Huge, colorful tents full of guys in lederhosen and women in dirndls. Ridiculously large glasses brimmed with golden colored, frothy refreshment, waving in the air and clanking about. Large trays carrying copious amounts of assorted wursts, krauts, and soft Bavarian pretzels. Sounds of an Oompah band muffled by traditional drinking songs, raucous cheers and rowdy laugher.
Everyone knows the traditional images associated with Germany’s Oktoberfest, and to most beer lovers, travel to Munich to participate in the 16–18-day-long festivities (depending on the year) that began as a celebration of the marriage between Crown Prince Lugwig of Bavaria (later King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen is a must. But, for those of us who can’t afford to make the trip to one of the most significant events in Bavarian culture, at least we can enjoy the same beers at home.
The traditional makers of Oktoberfest beers are Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten, as they are all brewed within Munich. Before the revolution in brewing brought about by refrigeration, Märzen (March) beers were brewed in March and lagered, or cold-stored, in caves for 10–12 weeks, making them ready to drink by late summer or early fall. Traditional styles are amber-gold-colored lagers, with pronounced malt flavors and accents of German noble hops such as Hallertau and Tettnang.
Domestic Oktoberfest Märzens are similar to the traditional offerings, though they can be slightly higher in alcohol, redder in color and more robust in hop aroma and flavors. It’s the typical American approach of doing everything just a little bit bigger.
If Oktoberfest beers aren’t your thing, this month’s reviews cover some tasty alternatives: rich and robust brown ales, spicy saisons or farmhouse ales and, of course, more IPAs.
88 Hangar 24 Oktoberfest Fall Lager (Märzen/Oktoberfest; Hangar 24 Craft Brewery, CA). This is brewed in true Reinheitsgebot (also known as the German beer purity law) fashion, using only imported German malt, hops and yeast. The result is a balanced and refreshing brew, with a clear orange-amber color and notes of toasted grain, caramel malt and subtle orange rind on the nose and palate. It’s smooth and medium bodied, with medium carbonation and a clean, slightly toasty finish.
abv: 5.7% Price: $8/12 oz 4 pack
87 Shiner Märzen-Style Oktoberfest (Märzen/Oktoberfest; Spoetzl Brewery, TX). Made with German-grown Hallertau Tradition and Hersbrucker hops, this is a light and refreshing märzen that’s quite the sessionable selection. It pours a light golden-copper color, with a fleeting off-white head and light aromas of toasted grain and sweet malt. The mouthfeel is brisk and balanced, with soft malt flavors and a flash of hop bitterness that lingers.
abv: 5.7% Price: $8/12 oz 6 pack
93 Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale (English Brown Ale; Samuel Smith Old Brewery (Tadcaster); England). A rich, reddish-brown color with a frothy tan head that lingers, this is a classic selection that illustrates how delicious balance and restraint can be. It’s a traditional English brown ale, very elegant and nuanced, offering subtle aromas and flavors of caramel malt, brown bread, dried red fruits like raisin and date and a veritable mélange of nutty notes, particularly hazelnut and walnut shells. The texture is creamy and mouthfilling, but the finish is balanced by a hint of earthy hop bitterness, ending dry and clean.
abv: 5% Price: $5/550 ml
91 Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale (American Brown Ale; Smuttynose Brewing Co., NH). A classic staple in Smuttynose’s year-round lineup, this is a robust and flavorful brown ale that offers rich notes of roasted malt, fresh caramel, toasted pecan, brown bread, molasses and a touch of cocoa on the nose and mouth. As it warms, subtle spiced black-cherry and sassafras accents unfold in the background, adding complexity to the palate and lifting the sweet-malt core. The mouthfeel is smooth and slick, with a tea-like bitterness that lifts the finish and keeps the palate refreshed.
abv: 6.7% Price: $9/12 oz 6 pack
89 Anchor Zymaster Series No. 4 Fort Ross Farmhouse Ale (Saison/Farmhouse Ale; Anchor Brewing Co., CA). Anchor’s latest release in its Zymaster Series is this Belgian-style farmhouse ale with a distinctly Californian twist: yerba santa, a native California herb that exhibits earthy spice and bitter characteristics. The herbal addition complements the traditionally spicy character of a saison, which in this beer’s case includes notes of clove and delicate pink peppercorn, and plays well with the other forward aromas of banana, biscuit, fresh-cut grass and a hint of citrusy, wild funk. The malty core anchors the palate, with solid lemongrass and earthy hop flavors adding depth to the palate and lingering softly on the finish.
abv: 7.2% Price: $9/22 oz
89 Smuttynose Luna Moth (Saison/Farmhouse Ale; Smuttynose Brewing Co., NH). A new release in Smutty’s Short Batch series, this is an interesting and aggressively hoppy saison ale. It’s brewed with a new hop variety called El Dorado, which contributes fruity notes of stone fruit and watermelon rind as well as a solidly bitter hop backbone. A bright gold color in the glass, fruity and slightly piney hop aromas lead on the nose, but are followed shortly after by scents of lightly toasted grain, grass, citrus oil, pear and a hint of white pepper. There’s a warmth to the bouquet, which continues on to the full, lush palate, alongside flavors of melon, pear and citrus and medium carbonation that keeps the mouthfeel bright and refreshing.
abv: 7.2% Price: $15/750 ml
India Pale Ales
91 Smuttynose-Stone Cluster’s Last Stand (American IPA; Smuttynose Brewing Co., NH). The inspiration behind this brew was a nod to the “founding” American IPAs. The base was modeled off of Ballantine’s first IPA recipe. The intent was to brew with hops that no one really uses anymore (i.e. pre-Prohibition) , particularly Cluster (hence the clever name), but also Bullion and Brewer’s Gold. Slightly kitschy concept aside, this is a well-balanced and approachable beer that shows great interplay between the complex, malty core and fruit-forward hop characteristics. There’s a warm, spicy flavor to the palate, while pine and resinous-citrus flavors linger through the long close.
abv: 8.4% Price: $8/22 oz
91 Uinta Crooked Line Detour Double India Pale Ale (American Double/Imperial IPA; Uinta Brewing Co., UT). This is a full-flavored brew that, while certainly hop-forward, is not overdone or too bitter. Initial aromas of pine resin and grapefruit rind lead the nose, with additional scents of caramel, brown bread, and dried peach and apricot. The malts do a good job of keeping the palate grounded, with caramel and sweet bread dough flavors to balance out the assertive bitter-hop characteristics. With a full texture, rich palate and extremely long, dry finish, this is definitely a bottle best shared with friends.
abv: 9.5% Price: $8/750 ml
88 Robert & Ryan-Stone-Rip Current R&R Coconut IPA (American IPA; Stone Brewing Co., CA). Yet another 2013 collaboration release from Stone, this is a celebration of the homebrewing spirit; the beer was the winning selection at Stone’s Spring 2013 Homebrew Competition. Stone-fruit aromas abound on the nose, with vibrant notes of apricot and peach alongside accents of melon, dried tropical fruit and toasted coconut. The mouthfeel is round and lush, loaded with tropical fruit flavors but balanced by bright orange and ruby-grapefruit hop notes. The finish is long and evolving, ending on a soft nutty accent.
abv: 7.7% Price: $8/22 oz