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Tasting Oktoberfest

By Harry Haff, CEC, CCA, AC(C)

Bavarian traditions have been warmly embraced by Americans looking for an excuse for a good food and drink festival, and with craft brewers and brewpubs looking to create their own updated individualized versions of a classic beer style, Oktoberfest holds a special place in the hearts and stomachs of American beer and food lovers.

The beer that we know as Oktoberfestbier changed along with the festival itself. In Bavaria, which has warm, humid summers, beer brewed in the summer would often sour. This was because wild yeasts were used for fermentation, and during fermentation there would often be unwelcome visitors in the form of bacteria and some not so friendly yeast strains. In an effort to control this situation, brewers would cease brewing around the end of March or April when the weather started to warm up. Massive amounts of beer would be brewed that could be stored in cellars that were insulated and packed with ice, or would be trucked up into the ice caves in the Bavarian Alps to be drawn down as needed.

So pronounced was this issue of beer spoilage that in the Reinheitsgebot, or beer purity law of 1516, beer could be brewed only between St. Michael’s Day, September 29, and St. George’s Day, April 23.

In an effort to protect the beer, brewers could make high-gravity beers, which produces a higher alcohol content than normal. This creates a more sterile environment that prevents the harmful bacteria from ruining the beer. (High-gravity beers are those that incorporate large amounts of malt and actually make the beer heavier than a regular beer. High-gravity beers can actually have alcohol contents higher than some traditional German wines.)

This traditional beer is known as Märzen, i.e. brewed in the month of March. The traditional Märzen was made with dark roasted malt and lots of it, which resulted in a full-bodied beer with an almost mahogany color. Because of the dark malting, it has a somewhat sweet taste profile without a heavy dose of hops. With notes of spice and caramel, with just a touch of bitterness perceived rather than tasted, this is a complex, rewarding beer, not to be swilled but to be enjoyed and savored by itself or with a wide variety of good food. Despite the dark malting and richness of the texture, the lingering effect of most Märzen beers is one, after all is said and done, of dryness on the palette.

For most breweries what is now called Märzen is more akin to a style of beer known as Vienna Lager, or Vienna Export. In most English speaking countries, Oktoberfest and Märzen are synonymous.

Here are some reviews of readily available Oktoberfest-Märzen beers:

Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen: From one of the last remaining family breweries in Bavaria comes this authentic amber-colored brew. Pronounced flavors of grain, caramel, yeast, earth and a carbonation that is plentiful yet refined. Lots of subtle complexities here, from the almost beige-colored foam at the top to the lingering finish that may remind one of autumn leaves on the ground in its earthiness. Sweet, dry, earthy, a hint of fruit and a little pinch of hops. This beer is medium bodied; its spice and caramel notes makes it a great partner for fresh and smoked sausages, braised cabbage with apples and allspice and almost any type of braised, cool weather foods such as sauerbraten, Yankee Pot Roast, Texas BBQ Brisket and Osso Bucco.

Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest-Märzen: From this brewery, one of the largest, comes a beer that is marked by an amber or burnt orange hue with a pale foam that goes the distance and does not disappear. The body leaves great-looking rings on the glass as the beer goes down with tastes of bread, malt, brown sugar and yeast. One of the lightest of the brews, it’s a good choice for some grilled foods, such as tuna, swordfish and all kinds of poultry.

Paulaner Oktoberfest-Märzen: A color of deep burnt copper with carbonation reminiscent of bubbles in fine champagne. The foam is light beige/cream color that lasts the length of the glass full. Caramel, grainy, malty, a touch of hoppiness leads to a smooth, well-balanced feel on the palate with a sweet yet dry finish. Easy and smooth drinking for afternoon sipping or with lighter charcuterie and smoked seafood or pan-seared trout with brown butter.

Spaten Oktoberfestbier-Ur Märzen: The word Ur in German means original or primal. From the brewery that makes one of the most flavorful full-bodied Bavarian lagers come a Festbier that is easy to drink and not overly filling. Not as complex on the nose or palette as some others but a good example of a Vienna lager-style Oktoberfestbier.

Sam Adams Octoberfest: Striking amber color with a light-colored head that stays the course. The flavor is like ordering up a taste of fall with sweet spices, baked apples, caramel, autumn leaves, yeast and malted grain. Medium carbonation and well balanced with a dry finish in contrast to the sweet notes on the nose and palate. Tough finding food this good.

Brooklyn Oktoberfest Beer: One of the lager-style brews with a nice amber color and light to medium body. Subdued aromas of malt and grain with a palette of caramel and a touch of smokiness that comes and goes and makes you want another taste. Goes great with any grilled meats so long as there is not a heavy, sticky sauce.

This is the time of year for these vibrant autumn colors and flavor. Try a sampling to find your favorite. The beers above are readily available in bottles and some are available on draft.

Have fun and enjoy. Prossit! Cheers!

The History of Oktoberfest
Oktoberfest is not old in terms of European history. It is generally accepted that the first true Oktoberfest was held in 1810 to celebrate the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. For the wedding, which was celebrated Oct. 18, 1810, in Munich, the Prince pulled out all the stops. In a large meadow now called Theresienwiese (Therese’s meadow) in honor of the new bride, there was a festive horse race and a general celebration. The “tradition” only lasted one year, however, as it was inconveniently interrupted by the war Napoleon started.

The event resumed in 1816 as an arts fair where skilled craftsmen could show and sell their wares. But in 1819, the civic leaders of Munich decided to make it an annual event. In the course of doing this, the fest expanded to around eight days and the actual date for the Oktoberfest was moved to September, which is one of the warmest and sunniest months in Bavaria.

In 1835 as part of the fest, there was a parade to commemorate the Crown Prince’s 1810 wedding. The parade, which today reportedly has an impressive 8,000 people dressed in traditional Bavarian clothing, became an integral part of the event and continues today.

Since 1835 the event has been held on a yearly basis with interruptions for the occasional epidemic, the Franco-Prussian War, the Austro-Prussian War, and World Wars I and II.

Since 1950, there has been a grand opening ceremony where a wooden keg is tapped and the festivities begin. By the 1960s, the fest had become an international event. As might be expected, with such a large event things can get a little rowdy. Some attendees who have a few too many and end up blindingly drunk are affectionately known as Bierleichen, which is translated as beer corpses.

For more moderation-minded people, the event is a treasured family gathering. The music during the day is more traditional oom-pah-pah, with the louder contemporary music beginning after dark. There is plenty of traditional food, amusement rides and lots of great beer.

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