It is the most wonderful time of the beer year. It is Oktober, when the "c" becomes a "k" and when fests, brats and special beers are in high season.
In Oktober, brewers have a clean shot at the public palate - no distractions like the eggnog that shows up at Christmas - and they have ideal beer-drinking weather. All that sunshine, all that crisp air, all those falling leaves can make a person mighty thirsty.
Historically the person with the primal thirst was Bavaria's Crown Prince Ludwig. His marriage to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen in 1810 inspired the populace to tap the barrels of their Marzen, or March brewed beer, rolled out of the lagering caves. That got the Oktoberfest tradition started.
In Germany, most celebrations fall in September. This year the big fest in Munich ran from Sept. 17 to the first weekend of this month. In Baltimore, we tend to celebrate a little late. This year's local fests range from an Oct. 1 get-together in Todd Carpenter's Catonsville backyard, to last weekend's oompah band aided celebration in the 5th Regiment Armory, to this weekend's fest sponsored by the Maryland Brewer's at the Timonium Fairgrounds. Baltimoreans and Germans may be in different Oktoberfest times zones, but we have the same objective, namely enjoying the autumn with a remarkable brew.
In recent years, the makeup of those autumnal brews has changed. Once upon a time, Oktoberfest beers were only crisp, malt-rich Marzen lagers. But lately, American brewers have begun offering up hop-driven ales, and - despite my objections - pumpkin-flavored ales as their select fall brews. Try as I might to squash this movement - I believe pumpkin belongs in pie not beer - I have failed. The pumpkin ale category grows larger every year. I can only plead that in the name of nutmeg, stop that gourd now!
This fall I served on two beer-sipping panels. One was the annual confab of cognoscenti who rate the annual crop of bottled Oktoberfest offerings. The other was the Maryland Governor's Cup Brewing Competition, which picked the best Maryland-brewed beers. Both competitions were held, on different dates, at Clipper City Brewery. I was the only double-dipping judge.
In the Oktoberfest tasting, a panel of seven judges tasted 27 bottled autumn brews. In addition to me, those judges were Hugh Sisson, head of Clipper City Brewing and co-host of Cellar Notes radio show on WYPR; Ian Stalfort, William Stifler and Tim Hillman of the Wine Source, the Hampden liquor store that organized the tasting; Mary Zagac, a columnist for Style and Edible Chesapeake magazines; and her husband, Kevin Gardner, a devoted beer taster.
Our role was to sip and rate, on color, taste and finish, our top beers. We divided our picks into three categories: American, German and pumpkin. Our favorite American brews were the Otter Creek Oktoberfest autumn ale ($6.99 a six-pack), praised as "nutty and sweet" by the jurists, and the Blue Ridge HopFest ($7.49), a brown ale with, as one jurist put it, "hubba hubba hops!"
Right behind these top two finishers were five brews tied with the same number of votes. Here are those beers with judges' comments and six-pack prices: a Samuel Adams Octoberfest with "a terrific nose and malt body" ($6.99); a "well-put together" Dominion Octoberfest ($6.99); a Victory Festbier ($7.99) that was "sweet, toasty, with a dry finish"; a Stoudt's Oktoberfest ($7.49) with "sweet malt flavors" and "almost oatmeal texture"; and a Harpoon Octoberfest lager ($6.99) with a winsome mix of malty body and dry finish.
The five German beers we tasted cost about a couple of dollars more than the American autumnal brews. Most remained true to the Marzen flavor profile that delights traditionalists. The top two were a Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest ($8.99 a six-pack) praised as "silky and nutty" and the Paulaner Oktoberfest Marzen ($8.99) that was "slightly sweeter" than the other beers from Deutschland.
The seven pumpkin ales were appreciated by my fellow judges. They loved the "hoppy finish" and "overall balance" of the Smutty Nose Pumpkin Ale ($7.49). I thought it lived up to its name.
The other tasting panel I participated in selected the best Maryland-brewed beers in nine categories. Members of this judging panel were Alexander D. Mitchell IV, Maryland editor for " Mid-Atlantic Brewing News"; Rick Garvin, a Beer Judge Certification Program judge and American Homebrewers Association regional liaison; Les White a Beer Judge Certification Program judge; Phil Sides, a national-level Beer Judge Certification Program judge; Dominic Cantalupo, a Beer Judge Certification Program judge; Gregory Box of Reliable Churchill distributors; and Jack Babin, owner/publisher of the "Ale Street News."
Those winners were Clipper City Golden Ale in the Gold/Blonde Ale category; McHenry Lager in Gold Lager; Brewer's Art Resurrection in Belgian; DuClaw Black Jack Stout in Porter/Stout; Clipper City Pale Ale in Pale Ale; DuClaw Misfit Red in Marzen/Mild Amber/Lager; Brewer's Alley Hefe-Weizen in Wheat Beer; Oxford Raspberry in Flavored Beer; and Heavy Seas Loose Cannon in Barley Wine/Strong Ale.
Appropriately, the best beer, picked from among these winners, will be revealed Sunday afternoon, at the Oktoberfest at the Timonium fairgrounds.