A FUNNY THING happened during the tasting of this year's Oktoberfest beers. Some of last year's beers sneaked into the competition and won it. When expiration dates of the winning beers were checked, it turned out that this year's victors, Oktoberfest offerings from Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr, were actually leftovers from 1997. The old beers had, according to the code on their labels, officially expired a month before last week's sipping session.
I saw many morals in this outcome. One was that the old-and-out-of-it sometimes have more to offer than the young and the fresh. Another was that some things in life - such as Oktoberfest beers and pots of chili - get better with age, developing more character over time. And a third was that regardless of what officialdom says, you aren't dead if you are still bubbling.
The victory of the old beers also meant that there had to be a second beer tasting to compare only the new Oktoberfest beers of 1998. When my calculations were completed, the same brands, Hacker-Pschorr and Paulaner, emerged as the favorites of this year's Oktoberfest brews, even if they weren't as good as last year's offerings.
Technically, Oktoberfest begins in mid-September when the mayor of Munich opens a keg and announces, "The beer is tapped." In Germany, the festival stops on the first Sunday in October. In America, Oktoberfest beer can be found in stores until November.
The type of beer traditionally linked with Oktoberfest is a malty brown lager called Marzen, derived from the German word meaning March. In the days before commercial refrigeration, March was about the last month that brewing was possible. So in March, German brewers made a robust beer that was stored in caves and tapped as needed. The remaining beer was drained in the fall when cooler weather allowed brewing to resume.
On a glorious September afternoon, five guys gathered at Clipper City Brewing Co. in Halethorpe to taste 11 bottled Oktoberfest beers sold locally. The five guys were Hugh Sisson, head of Clipper City Brewing Co. in Baltimore; Dave Butcher and Daniel Zetlmeisl of Rotunda Wine and Spirits, the shop that organized the tasting; Greg Santori, the former head brewer of the Brewer's Art; and I.
We sipped and rated them for color, aroma, flavor and style. We did this twice, first at the brewery with old stuff, then later in the privacy of our beer-drinking abodes, with only the new stuff. Each sipper then picked his four favorites.
The two clear favorites of the tasters were the Oktoberfests from Germany, Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr. Both had a reddish copper color, pleasing aroma, terrific malt flavor, a clean finish. Both cost about $8 a six-pack. Man, I loved these beers. The additional nutty notes of the Hacker-Pschorr gave it the title over the Paulaner of best beer of the fest.
The third favorite fest beer of the group was Victory Festbier from Downingtown, Pa., which in addition to tasting super, had a "great nose," which means it smelled wonderful. It cost about $7 a six-pack.
A Boston beer, Harpoon Octoberfest, $6 a six-pack, was the next favorite. Sippers liked its "toffee" notes and a malt component so big you could almost chew it. Another "big malty boy" was Old Dominion Octoberfest, $6 for six, from Ashburn, Va.
Finally, Sam Adams Octoberfest, $6.50 a six-pack, seemed a little shy compared with the robust flavors of the other beers. But from time to time I like an Oktoberfest beer that is quiet. And sometimes I even like fest beers that, according to expiration experts, should be dead.