Autumn is my favorite season, especially here in Michigan. The humidity starts to give us a much needed reprieve, the weather cools down a little, and the trees in this State start to show off their beautiful autumnal palette of woody browns, flashing yellows and vibrant reds. The cider mills start churning out their outstanding apple libations and otherworldly doughnuts. And let's not forget the beer! No other season makes me crave beer like the fall. The fact that the typical flavors of this brewing season are the kinds that made me fall in love with beer probably helps. Medium bodied, robust roasted malts, amber hues, and higher than normal ABV to fend off the chill of the evening. Marzen/Oktoberfest style is the undisputed king of autumn concoctions. Which will be the topic I cover this time out.
I've made it my mission to explore this years batch from as many breweries as possible, and share with you the best (and worst) this year has to offer. I'll be delving into some classics (Paulaner, Hacker-Pshorr) and some lesser known micros in search of the best of the crop of 2010. I'm not going to cover food pairings in this post, since it would likely start sounding like a broken record given the fact that I'm focusing on a single style. Suffice it to say, pork (sausage form or otherwise), roasted or caramelized cabbage, nuts, fennel bulb and seed, berries, and cheeses like Butter-Kasse, Gelmini Gorgonzola DOP (specifically) and Havarti would pair well. I also don't feel it very necessary to include ABV (Alcohol By Volume), since they will invariably fall in the upper 5% to lower 7% range.
So here are my tasting notes on the 2010 Oktoberfest offerings.
Generally not my favorite brewery, ranking somewhere in the area of Killians. Not horrible, but mediocre at best. Their Oktoberfest is par for that course. Smooth, and easy to drink, as it should be, it still fails to impress all that much. The sweet malty aroma and flavor right up front gives way to a mild hoppiness on the finish. The medium body and carbonation are what one would expect from the style. The price point makes it a justifiable buy, but if your looking for an exemplary incarnation of the style, look elsewhere.
4 "chugs" out of 10
This brewery is very hit or miss with me, usually. While if I'm cooking with beer I will reach for the Boston Lager about 75% of the time, some of their other brews are just kind of "eh". I've never had a beer from them that made me wanna spit it out, though, and in fact their hard to impossible to find Scotch Ale is probably one of the best American beers I've had (it's been years, however, I may re-evaluate that stance if I ever get my hands on it again) but a lot of their beers just don't strike home with me, and they all have a signature taste. You know when your drinking something from that brewery, which isn't always a bad thing.
With a nice head and the typical reddish amber color, the Sam Adams Octoberfest is a decent example of the style. Mild aroma and medium-high carbonation with an almost creamy smooth mouth-feel right up front tapering quickly into the sweetness of caramel malts and almost imperceptible hop finish. A very drinkable beer, but the sweetness is a bit much for my taste, didn't stop me from killing the 6 pack, though...
5 chugs out of 10
Magic Hat Hex Ourtoberfest:
Magic Hat is quickly becoming one of my favorite breweries. Their quirky approach and tendency to color outside the lines (and actually do it well) have endeared them to me. Their new Hex Ourtoberfest is more of the same from an innovative brew-house. Slightly darker in color than the standard Oktoberfest, with a deeper red hue, I was not disappointed. Great malt profile that's pretty typical of the style, where they detour from the norm is the cherry wood notes on the finish and the slight berry notes in the mildly hoppy nose. The slight hint of smoke on the palate are also a diversion from tradition, though not very far from. It all works well enough that I don't think even the most hardcore Oktoberfest purist wouldn't find a reason to bitch about this offering (as I am such).
This brewery is well known for canning fan favorites to do something new. Last years fall seasonal was Roxy Rolles, replaced this year by Hex. I did like Roxy Rolles, but I can't complain about their decision to move forward and explore new territory. Keep at it, guys. Doin' well so far!
7 out of 10
Sierra Nevada Tumbler:
While they aren't calling this an Oktoberfest, it is their Autumn seasonal, and follows the Oktoberfest blueprint for the most part. Color is a dark brown in the glass, a couple shades darker than a typical Oktoberfest, but the flavors are on par with the style. Roasted malt, caramel and a faint hop finish on the nose. Slightly viscous mouth feel with medium carbonation. The flavor is pretty much typical Oktoberfest, but a little higher on the caramel and brown sugar flavors, and (as typifies Sierra Nevada) a decent hop finish.
7 of 10
Abita Fall Fest:
I hear a lot of people tout this brewery, but I don't really get it... While everything I've had from them is very drinkable, they have yet to impress me. This offering is no different.
