We have once again made it to the best time of year: Fall, when the temperature in the South finally starts to drop below 90 degrees, college football is on the television and seasonal beers really hit their stride. Spring and summer have their own seasonals, but they aren’t as exciting as fall and winter seasonals.
Fall heralds the arrival of three major types of seasonal beer: pumpkin beers, fresh hop pale ales, and Märzen style lagers most commonly called “Oktoberfests”—a name derived from the very famous festival where they have long been featured.
Long ago, Oktoberfests were brewed in March and then lagered (aged) in caves during the summer months, ultimately being enjoyed at the eponymous festival. That festival originated in Munich in 1810 to commemorate the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. It is now “the world’s largest fair, with some six million people attending every year.”
Regarding the beer style, it tends to be amber in color and very malt-focused. The grain bill is typically heavy on Vienna and Munich malts, which are German malts with a very rich flavor. They may run a bit hoppier than everyday German lagers, which isn’t saying a whole lot since I’ve never heard of a hop-head German brewmaster. And they are usually in the mid-five percent range on alcohol. In my mind, they make the perfect beverage companion to college football on TV.
Since they don’t transgress the old 6% ABV limit, Alabama has long seen a wide variety of Oktoberfests around this time of year. But I would like to highlight a handful, starting with those that are new here this year.
The one I’m most eager to try is Gordon Biersch FestBier. Brewmaster Dan Gordon has a five-year brewing engineering degree from the school at Weihenstephan, the oldest brewery in the world. Talk about expertise and appreciation for tradition. While Gordon Biersch have a year-round Märzen style beer, their FestBier is more robust and hoppy.
Another new one is Shmaltz Brewing’s Coney Island Freaktoberfest. It stands out a bit for its 6.7% ABV, making it unusually strong for the style. And it features primarily American hops such as Cascade, Willamette, and Warrior. The guys at Shmaltz are pretty much the polar opposites of the brewers at Gordon Biersch on this. While the latter are obsessed with perfectly adhering to German tradition, the former are pushing the boundaries and adding uniquely American twists to a classic style. Both approaches have their own merits.
While not new to Alabama, another one that deserves special mention is Flying Dog Dogtoberfest. It has won gold in the Oktoberfest category at the Great American Beer Festival the last two years. Two years in a row makes for an impressive feat (judging is done blind). Unlike the Shmaltz version, all the ingredients for this one are imported from Germany. But the brewing technique is very American, as Dogtoberfest is hoppier than just about any German-brewed Oktoberfest I know of.
Here are more American-brewed Oktoberfests you should check out:
• Left Hand Oktoberfest, from Longmont, Colorado. A 6% ABV offering from the first Colorado brewery to distribute to Alabama.
• Samuel Adams Octoberfest, from Boston, Massachussetts. The largest craft brewery is a handy go-to beer in restaurants that otherwise only carry stuff from the mega-brewers.
• Leinenkugel’s Oktoberfest, from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Another one that should have pretty widespread availability.
And of course it would be heresy not to mention some classic German-brewed examples of this German style:
• Beck’s Oktoberfest, from Bremen, Germany. • Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen, from Aying, Germany.
• Spaten Oktoberfest from Munich, Germany.
The differences between different examples of Oktoberfest beers are much smaller than the differences between various IPAs or different American brown ales. But if you can appreciate the subtle differences then you are on your way to being a beer god. It would be fun to get together with some buddies and do a tasting of all of these.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to email@example.com.