Oktoberfest:Folks decide to just go with the flow

October 01, 2003|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,Sun Staff

THIS IS a great time of year to drink beer. But then again, when isn't it? In the fall, however, beer drinking can become a semi-sanctioned civic activity, provided it is connected to Oktober- fest.

This is the annual celebration that dates back to the 1810 marriage of Bavaria's Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The happy couple threw a big party then, tapping the beer that had been wheeled out of winter storage caves. The good-time rite has been on many fall calendars ever since.

Munich, Germany, with its 16-day festival that ends this Sunday, remains the spiritual center of all autumnal oom-pah-pahing. But by now, some of the particulars have changed. The beer is now lagered in refrigerated tanks, not caves. And Oktoberfest, like much of the beer business, has gone global.

This point became evident recently when it was announced that Lowenbrau, one of only six Munich beers allowed to be served at Oktoberfest (along with Spaten, Augustiner, Hofbrau, Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr), would be sold to Interbrew, the Belgium brewer of Stella Artois.

According to a story in The International Herald Tribune written by Mark Landler, the Oktoberfest revelers in Munich did not let the news that one of Germany's oldest breweries, Gabriel Sedlmayr, would sell its famous beers to the Belgians dampen their merriment. Sedlymayr also brews the venerable Franziskaner and Spaten brands in addition to Lowenbrau, which is known by its signature golden lion.

In America, where Oktoberfest is a relatively new occurrence but brewery takeovers are old hat, the gaiety goes on. Brewers have issued fall beers -- mostly lagers, but a few ales -- aimed at honoring the kick-back-and-eat-a-sausage spirit of Oktoberfest.

In the Baltimore area, celebrations big and small are marking the autumn ritual. One of the largest is the annual Oktoberfest gathering at the 5th Regiment Armory near Howard and Preston streets in downtown Baltimore. It is set for next weekend, Oct. 11 and 12, and will feature German music, food and beers. Admission is $5.

The Brewer's Association of Maryland is sponsoring its second annual Oktoberfest Oct. 18 at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, where 13 Maryland breweries are slated to bring brews to the event. Admission is $15.

Then there are the backyard celebrations, the private observances throughout the area, during which a beer or two is downed in honor of Ludwig and Therese's marriage, or to revel in the celebrants' good fortune that the house did not wash away in the recent storms.

With those small celebrations in mind, I sat down with Hugh Sisson, head of Clipper City Brewing, and Mary Zajac of the Wine Source in Hampden to sip 16 beers, take notes and pick favorites.

As we had done in prior years, we were looking for the classic Oktoberfest beer, one with an amber-to-copper color, a malty, slightly toasted aroma and a smooth, faintly sweet and slightly nutty flavor. The perfect beer, in other words, to accompany a sizzling German sausage.

We divided the beers into two categories, German and American. The German were the Oktoberfest beers from Beck's, Wurzburger, Ayinger, Spaten, Kostritzer, Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner and Burgerbrau.

Finishing in a virtual dead heat for first place in this category were the Hacker-Pschorr and Paulaner beers, both $8 a six-pack. The Burgerbrau, $3 for a 16-ounce bottle, took a blonder approach to Oktoberfest, and was a distant third. Both the Hacker-Pschorr and Paulaner had terrific amber color, great balance between malt and hops, and aromas that came close to being called "perfumes."

The Hacker-Pschorr was, I thought, the "nuttiest" of the brews, and that was a good thing. The Paulaner has long been a favorite of our tasting panel. One time we voted it as our favorite even though the beer we sampled was a year old.

In addition to liking the beer, I admit to having a soft spot in my heart for the label, which shows a row of Frauleins carrying mugs of beer. There is something about a Fraulein toting frothing steins that makes my taste buds salivate and my knees weak.

The American Oktoberfest offerings we sampled were Saranac, Victory, Otter Creek, Brooklyn, Samuel Adams, Pyramid, Old Dominion and Harpoon. Our favorites turned out to be the malty brew of Samuel Adams and the clean, nutty beer made by Harpoon. Both were $7 a six-pack.

We were also pleased with the $7.50-a-six-pack Festbier, from Victory in Lancaster, Pa.; the aromatic $8-a-six-pack Brooklyn Oktoberfest; the seriously malty $7-a-six-pack Old Dominion; and the $7-a-six-pack Pyramid Amber Ale.

The type of beer served at Prince Ludwig's shindig was a lager, not an ale. But over the years, many things associated with Oktoberfest celebrations have changed. Just ask the Lowenbrau lion.

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