Heady challenge: Tasters pick top Oktoberfest beers

The Happy Eater

September 27, 1995|By ROB KASPER

Roll out the barrel, it is time for Oktoberfest, the traditional German festival that gives everybody an excuse to eat sausage and drink beer.

Historically what we are celebrating is the marriage of the Crown Prince of Bavaria and we're doing it by rolling barrels of March beer out of their summer storage caves. The prince got hitched around 1810, and the party whooping up his wedding has been an annual fall event ever since. Brewing practices have changed since the days when caves were the method of refrigeration. Beer-making used to stop from March until September because brewers were worried about the summer heat turning the yeasts into wild, uncontrollable organisms. Now brewers make beer the year round.

This may seem like ancient history to us, but we know that autumn is a good time to eat and drink. And so, from Finksburg, where Rudys' 2900 restaurant is this week marking Oktoberfest by serving sour beef and schnitzel, to downtown Baltimore where Okto-berfest merrymakers will gather at the 5th Regiment Armory Oct. 7 and 8, to neighborhood fairs, there will be plenty of "festing" this fall.

To do my part I worked on "bottled fest." I tasted 12 brands of bottled Oktoberfest beers. I had help. Other tasters were Hugh Sisson who is about to open Clipper City Brewing Company in Baltimore, Dave Butcher and Tim Hillman of Rotunda Wine and Spirits, the shop that organized the tasting, Greg Santori, a student of the brewing art, Jack Callanan and Vince Cassino of Sisson's, the South Baltimore restaurant and microbrewery where the event was held.

We were looking for the ideal Oktoberfest beer, a medium-strong, copper-colored, bottom- fermenting brew with distinctly malty aromas and flavors. We examined the head, or suds, of each beer. We looked at its clarity and color. We sniffed its aroma. We tasted it. Then we had to figure out whether we liked it, and where we thought it ranked in comparison with the other beers in the tasting.

The group's unanimous favorite was the Paulaner Oktoberfest from Germany. It had a glorious top-dollar copper color, ddTC substantial head, and full, yet balanced flavors of roasted malt. It costs about $9 a six-pack, which means it is a beer most of us would drink only on special occasions. I also loved the Paulaner label, which showed a line of frauleins, decked in no-nonsense white aprons, toting big mugs of beer. Mugs of beer coming at you, that is my idea of service.

The group's second choice was another beer from Germany, the Hacker-Pschorr. Its label showed a friendly fraulein dressed in red. The Hacker-Pschorr, which also cost $9 a six, came close to matching the malt flavor of the Paulaner. If a liquor store should run out of Paulaner, as sometimes happens with these seasonal beers, I would be happy to have this "fest in the red dress."

The third-place finisher and a real bargain was the Augsburger. Brewed in St. Paul, Minn., this beer at $5 a six-pack stayed right in there in flavor and aroma with "fest" beers that cost more.

Vermont's Catamount, at $7.50 a six-pack, was one of my favorites. Some tasters thought it was too malty, but not me. The Dinkel Acker, at $7 a six-pack, was, to my nose, the best smelling Oktoberfest of the group. The malt flavor of the Spaten, at $7 a six, seemed slightly off, and the Beck's, at $6, had a big, tongue-burning finish. The Hofbrau, at $7.50, and the Harpoon, at $6, were smooth. Along with the slightly more malty Sam Adams, $7, these might be the beers for folks who prefer shy Oktoberfest beers.

There were two local beers in the tasting. The Hop Fest, $7.50, from Frederick Brewing Company certainly lived up to its name. Everyone on the panel seemed to agree that this beer had pleasing hop flavors but that it was not in the malty, Oktoberfest style. The Marzen from DeGroen's Baltimore Brewing Company, a beer I normally rate as one of my favorites, had a bad day. The beer had an off aroma. That can happen even during Oktoberfest.

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