Pale amber color in the glass, and bread with a hint of caramel on the nose. Smooth and light mouth feel with light carbonation. The flavor is heavy on the crystal malt, with rock candy notes and a faint hop finish. Not a bad beer, but maybe I'm trying to classify it wrong. They aren't trying to put it in the Oktoberfest category outwardly, but it seems that was vaguely what they were going for.
6 of 10
Flying Dog DOGtoberfest:
First let it be said that I generally like this brewery, but I tend to like breweries that are heavy handed (but not overly so) with the hops. That said, this might be my most disappointing experience with their products.
Rich red color in the glass, with a very mild aroma of faint malt and hops. Medium bodied, very smooth with medium-high carbonation. The flavor is slightly alkaline, crystal malt and brown sugar in the middle and a mild hop finish. Name aside, it's a very likable beer, but since they put an Oktoberfest insinuation on the name, I was expecting more.
6 of 10
Shmaltz Brewing Company Coney Island Freaktoberfest:
I was not familiar with this brew-house when I picked this one up, and I doubt I will become any more so... I did an online search, but was unable to come to a satisfactory result as to why this beer has a cherry Kool-Aid red color and head... Artificial color? Strike one! Malty nose with hints of red berries, strike two! Medium body and carbonation with malt flavors right up front and raspberry/strawberry in the middle. Strike three. No real finish to speak of. While I give them credit for trying to think outside the box, they missed the mark. I'm still bothered by the unnaturally red hue, and more so by the fact that they don't divulge why.
1 of 10
I hate to keep panning these beers, but the best is yet to come, I promise you. That said, Stoudts Oktoberfest is yet another that I was unhappy with. Golden amber color. Malt and sugar on the nose with hints of yeast and malt extract (wtf?!). Light and smooth mouth feel with mild carbonation. The flavor is unremarkable, at best. There's a faint hint of what it's supposed to be, and under another name I might find it to be a drinkable beer, but not a good representation of the style at all.
4 of 10
Shiner Marzen-Style Oktoberfest:
As German styles go, Shiner is one of the better breweries in the States. Mild nose of roasted malts and light carbonation. Amber color in the glass and very smooth mouth feel, medium bodied. In short, everything I'd expect from an Oktoberfest. While not exemplary, it's probably the best you'll find this side of the Atlantic. Add to that the fact there is much less travel and storage time involved as with imports, and this is my recommended Oktoberfest!
8 of 10
Erdinger Oktoberfest Weizen (?)
Generally a good German brewery, this one intrigued me. In my search for as many Oktoberfest beers as I could find I stumbled upon this brew from a producer I'm familiar with, but had never seen this one before. It managed to slip under my radar. A Weizen Oktoberfest? Had I noticed this oddity before I surely would have tried it! Wheat is generally not used in this style of beer, but being a reputable German brewery, and the Germans being pretty damn good at wheat beers, I simply could not pass this one up. After I got it home I noticed that the bottle I picked up was last years batch, but be that as it may.
Reddish amber color, and cloudy (as expected of German wheat beer) with an almost, but not quite, fruity nose. With this beer you get the best of both worlds. The typical Oktoberfest flavors blend well with the light wheat beer flavors and slight yeasty character. Leave it to the Germans to make the best deviation from the traditional style! As I said, the one I had was a year old, but if you're a fan of Oktoberfest and a fan of Weizen or Heffe-Weizen, seek this one out!
8 of 10
I'll give you the link to the website, but be warned, it's all in German... So to those of you that speak the language, enjoy! This might be the norm from here on in, as I've saved the Germans for last.
Not one I was very familiar with, though I know of the brewery. But as I said, I was on a mission.
Pale golden amber hue in the glass, with light carbonation. Smooth and light mouth feel, with pretty typical nose for the style. Yet another bottle that was a year old and I didn't notice until I got it home, so this might not be the best representation. Malty and caramelly, as one would expect, no noticeable hop finish, but I could tell it was aged. A solid beer, to be sure, but one better enjoyed fresh, I'm also sure. All in all, it stands up pretty well to a year of aging, so don't let the date scare you off. Still a formidable beer, and very drinkable!
7 of 10
Didn't find an official website.
