As Oktoberfest approaches and you prepare for polka music and brats, let’s celebrate what unites us as Coloradans: beer. Here, we raise our glasses to fall beer, locally brewed Märzens and our hop-loving forefathers.
Your Cup Runneth Over
Fall is in the air and Oktoberfest is in your pint glass
Oktoberfest is what remains of a 199-year-old Munich, Germany, wedding party held in 1810 for Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The annual festival grew from a single-day event to one that now encompasses 16 to 18 days, starting in late September and lasting to Oct. 3 (German Unity Day).
The festival—considered the world’s largest due to the more than 6 million people who attend its modern incarnation and consume about 5.5 million liters of beer—has been about food and beer since 1818. The traditional Marzen (March) style beer was named for the month in which it was brewed, but it took on the Oktoberfest moniker for the time of year during which it was tapped.
Like its springtime Irish counterpart, Oktoberfest has become a Germanic drinking holiday, albeit of the month-long variety, that lets one get their ethnic on. Wurstel (sausages), brezel (pretzels), reiberdatschi (potato pancakes) and sauerkraut are all part of the gastronomic mix; lederhosen and dirndl, not so much.
But you gotta love the Germans who, while not wholly embracing the attendant alcoholic excess of the celebration, have coined a name for those who “fall” victim to too much lager: bierleichen (literally “beer corpses”).
The Marzen-style beer that has become associated with Oktoberfest dates back to pre-refrigeration days when the last lagers of the year (lager is the German word for “store”) were brewed up and put in cold storage where the yeast would work its magic over the summer. Typically brewed to between 4.5 and 7 percent alcohol by volume, a Marzen beer is light gold to deep copper in color and has a rich, toasty, up-front maltyness that is balanced by just enough hops to offer balance to the sweetness. This is not a bitter or aromatic beer with lots of hops; think subtle, balanced and smooth.
And in anticipation of the season, we have assembled a collection of Oktoberfest offerings from local brewers.
Oktoberfest MÄrzen Lager
Left Hand Brewing Co., Longmont
This honey-colored Märzen does the style proud. The tight, creamy head releases a light malty aroma. The toasty malt flavor comes fast and is front and center from the first sip on. The sweetness from the German malts is nicely balanced with the noble hops that do their job and then step away for a dry, not bitter, finish. Found in bottles in most Metro-area liquor stores, but worth stopping by the Tap Room at 1265 Boston Ave. in Longmont for a pint straight from the keg.
The Kaiser Imperial Oktoberfest
Avery Brewing Co., Boulder
Brewmaster Adam Avery has led the way in kicking beer styles up a notch, or 10, and the humble Oktoberfest is no exception. Don’t let the subtle malty aroma fool you; one sip is proof that this beer plays for keeps. The rich malt flavor is huge and just enough hops are added to keep it from being cloying. A borderline barley wine, The Kaiser’s 9.3 percent alcohol by volume packs a goosestep kick. You were warned.
Paulaner Oktoberfest MÄrzen
Paulaner, Munich, Germany
If you’ve been brewing beer for more than 360 years and are still going strong, you must know what you’re doing. And the Paulaner version of the seasonal Oktoberfest is proof positive of that. The velvety malt flavor and perfect hop balance in this light amber-colored lager are the result of old world craftsmanship and quality ingredients. While the local versions from Left Hand and Avery make going global totally unnecessary, it’s good to taste ones roots occasionally.
Spaten Oktoberfest Ur-MÄrzen
Spaten-Brau, Munich, Germany
This and the Paulaner set the standard for true Märzen beers readily available in America. Most like a craft-brewed version, its tight head, dark copper color and smooth malty mouth feel are the yardstick by which our domestic versions are measured. The shipping distance puts it at an instant disadvantage, but even so, the quality and experience shine through.
Walnut Brewery will have a tapping party from 6-6:30pm Sept. 17 at its brewpub at 1123 Walnut St. in Boulder. Stop by for a free pint of Brewmaster Rodney Taylor’s true Marzen-style lager with German malts, noble hops and Bavarian lager yeast. Taylor has won multiple medals from the Great American Beer Festival for his beers, so expect this special seasonal offering to be of award-winning caliber as well.
