Ah yes, Oktoberfest - this glorious time of year when the afternoons are golden and the beers are exceptionally flavorful.
Following the example of Bavaria's Crown Prince Ludwig, who rolled barrels of Marzen out of the lagering caves to celebrate his 1810 marriage to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen, brewers roll out new beers each autumn.
Many of us don't need much of an excuse to try a new beer, and the opportunity to be a part of a tradition and to sip something wonderful is too good to pass up. So from the beer halls in Munich to festivals in the 5th Regiment Armory and backyard get-togethers in Catonsville, Oktoberfest fans gather and drink the seasonal suds.
Oktoberfest beers come in kegs and bottles. Ceding keg-sampling duty to the lederhosen-loving legions of Maryland's sudsy emporiums, I sat down recently with a panel of tasters to sample this year's bottled crop. Panel members were Hugh Sisson, head of Clipper City Brewing Co. and co-host of the Cellar Notes radio show on WYPR; Brian Leonard and Tim Hillman of the Wine Source, the Hampden liquor store that organized the tasting; Mary Zajac, a columnist for Style and Edible Chesapeake magazines; and her husband, Kevin Gardner, a veteran beer taster. The 15 bottles of American-made Oktoberfest beers were covered in brown bags and known to us only as D 1 through D 15. We followed a similar, keep-it-in-the-bag procedure while tasting five German-made Oktoberfest brews and seven bottles of pumpkin-flavored beers.
The American-made favorite was D-9. When the bag came off the bottle, D-9 turned out to be Clipper City's BaltoMarzHon. It had a balance of a juicy malt body, a touch of toffee and a solid, bitter finish. It was a lager that made you happy that the autumn leaves were turning, even if you might have to rake them. Last week, this beer won a silver medal for Vienna-style lager at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.Saranac Octoberfest Lager was our second favorite among the domestics; Stoudt's Oktoberfest and Brooklyn Oktoberfest tied for third. Harpoon Octoberfest and Redhook Late Harvest Autumn Ale tied for fourth.
Among the bagged German bottles, our favorite was G-2, Paulaner Oktoberfest. This beer, which tasters praised for its silky marriage of malt, nutty flavors and crisp hoppy finish, seems to be as much a part of the German beer scene as smiling frauleins.
Pumpkins are part of the American fall landscape and have crept into the seasonal beers. I am not a big fan of pumpkin brews. As one of the panel members pointed out, they can, if the spices go wild, end up tasting like Constant Comment tea. Pushing my prejudice aside, I had to agree with the panel that the Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale with its gingersnap notes and the Dogfish Head Punkin Ale with its brown ale flavors were far and away the best of the gourd brews.
Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.