Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

September 18, 2006

The Culture of Beer:

Eternal Oktober

A rundown of some of the Midwest's best-known Oktoberfest beers.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
Ah, autumn: football, deer hunting, crisp mornings and cool nights. And beer, of course. Because autumn plays host to what very well could be the largest party on Earth: Oktoberfest. And if you can't appreciate a good Oktoberfestbier along with a German sausage, aka brät, well, then, you just aren't a Beer Dork after all.

In Germany the style known here as Oktoberfest is often called Märzen for March, because before the advent of refrigeration these beers were usually thrown together in late spring, the last batch before summer's heat prevented brewing. (Apparently March is late spring in Germany, unlike here in the Midwest where late spring is, oh, June.) Because this batch of suds had to last through the summer for consumption around harvest time, Märzens were made with a higher gravity than most beers, resulting in, among other things, a higher alcoholic kick. Necessity is, in this case, the mother of drunkness.

This went on, of course, for hundreds of years. Then in 1810 a certain German prince by the name of Ludwig came along and things, as they say, would never be the same. See, this dude's mug should be in the dictionary next to the word shindig. He threw a party for his wedding in the fall of that year, and it was so kick-ass that the entire world now celebrates it annually as—you guessed it—Oktoberfest. Party frickin' hard.

Style-wise the Märzen started off as a stepping stone from the traditional dark ales toward the lighter lagers such as the classic Pilsner (which eventually mutated into the abomination most ill-educated Americans think of when they hear the word "beer"). Being, basically, Vienna-style lagers, Märzens tended to be lighter in body and maltier than their old ale cousins, but still a long ways off from the golden-hued Pilsners or Dortmunders that would come to revolutionize the beer world. But time has a way of eroding tradition. Over the decades the German Märzen has lost much of its color and body, illustrated by the world-famous Hofbrau's Oktoberfest, which is virtually indistinguishable from their flagship light lager.

Leave it up to the American craft brewers, as usual, to come to the rescue. The style has undergone a renaissance here in America, especially in the German heritage-heavy Midwest, where craft brewers have taken the style back to its roots, producing the dark, malty, toasty brews that Ludwig and his fellow revelers guzzled down in 1810 during that party for the ages. So without further ado, let's do a quick rundown of some of the better known Midwest Oktoberfestbiers.

Leave It Be
I was absolutely shocked by how light and lagery Bell's entry was this year. More akin to today's Märzens, with a thin maltiness and watery aftertaste. I'd suggest leaving this on the shelf if you happen across it, something I'd never thought I'd say about a beer coming from this excellent brewery.

Good … But Not Great
Goose Island, Leinenkugels, Summit
The Goose displayed some nice maltiness, but only a hint of that toasty, almost porter-like backwash that, in this Beer Dork's opinion, defines the style. Leinenkugels just a hair less so in both departments, and a lot less body. The Summit entry was another bit of a shocker, coming in even more flat than the Leinies.

Doing Ludwig Proud
Sprecher, Capital, New Glarus
Capital's entry had always been the epitome for me of the Oktoberfest style: loads of maltiness offset by a full bodied toastiness, damn near bordering on coffee-like. Sprecher's entry came very close as well, but a slightly hoppy profile (rare in Sprecher's stuff) keeps it firmly behind Capital. And then there is the New Glarus Staghorn, an undisputed masterpiece in the Oktoberfest genre, its malt-body balance eclipsing even Capital's entry. You can't get it outside of Wisconsin, but it makes a roadtrip to the state worth it by itself.

That's it, folks. Stay tuned for updates as more Midwest Oktoberfests roll out. I've got Tyranena's Oktoberfest chilling in the fridge waiting for a taste-off, and I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for others on the liquor store shelf. So if you know of any tasty seasonal brews you think are deserving, make like a beer and give me a buzz.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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