Sipping suds marks part of celebration

October 03, 2001|By Rob Kasper

IT IS AUTUMN and the beers, like the leaves, are turning brown. The leaves are changing color because their yellow or orange carotenoids are becoming more prominent. The seasonal beers turn amber or copper-colored because their malt is roasted longer.

These color clues are signs that Oktoberfest is here. For fans of seasonal beers this means that when the leaves start dropping, the bottle tops start popping.

On one level, Oktoberfest is remarkably simple. It is another excuse to drink beer. Perhaps a better way to put it would be to say Oktoberfest provides an opportunity to "appreciate" a style of beer; to stop and smell its aroma; to savor its malty, slightly sweet flavor; to be thankful that it makes German sausages, like those made by the shop of Egon "Everything-but-the-Squeak-of -the-Pig" Binkert, on Old Philadelphia Road, taste even better.

On other levels, the whole Oktoberfest scene can be complex and confusing. For starters, there is the Oktoberfest merriment in Munich, Germany, where celebrants gather each fall in 14 massive tents to drink immense amounts of beer. The festival traces its roots to the 1810 merrymaking celebrating the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria (who was to be King Ludwig I) to Princess Therese of Saxon-Hildburghausen.

Even though this festival calls itself October, more than half of the 16 days of activities take place in September. This year's shindig began Sept. 22 and ends Oct. 7. Moreover, there is the fact that the type of beer served is often called Marzen, which means March. So you have March beer served in September in a festival named after October.

I cope with these inconsistencies the way I deal with many of life's perplexities. Namely, I try to think deep thoughts, I take a deep drink from a mug of beer, and pretty soon the contradictions float away.

That was the mind-set last week as I sat down with two other deep thinkers and serious suds sippers, Dave Butcher and Hugh Sisson, to sample 13 different brands of bottled seasonal beers. Butcher, who works at the Wine Source, a north Baltimore liquor store formerly known as Rotunda Wine and Spirits, brought the beers and a couple of links of Binkert's sausage. Sisson, who critiques wine and beer for the Cellar Notes program heard on radio station WJHU, provided clean glasses and a tasting room at Clipper City Brewing, the Baltimore County craft brewery he oversees.

I brought a pen and paper.

We agreed that the answer to the main question - why is this beer different from any other beer - concerned style. An Oktoberfest beer that is "true to style" has an aroma of toasted malt, an amber or copper hue and a slightly sweet, almost nutty flavor.

After that, we snipped, sipped, ate a little sausage and scribbled notes. Out of the field of 13 bottled beers, we picked six favorites.

Right at the top in both price and quality were two German beers, Paulaner Oktoberfest, at $8 a six-pack, and Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen at about $3 for a 17-ounce bottle. The Paulaner Oktoberfest reminds me of those blankety-blank New York Yankees. It always ends up on top in October. We picked it this fall, as we have in previous years, because in addition to being true to style, the Paulaner has superior depth and richness. The Ayinger, while not as malty as the Paulaner, has a pleasing complexity and a surprising citrus zip in its finish.

The next tier, which might be called Middle Americans, was composed of three medium-priced, American-made beers. Both the Samuel Adams OctoberFest at $7 a six-pack and Victory Festbier at $7 a six-pack, had good color, and roasted malt flavors. Our other Middle-American, Wild Goose Nut Brown Ale at $7 a six-pack, was, admittedly, outside the mold. While most Oktoberfest beers are lagers, this was ale. Rather than copper-colored, it was dark brown. Yet its rich, roasted malt aroma and its equally malty flavor made it our pick as the favorite black sheep of the family.

The bargain buy at $5 a six-pack was the Saranac Octoberfest Lager. It had good color, and pleasing flavor notes of malt and nut.

In addition to these bottled Oktoberfest offerings, many local brewpubs are serving seasonal brews on draft. So as the landscape turns brown, I plan to honor the season by raking the newly fallen leaves and drinking the freshly brewed beers.

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