B.J.’s Restaurant and Brewhouse on the Pearl Street Mall will have its Oktoberfest shipped in from the chain’s Reno, Nev. brewhouse in mid-September. And Flying Dog Brewery, formerly of Aspen but now in Frederick, Md., has its Dogtoberfest in stores now (but not in time to be reviewed here). If this year’s effort is anything like last year’s (it won gold at the Great American Beer Festival), it’s worth picking up a case.
Locally, there aren’t many Oktoberfest offerings, largely because lagers are time and space intensive because they take a month or more to ferment at cellar temperatures (45–50 degrees F). While not an Oktoberfest, Boulder Beer’s seasonal Cold Hop British-style ale is a tasty blend of malty sweetness and flowery hop aroma. No big pucker factor here. There’s just enough hops to balance the sweetness and at nearly seven percent alcohol by volume, it’s no practice beer.
The Overwhelming American Beer Festival
With Guidance, Tackling 2,000 Beers Can Be An Intoxicating Experience
In its humble beginnings back in 1982, the 22 breweries present at the first Great American Beer Festival, with their combined 40 beers on tap, could scarcely fill the modest ballroom of the Boulder hotel, formerly known as the Harvest House. Making your way through 40 one-ounce samples of beer seems almost quaint compared with the liver-shredding thought of putting any dent in the 2,000 beers on tap at this, the 27th annual Great American Beer Festival. The American pale ales alone outnumber by two-and-a-half times the total number of beers available back in Year One.
So, the question is this: Where to start? It’s easy, but totally dissatisfying, to randomly sample your way through the night. It’s like attacking a Vegas buffet with a teaspoon or eating soup with chopsticks. Putting some rhyme and reason behind your outing will make it more fun and may even teach you a thing or two. Never will you learn so much about beer as when you taste two, three or 18 imperial stouts side by side and discover what that style should, and should NOT, taste like.
In the good old days—even as recently as the mid-‘90s—attempts to brew beer true to a specific style were hit-or-miss at best. Gold and even silver medals weren’t awarded in some categories because even the noblest attempts failed so miserably. Today, it’s rare to sip crap at the GABF, although the major brewers are well represented by their traditional American light lagers (think Bud). A medal winner is guaranteed to be a truly outstanding beer.
Drink By merit
Doing the GABF right entails doing your homework. Start with a map of the booths and a list of the award winners and hunt down the gold medals. That alone will entail drinking about a six-pack worth of beer (one ounce at a time) and will force you to explore every nook and cranny of the festival.
Quaff your way through a favorite style. Experimental beers, for example, will require taste buds of steel given that there are dozens of entries, with most flaunting unusual flavors. While there may be only half the number of barley wine entries as pale ales, the gravity is much higher—triple the alcohol—so don’t forget to take that into account.
Then there’s the regional approach. Being from Missouri, I note that there are about a half-dozen (not counting the foreign-owned rice and corn brewer in St. Louis) small craft breweries and brew pubs whose offerings would be otherwise impossible to sample at one place and time. Drinking your way through the Show Me State is easy; Colorado, California and Washington, not so much.
The last way to go? Small and obscure. There are some killer breweries tucked into the far corners of the United States that you’d never get to in a million years and that the good people at Liquor Mart have never heard of. But for one night in downtown Denver, they are at your doorstep, waiting to be discovered, savored and celebrated.
Ed and Carol Stoudt have been brewing traditional German lagers in Adamstown, Pa., for nearly as long as the GABF has been around. Their German-Style Pils, Double Mai Bock and Oktober Fest beers have, between them, won nearly 20 medals over the years. Quality lagers are relatively rare in the craftbrewing universe; don’t miss these stellar offerings. Even though Kona Brewing Co. on the big island of Hawaii has only been around for about 15 years, their beers are getting some well-deserved attention. Among them are the Longboard Island Lager, Hula Hefeweizen and Old Blowhole Barley Wine; the latter being only available on tap, so without springing for a round-trip ticket, this may be your only chance to savor this delicious (12.5 percent) velvet sledgehammer of a beer.
Great American Beer Festival, Sept. 24–26, Colorado Convention Center, greatamericanbeerfestival.com