Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Ah September—the beeriest time of the year!

We all know beer is seasonal. Taste, strength and color—all ebbing and flowing in unison with the changing temperatures. From light and refreshing summer beers to malty, spiced winter brews and holiday ales; stouts for mid-March (in the U.S., anyhow) and bocks for late spring. But autumn, oh autumn, has it's own aura of beeriness, that shines just a bit brighter than the other seasons. Sure, we're seeing more brown ales and pumpkin brews this time of year, but what really sets September out are the Munich-born beauties called Oktoberfest... or märzen... or festbier. Essentially a beer brewed in the spring for consumption at a gigantic, 16 to 18-day outdoor festival, with music and food, in early fall. If that don't get your juices flowing, I'm going to ask you to leave the site, right now.

Look at those... mugs.
So what does this have to do with me (and you, reader(s), by proxy)? A week or two ago I engaged in a conversation, on George de Piro's blog, about style. I'm sure you remember this vividly, like the birth of you children or the day you met your spouse. Not to beat a dead horse, (too late) but Oktoberfests play beautifully into my argument. There's a wonderful blurring of the lines stylistically with these beers. They offer a veritable forest of autumnal hues—deep yellows and golds, coppery-ambers and oranges, or rusty reds and ruddy chestnuts. U.S. and Canadian varieties sport a more pronounced hop character and a slightly more bitter bite, than their central European brethren. Some fest beers pull their punches, while others pack a whallop—with ABVs ranging anywhere between 4.6% (Augustiner Bräu Märzen Bier) and a whopping 10% (Avery Brewing Company's The Kaiser.) O-fests pay little attention to the rulebook, and as long as the beers flows, who cares?

So, as is typical on this site, me thinks a little evaluation is in order. Six beers, six breweries, two continents and one belly. I've chosen three German and three American breweries—Weihenstephaner, Hacker-Pschorr and Ayinger will bring a little Bavarian authenticity to the party; while Victory Brewing Company, Brooklyn Brewery and Flying Dog are representing the red, white and blue. I'm not going to do an all out review on these beers, just a little analytical slaking to see what's "what" with arguably one of the worlds most popular beers. So, let's take a jaunt over to southern Germany start with the Bavarian boys.

All three beers, Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest, Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen, and Weihenstephaner Festbier are all brewed within about 70 kilometers of each other—in and around the Munich area. So you'd guess they'd be pretty similar—not at all. They range in color from a deep copper, bright, amber-orange, and clear gold—respectively. All have voluminous heads ranging from bright white to nearly tan, and are all soft in the mouth, with the Weihenstephaner being the softest. The H-P and Weihenstephaner both lean toward the sweet. The H-P being quite bready, while the Weihenstephaner is light and has a bit of peachy, citrusness to it. The Ayinger on the other hand is the dryest and most grainy, giving up tones of vanilla and caramel—bordering on molassass—without the straight-up sweetness. None are overly hoppy or bitter. The Weihenstephaner has the most noticeable hopiness—a grassy and slightly peppery note. The Ayinger and H-P are skewed more earthy and have a duller hoppiness to them. I'm happy to drink any and all of these Germanic concoctions, and look I'm only half way there! Let's see what the yanks have to offer.

While the German beers were all brewed fairly close to each other, the Americans are spread out—although still on the eastern seaboard. Brooklyn Oktoberfest, and Flying Dog's Dogtoberfest, from Frederick, Maryland, are brewed 300 miles apart, with Victory Brewing Company's Festbier, brewed in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, splitting the difference. All three of the beer are almost identical to each other, visually—deep coppery amber with billowy white heads. All have a sweet, grainy aroma, Flying Dog's offering is far less aromatic than the other two. Universally the beers are thinner than I expected, full of flavor, but nonetheless thin. Speaking of flavor, both the Victory and Brooklyn present with a caramelly sweetness, with the latter bordering on toasty while the Victory has a stone fruit tang—both have a little spice that reminds me of nutmeg. The Flying Dog leans more grainy, significantly less sweet, and slightly sharp. All three have a mineral quality about them. The Victory has a distinct citrusy, tea-like hop note, reminiscent of Earl Grey, while the Dogtoberfest and Brooklyn stay earthier and more straw-like.

Just tasting any one of these—German or American—makes me want to up and head out on the first fast boat to Munich. I want to sit at an old grey picnic table with a big, loaf of pumpernickel and fresh butter and quaff these glorious malty offerings all the live-long-day. My intention, with this tasting, wasn't to decide which beer was better, or what country brewed a better Festbier, or even to decide what beer was the most Oktoberfest-y. I simply wanted to see how a single style was handled differently. I love the fact that the Deutschland boys are so different from each other, while the Amerk's were so close—even though the brewing locales were the opposite! What's great about this style is that it suits so many tastes. You want gold and crisp, we can do that—how about amber and malty—yup, god ol' O-fest has got it covered.

Fest biers or märzens or whatever you want to call them aren't about color or ABV or fitting into a column in a style book somewhere. They're about getting together with good friends (or strangers for that matter) grabbing some great food, listening to fun music and just having a good time. Oktoberfests really are the original party beer!

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