Now we're gettin' into the big dogs. Reddish amber color, and light carbonation that typify the style. All the hallmarks of a great Oktoberfest are here... malty caramel nose, smooth mouth feel, nutty flavor from the crystal malts, and an ever so slight hop note on the finish. Despite the green bottle, if you get it fresh enough you can't go wrong. Look for it around the beginning of September and only at reputable beer stores simply because of the green bottle. (The photo I included is an old stock photo, it's packed in green bottles now.) Didn't see a "best by" date on the bottle, but I'm positive the one I got was a year old. That aside, a classic of the style. While not the best, nothing to turn your nose up at. If you do, you need to drink more beer, or give up on it all together...
9 of 10
For the style, and being from Germany, this one was surprising, but not in a good way. Golden color in the glass, so much so that it's almost a Pilsner color. It pretty much follows all the hallmarks of a Pilsner, as well. Light nose of hops, smooth mouth feel, mild maltiness and carbonation. Yet another bottle that didn't have the "best by" date on the label, and I'm sure the bottle I got was last years batch. The green bottle didn't help matters at all... As harsh as this may sound, the "Bud" of German beers... If only they would go with a brown bottle and not call it an Oktoberfest, I may have liked it more.... I would expect more from the Germans, so my rating may be harsh...
3 of 10
Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest:
As soon as I raised the glass to my nose, I knew that this was the real deal! Brown bottle with an expiration date of 6/11, this is the good stuff, here. Amber color in the glass with a hint of red. Smooth mouth feel, medium carbonation. The flavor up front is pure German malt, and the carbonation enhances the mild hoppy finish. Undertones of hazelnut, brown sugar, and citrus peel. I pretty much knew which ones were gonna be my favorites from the onset, though Hofbrau shocked me a little. Hacker-Pshorr and Paulaner were saved for last for a reason. That, and I didn't want to sit down to them first and spoil the rest of the flight.
9 of 10
Again, the site is in German, so have fun!
Paulaner Oktoberfest Marzen:
I haven't had a Paulaner in a few years, but I remember holding it as the benchmark of what an Oktoberfest should be. Like Bass with Pale Ale, Newcastle Brown, or Samuel Smith Taddy Porter, it is exactly what this beer should taste like. Amber-red in the glass, nice white fluffy head. Malt, hazelnut, mild caramel, and very faint hops on the nose. Caramel, malt, and nuts right up front, smooth going down with an almost dusty quality in the middle, and a silky hop finish all make this beer King of the Hill for it's style. And yes, they print the "best by" date on the label. This one also said 6/11.
10 of 10
You simply can't tell sometimes what year the beer was made with imports. Some print a "best by" date on the label, but not all, so with beer it's usually best to go with domestic brews in a brown bottle unless you're vigilant enough to actually look for the printed date. Beer in clear or green bottles, especially imports that are subjected to more storage and transportation, tends to spoil much faster than in brown bottles. This is due to light contamination. Light is a bottled beers worst enemy. To much exposure to light will cause "off" flavors in a beer, when this happens the odor will be off as well, having an almost sulfur/metallic tinge to the nose. A brewer or beer aficionado would call this beer "skunked" because the scent is faintly reminiscent of skunk spray. If you've ever noticed this yourself it didn't come that way from the brewery, light did it.
One last tasting note, if you're a fan of Guinness, don't drink it after an Oktoberfest. The flavors in Oktoberfest are pretty much the same as the middle flavors in Guinness, so if you drink the Oktoberfest first the flavor left on your tongue cancels out those middle ground flavors in Guinness. Leaving you with nothing but the sweetness and the bitterness. I found this out the hard way. I thought I got a bad batch of the Irish Titan of beers, but when I went back to it the next day it tasted perfectly fine. Somewhat counter-intuitive to the "lighter beverages always first" guideline, I know, but I just thought I'd pass that on.
If you live in South Eastern Michigan, or better yet, the Western suburbs of Detroit, you can find all of these beers and more at the Wine Barrel Plus in Livonia. They also carry (as the name implies) an astounding array of wine, liquor, several large cigar humidors, and an on-site temperature and humidity controlled wine cellar for the higher end bottles. If they don't have what you're looking for just ask Mark, he'll get it in for you if it's available in Michigan.
So to recap quickly:
Best American Oktoberfest I found - Shiner
Worst - Shmaltz Freaktoberfest
Best German - Paulaner (with honorable mention to Hacker-Pshorr)
Worst - Hofbrau
These reviews are, of course, subjective. So feel free to tell me I wouldn't know a good Oktoberfest if it hit me in the face. I hope this little list helps you all out though, at the very least in what to avoid like the plague. If I missed something or you actually WANT my opinion on a beer not included, let me know in the comments.
Life's too short to drink shit beer!