IT IS THAT delightful time of year when the air is crisp and so is the beer. It is Oktoberfest, and whether you spell this autumnal party with a K, as is the practice in Munich, Germany, where this year the two-week celebration began Sept. 18 and runs to Sunday, or with a C, as is the custom in America, where the festivities are usually held during the month of October, the idea on both sides of the Atlantic is the same. Namely, good weather and good beer produce a good time.
The roots of the beery merriment go back to 1810 to a party celebrating the royal marriage of Bavaria's Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The chief lubricant of that celebration was a beer called Marzen, German for March. Back in Ludwig's day, March was the month that the beer was made. Then during the summer, it was stored in barrels in mountain caves and rolled out in the fall.
Nowadays, not everybody celebrates Oktoberfest the way Ludwig did. Ludwig's beer was a lager, yet some autumn fests proudly pour ales.
On Saturday, Oct. 9, for instance, beer drinkers will gather at Racers Cafe in the 7700 block of Harford Road to pick their favorite ale from about 21 craft brews during the pub's 8th Annual Real Ale Challenge. It is one of a number of sudsy celebrations scheduled for October in the Baltimore area (see box).
The two styles of beer, lagers and ales, use different types of yeast to ferment the brews. I like to compare the two styles of beer to the two types of transmissions, automatic and manual, used in cars. Lagers for me are the automatic transmission of beer, delivering a dependable, substantial malty ride. Ales remind me of manual transmission, capable of hitting intricate, shifting, hoppy notes. It is a generalization, but somewhat useful.
Moreover, the style police of beer, people who keep an eye on whether brews adhere to classic standards, report that Oktoberfest brews, even the lagers, ain't what they used to be.
To appeal to changes in popular tastes, brewers, I am told, are gradually making their Oktoberfest beers lighter and blonder. This lighter and blonder thing is happening throughout our culture, and although it may cause Ludwig to roll over in his grave, it does not seem to have affected the quality of this year's crop of bottled Oktoberfest beers.
I say this after having spent an afternoon in the company of a handful of devoted beer tasters who sipped and rated this year's fall crop. We sampled 22 bottled brews, from both sides of the Atlantic, as well as a few from the pumpkin patch. Pumpkin-flavored beers were a hot-selling item last fall, for reasons I don't entirely understand. Perhaps it has to do with a new movement to things that are orangier and seedier.
But my role and the role of my fellow tasters was not to reason why. Those tasters were Hugh Sisson, head of Clipper City Brewing and co-host of Cellar Notes radio show on WYPR; John Pollack of the Old Vine shop on Falls Road; and Dan Zetlmeisl, William Stifler and Tim Hillman of the Wine Source, the Hampden liquor store that organized the tasting. Our role was to sip and rate, on color, taste and finish, our top five beers. And that's what we did.
Our overall favorite was made in Germany, the Ayinger Oktoberfest ($2.79 for a 16.9-ounce bottle). It had all the classic characteristics of the Okotoberfest style - a rich copper color, toasty aroma, a malt body with nutty notes and a crisp, balanced finish - and it had them in spades. Very close behind were the Weeping Radish Fest Amber ($6.99 a six-pack) from Corolla, N.C., and the Dominion Octoberfest ($6.99 a six-pack) from Ashburn, Va. They tied for second place.
Victory Festbier from Downingtown, Pa., showed well and finished third. Next were a couple more Germans. The Paulaner Oktoberfest ($8.99 a six-pack), which has been a traditional winner at these tastings, tied with a newcomer to our rankings, the Lowenbrau Oktoberfest ($6.99 a six-pack). The Lowenbrau was blonder than most Oktoberfest fare, but nonetheless turned some heads.
Another Pennsylvania beer, Stoudt's Oktoberfest ( $7.99 a six-pack), won a couple of votes. Other beers garnering votes were Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest ($8.99 a six-pack) and the Samuel Adams Octoberfest ($6.99 a six-pack).
On the pumpkin front, we sampled four offerings - Post Road Pumpkin Ale, Blue Moon Pumpkin, Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale and Dogfish Head Punkin Ale - before settling on the Smuttynose brew (at $7.49 a six-pack) as our favorite in this category.
If you must drink something with pumpkin in it - a craving I hope is confined to Halloween - this would be a safe way to go. It tastes close to beer and not much like pumpkin.
Where the flow is low
During Oktoberfest when the Marzen should be gushing from the Baltimore Brewing Co., the flow is down to one spigot.