THIS IS A terrific time of year. The sun is gentle, the air is crisp and the beer is malty.
It is Oktoberfest season, when brewers traditionally issue a lager that marks the 1810 wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig I to Princess Therese. Back in Ludwig's day, the fest beer was made in March, stored in caves and rolled out for a big celebration in September. Now, instead of being sold only during Oktoberfest -- September to October -- some of the "seasonal" beers are available all year long. Even though the tradition is somewhat twisted nowadays, Oktoberfest still means good beer.
Michael Jackson, author of several beer books and widely regarded as possessing one of the world's primo beer-tasting palates, praises the "mouthwatering succulence" of this style of beer. Jackson, by the way, will be in Baltimore Saturday evening signing copies of the second edition of his book "Michael Jackson's Beer Companion" (Running Press, $35, 1997) at the Books for Cooks tent at the Baltimore Book Festival in the Mount Vernon section of Baltimore. Later that night, he will be conducting a beer tasting ($85 a ticket) at Troia restaurant in the Walters Art Gallery, 600 North Charles St.
Doing my part to keep the spirit of Oktoberfest alive, I recently drank beer with a bunch of guys. We sipped a selection of Oktoberfest beers, made in domestic or foreign breweries that are available in bottles in Baltimore-area stores.
The sippers -- Hugh Sisson, head of Clipper City Brewing Co. in Baltimore; Dave Butcher and Tim Hillman of Rotunda Wine and Spirits, the shop that organized the tasting; Greg Santori, head brewer at the Brewer's Art on North Charles Street; and I -- behaved like serious beer drinkers. That meant we took notes on the brew's color, malty body and spicy hop finish. At the end of the session, we picked our top three favorites from the nine beers we tasted.
Two beers, Hacker-Pschorr from Munich, Germany, and Dominion Octoberfest from Old Dominion Brewing Co. in Ashburn, Va., tied for first place. The Hacker-Pschorr wowed us with its coppery good looks, its malty body, and its sprightly, hoppy finish. It sells for about $8 a six pack.
The Dominion looked a little pale, but its flavor -- a balance of
slightly sweet malt and spicy hops -- won us over. I'm a malt zealot, the kind of guy who steals the chocolate-covered malt balls from his kids' Halloween candy. This beer could inspire me to commit a misdemeanor. Sisson detected some sulfur aromas, which he said is normal for this style of beer. The rest of the tasters couldn't sniff the sulfur. The rest of us concluded that Sisson is a sulfur-sensitive kind of guy. The beer sells for about $6 a six pack.
Our third pick was Spaten Oktoberfest from Munich. It had good color and flavor balance, and a remarkable, tongue-tingling aftertaste. A six pack costs about $7.
Next came another Munich beer, the Paulaner Oktoberfest. This beer surprised us, twice. First, it had a much milder malt flavor than in previous years. Second, the label had changed. Instead LTC of showing a line of frauleins dressed in white aprons and toting big mugs of beer, some of the Oktoberfest labels showed guys -- burghers in big hats -- sipping suds. On the flavor front, Sisson, Butcher and Hillman said the beer with guys on the label tasted better than the beer with frauleins out front. "The guys are fresher," Sisson said. But on the artistic front, all of us preferred the frauleins on the label. This beer sells for about $8 a six pack.
The remaining Oktoberfest beers garnered individual notes of praise, but did not generate massive excitement.
I liked the toffee flavor of the New Amsterdam Oktoberfest brewed in Utica, N.Y. It sells for $6 a six pack.
Butcher praised the color of Samuel Adams Octoberfest. It is a product of the Boston Beer Co., which brews beers at a variety of locations around the United States. Butcher compared the beer's dark color to the glow of "a wood-paneled room." The beer sells for about $7 a six pack.
Pete's Oktoberfest, made by Pete's Brewing Co. with offices in Palo Alto, Calif., and contract brewing operations around the United States, had a promising start. But its flavor turned out to be too thin to please most of us. It costs about $6 a six pack.
Beck's Oktoberfest, from the brewery in Bremen, was a slightly more malty, and slightly hoppier version of the standard-issue Beck's. It costs about $6 a six pack.
The Blue Ridge Hopfest from Frederick Brewing in Frederick was without a doubt, the best-smelling beer in the tasting. It was redolent of the aromas of mint and blueberry. Rather than making a traditional lager, the kind of beer Ludwig served at his wedding, the folks at Frederick believe in celebrating the season by making an ale packed with hops. It sells for about $6 a six pack.
Pub Date: 9/24/97