Oktoberfest, traditionally one of our underutilized German holidays, seems to be making a big splash this year in Baltimore.
This year more beers brewed for this autumn celebration have made their way to our town. The other day I tasted seven Oktoberfest bottled beers, and one plain old heavier, autumn beer, that can be found in Baltimore area liquor stores.
I confess I have never been entirely sure what Oktoberfest celebrates. I grew up in a half-German, half-Irish household. The Irish side did most of the celebrating, often well into the night. The German side tended to get up early in the morning and preserve domestic order.
We never observed Oktoberfest in our house, certainly not the way the folks in Germany do. The other day, for instance, I saw a photograph in a newspaper showing three guys dressed in fancy costumes walking on stilts through the streets of Munich. This was part of the Oktoberfest parade. Another part of Oktoberfest, I am told, is the special beer. Usually the beer has pronounced malt flavor, some sweetness, and a little extra alcohol than regular beer. I am betting that the guys walking down the streets on stilts do not drink the Oktoberfest beer until after they get off their stilts.
Our beer-tasting was presided over by Hugh Sisson, who makes his own beer, including an Oktoberfest, at his family's South Baltimore restaurant and brewery, Sisson's. Also sipping were two retailers interested in seasonal suds, Dave Butcher and David Wells.
Sisson, who is something of a student of beer, gave a brief outline of the history of Oktoberfest beer. As I understood it, in the days before refrigeration, in March the Germans made the malty beer they were going to drink in October. In March they put the beer in barrels and stashed it in caves, where, away from the heat of the warm summer months, the beer slowly fermented. When the hot weather was over, the guys ran to the caves, rolled out the hidden barrels of finished beer, and celebrated.
After hearing this explanation, I figure Oktoberfest could be considered either a celebration of guys who found some lost beer, or the end of hot weather. Either way, it is a joyous occasion.
Having absorbed the history, the four of us began to taste the beers. We didn't just gulp. We sniffed the aroma, eyed the head, and slowly sipped.
Of the eight bottled beers the four of us tasted, the consensus favorite was the Oktoberfest made by Paulaner in Munich. We liked its nose, its head and its body. That meant it had a pleasing malty aroma, suds that stood up, and an almost red color. It also tasted terrific. When you took a swallow of this stuff, there were lots of things going on in your mouth, all of them pleasant. The Paulaner also had an eye-catching label, rows of wide-bodied, white-smocked mug-toting beer maids. No Swedish Bikini Team here.
The tasting panel's second finisher was my first place winner, the Oktoberfest from Dinkel Acker in Stuttgart, which had a toasted malt taste. I scribbled down that the Dinkel was "rounded," which meant this was a beer so smooth that I could drink another bottle.
My next favorite was the Oktoberfest from Hacker-Pschorr which smelled and tasted of chocolate. After that, the field of Oktoberfest beers were, in my view, tightly bunched. The Oktoberfest from Boston Brewing Company, had the classic Samuel Adams combination of flavors that were rich, yet were not too assertive. The Hofbrau Bavaria Oktoberfest had more of a cereal flavor than the others, and at $6 a six-pack, figures to be a good value. Other Oktoberfest beers typically cost $7 to $9 a six-pack.
The Oktoberfest from Beck's tasted just a little bit maltier than the regular Beck's. The Autumn Amber from Grolsch, was pretty good beer. But it didn't seem to have anything to do with the malty-Oktoberfest style of the other beers.
The first bottle of Oktoberfest beer from Spaten, the Munich brewery well-known for its Oktoberfest, was a letdown. Maybe fashion models can never be too thin, but this beer was. Later Sisson, a Spaten fan, twisted my arm to try it again. So I drank another bottle of the beer. It was better, but it wouldn't make me walk on stilts.
I probably missed sampling a few Oktoberfest beers, both bottled and draft. I learned, for instance, that besides Sisson's, the Baltimore Brewing Co. on Albemarle Street, and Oliver Breweries in the Wharf Rat Restaurant are brewing draft beers for Oktoberfest. But I hope to catch up. This holiday, whatever it celebrates, may never end.