Roll out the barrel, of Oktoberfest beer

by Mark Tichenor

Oktoberfest season is here again! Time for the biggest, baddest, and best party in the world, at least, if you’re in Munich. Sure, plenty of local Oktoberfests spring up, but it’s just not the same. Ah well, at least we all get to enjoy Oktoberfest beer. It’s through a confluence of a few hey events that this delicious brew came to be.

The stated impetus for Oktoberfest seems kind of frivolous: just another Royal wedding amid a bloated aristocracy of kings, countesses, archdukes and the like. But the festival thrown to commemorate the matrimony of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese Von Saxe-Hildburghausen would go on to become the largest annual festival in the world, even bigger than Burning Man.

The brewers of Munich really needed those drinkers to come out in force, since Mother Nature had them locked into an ironclad brewing cycle. Even the best brewmasters of the time had a pretty hazy understanding of microbiology, but what they did know was that beer brewed and fermented during the winter months, and lagered in colder temperatures, tasted a heck of a lot better than the sour nasty summer-brewed beers. Lager yeast needs cold temperatures to do its job, and impart that classic clean lager finish.

The brewers would release this early spring-brewed beer (called ‘Märzen because it was often produced in March) over the next few months, but it definitely benefitted from a little aging, growing more mellow and delicious and peaking right around the middle of September. Naturally, the September release became something drinkers really looked forward to. But storing all that beer put a strain on the Munich breweries’ cooperage resources–they needed those dang barrels back for the next batch–so a giant beer celebration seemed the perfect way to empty a lot of kegs all at once. Pretty much any reason would probably have sufficed.

So, although it’s a raucous party, Oktoberfest was really a practical move by a stereotypically practical people (who, incidentally can hang with anyone in the world when it comes to enjoying a ludicrously oversized vessel of beer). And this remains true today, both at the actual Oktoberfest and the thousands of smaller festivals that spring up all over the world.

For the classic experience, you really should go with Oktoberfest beer from the big six Munich breweries: Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Augustiner, Hofbräu, Paulaner and Löwenbrau. This is one of those things where tradition and experience  matter, and while the beer halls of Munich doubtlessly rage with impassioned argument over which one is the best, they’re all masterful brews, lightly sweet from the malt with a barely perceptible cut of Hallertau and Tettnang hops cleaning things up.

That’s not to say American brewers don’t make tasty Oktoberfest-style beers, they most certainly do, but many are prone to that same craft brewer’s mindset of making everything hoppier, or sweeter, or more badass, and that’s not necessarily appropriate for a beer meant to be consumed all night, and intended as much to be swayed and sloshed in the air as to be poured into the gullet. Victory Festbier is a good bet for an American alternative, as is The Boston Beer Company’s Sam Adams Oktoberfest.

Even if you can’t get to Munich, do yourself a favor and head out to your nearest Oktoberfest. Even in a small city halfway around the world, there’s something about sitting at those long tables under the big tent, making friends with your neighbors, listening to the oompah band and hoisting a Mass glass of Oktoberfest beer that will always define what the Bavarians call Gemütlichkeit.

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to beercraft@rochester.rr.com.

 

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