If It's Oktoberfest, It's Time For Beer
When the Mayor of Munich announces the opening of the first barrel of Oktoberfest
bier with "on zapft ist!" ("It’s tapped!"), it
ushers in Munich’s tribute to beer as surely as the arrival of Beaujolais
Nouveau initiates Burgundy’s most famous wine celebration.
The quintessential beer of the Oktoberfest is Marzenbier. Since Marzenbier means "March beer" the obvious question to be asked is, Why is a March beer consumed in mass quantities during the early fall?
According to "The New World Guide to Beer" by Michael Jackson (Courage Books, 1988), March was traditionally the last time when large batches of beer were made before warm spring weather brought out wild yeasts. These wild yeasts could render beer making virtually impossible by causing spontaneous fermentations all over the place.
To protect the beer against infection from wild yeast, and to keep it from
spoiling through the summer months without refrigeration, the beer had to
be made with a high level of alcohol. By mid September or early October any
beer left in storage was consumed as part of the harvest celebration.
Today, Marzen is produced by the bottom-fermenting process popularized when refrigeration became more universal in the late 1800s. Unlike the age-old top fermenting process in which yeast rises to the top of the tank during fermentation, bottom fermenting is a colder and longer process during which yeast falls to the bottom of brewing tanks.
Top fermenting yields fruity, hearty ales, stouts and wheat beers while
bottom fermenting produces lagers and pilseners, the types of light, hoppy,
thirst-quenching beers so common in America today.
Marzen, however, is a stronger brew than the Budweisers and Millers with an attractive amber color and a richer, maltier flavor. It goes particularly well with roasted chicken, pork dishes such as smoked pork chops and sausages and spicy dishes like sauerbraten, the kinds of foods most non-Germans usually eat only during Oktoberfest.
Bock beer is also associated with fall celebrations such as Oktoberfest. However, it is not strictly an Oktoberfest beer. Though it is a lager like Marzen, bock beer can be quite strong and dark with deep malty, almost chocolaty flavors. It pairs nicely with one of the classic dishes of Oktoberfests, Weisswurst, or veal sausage.
The only beers that are technically allowed to be called Oktoberfest beers are those that are brewed in Munich, such as Spaten, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, and Hofbrau. But others, such as Beck’s (made in Bremen, Germany), get away with putting out their version of Oktoberfest beer.
But celebrations in the United States stretch the concept of Oktoberfest beers, perhaps because, as Denis (sic) Kelly, co-author of "Real Beer and Good Eats" (Knopf, 1992) says, "American celebrations are basically fake. Anyone with a bar can say, ‘Hey, let’s have an Oktoberfest.’"
But while some American Oktoberfest celebrations may seem ersatz, more and more American beers are achieving Oktoberfest beer quality. One is Samuel Adams.
"A lot of domestic beers use preservatives for shelf life. Sam Adams has a freshness date on the bottle. And they make it using the same purity laws that German beers follow," says Chris Lesbirel, manager of the Atlantic Hofbrau in Atlantic Highlands, NJ where Samuel Adams Oktoberfest beer is on the Oktoberfest beer tasting menu.
I liked Samuel Adam’s Oktoberfest beer more than Beck’s though less than Paulaner. But that’s what makes a horse race—or an Oktoberfest.
Drink of the Month: Paulaner Oktoberfest (about $7 for a six-pack). Amber colored, creamy and smooth with a light malty flavor and slightly yeasty (ie: smells like yeast) nose. It’s widely available at better liquor stores.