 30 years, US breweries have concocted their own versions of this delicious beverage, and sell a hell of a lot of it, too.
But before we wet our dirndls over how great we are, can our American versions actually stand up to the real deal? This week’s Beer Olympics pits three Oktoberfests from American producers of various sizes against one of the all-time German legends: Paulaner, a brewery that’s been cranking out stellar barley pops since 1634.
Let the games begin!
Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen; Munich
Appearance: A burnt gold, the yellowest of the bunch. Not to say that this is a cowardly brew—drink enough of ’em and you’ll have the courage to do anything. (As an Oktoberfest veteran, trust me: I know.)
Aroma: Malty and slightly musty. Ah, this aroma is bringing back all the memories of Oktoberfest…but let’s hope, this time around, limiting my intake of this beer will prevent it from bringing back my lunch.
Taste: Great mouthfeel with delicious flavor. I can taste the biscuit and caramel contributions of the Vienna and Munich malts, respectively. Its incredibly balanced flavor and smoothness make it a classic.
Finish: Finishes clean, inviting another sip. Yet, without much hops, the malt flavor lingers and fades away slowly, like that friend you were happy to see for the first two hours of a party, but would now like to leave your home.
Samuel Adams Octoberfest; Boston
Appearance: Deep amber topped with a frothy head for a truly stunning pour. The Germans may have invented Oktoberfest, but we make it look so pretty.
Aroma: My first glass stunk of papery, wet cardboard…or a frat house basement—a sure sign that the beer had oxidized in the bottle. Opened another from a fresh can and it smelled as it should: malty and sweet. God bless canned beer, and God bless America.
Taste: Smooth, clean and highly carbonated from the can. A bit sweeter, but less bready and lacking the depth of Paulaner’s offering. And yet, I think The Patriot’s beer could surprisingly benefit from a touch more American hops.
Finish: Quite tingly, with some mildly floral notes. Undeniably smooth, making for a super drinkable brew.
Brooklyn Oktoberfest; Brooklyn
Appearance: Almost identical in color to Sam Adams, but with slightly less depth to its hue, and a more dainty, creamy lace. Hey, Sam, meet your little bro!
Aroma: Hold up…who you callin’ “little”? The spicy, nutty aroma smells just like fall. Yet, the delicate, herbal hops used in this beer are clearly German. Brooklyn pays homage while putting its own fantastic spin on the beer.
Taste: I adore the autumn-y flavor (I can almost taste cinnamon and pumpkin, though I know I’m merely imagining it) but this lacks a strong enough malt backbone. I want my Oktoberfest to taste like spiced bread, not breaded spice.
Finish: A little thin on the minty finish, which leaves me wanting more. Again, I love the tasty components of this beer, but I want my Oktoberfest to provide a bit more substance.
Track 7 Tracktoberfest; Sacramento, California
Appearance: Lacking widespread national distribution, Track 7 is obviously our underdog. And with a light copper color a half-shade lighter than even Brooklyn’s brew, their Oktoberfest will need to step it up to play with the big boys.
Aroma: It boasts an interestingly spicy-fruity aroma that’s difficult to pinpoint, along with some oakiness, and perhaps a touch of papery oxidation? Still, I’m looking forward to tasting this pleasant smelling brew.
Taste: With a great level of carbonation, well-balanced—but assertive—hops and an excellent malt flavor, Tracktoberfest proves itself to be an awesome American take on the Oktoberfest style. Now, THA’SwhattI’mTALKIN’BOUT!
Finish: Restrained levels of snappy, bitter American West Coast hops really balance the rich, sweet malt incredibly well for the cleanest, most refreshing finish of any of the beers. I’m thrilled to end my journey sipping this beer—and not curled up on the floor of an Oktoberfest tent bathroom in Munich (not that that’s ever happened…).
AND THE AWARDS GO TO…
Appearance: Sam Adams
Finish: Track 7
In summary, the American beers were generally hoppier, spicier and more carbonated than their German progenitor, which might make them more enjoyable in warmer weather. But if you’re a traditionalist, nothing can top Paulaner’s rich, malty Oktoberfest.
What all of these beers do share, however, is an alcohol content of about 5.5 percent, which means that right about now I’m working on a pretty healthy beer buzz. And working through some pretty intense Oktoberfest flashbacks.