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Oktoberfest, or, well, um, at least Oktoberget-Together.

You know that scene in European Vacation when the Griswalds are in Bavaria and Chevy Chase gets in the fight with the guys in lederhosen? That’s my impression of the annual Oktoberfest in Munich. I imagine an old city square full of beautiful blonde women carrying mugs of beer and fat German guys in lederhosen laughing and singing. Some day, I want to be one of those fat guys, but until then, I’ll have to make do with an ersatz celebration of Oktoberfest in my living room for a tasting of some Oktoberfest beers with some friends. Undaunted by the lack of proper scenery but armed with expert tasting skills and a German-English Dictionary, we plodded through some Oktoberfest beers from the Fatherland (Germany) and the homeland (US) alike.

The story of Oktoberfest has many variations, but the generally accepted version is that about 200 years ago, some Bavarian nobles had a wedding party and invited everybody around to celebrate. When I say everyone, I mean everyone from the village idiot to the Bishop and they all had a blast. When the first anniversary came, they decided to do it again and before they knew it they had a tradition on their hands. The beer that is typical of the event is called Marzen, or March, like the month. The reason it’s called this is because its made in March at the end of the brewing season. Brewers back then didn’t brew in summer because the heat spoils the fermentation so the beer made in March was made strong enough to last through the summer. By autumn it was the only beer left and was drunk as the new brewing season began.

Wir sind Biersnobs:
The tasters for this fest were Nuno, Andy the Brit, and myself. We tried four beers whose identities were hidden and served in random order. For an authentic touch, we had knockwurst for dinner and used the handful of German words we knew whenever possible. Now, on to the beers.

Paulaner Marzen Oktoberfest: One of the originals from Munich that pretty much defines the style. It is the color of falling leaves with a woodsy aroma. A firm head dissipates to a nice lace on top as you drink it and carbonation is steady to the end. Though not very bitter, the hoppy bitterness holds nicely to counteract the maltyness that is the dominant feature of the beer. Immediately you realize that this isn’t your ordinary pale German lager. Both Nuno and Andy commented on the aftertaste but with very different reactions: “fruity” said the Brit. “Nutty” said the Nuno. In the interest of avoiding conflict, I abstained from commenting. They both agreed that it was easier to drink than some of the others (a mark of quality for which Paulaner is known).

Overall, it was liked, though it didn’t stand out as well as the others.

Harpoon Oktoberfest: One of the American entries of the batch, this was received well by Andy, but not as a true Marzen. “Nice, but is it really an Oktoberfest beer?” Well that’s what the label says but I think he was referring to the fact that it doesn’t have all the characteristics of the typical Marzen. Though it didn’t say on the bottle, the beer is actually ale, while true Marzens are lagers. This may seem trivial but taken in the context of the style it didn’t meet our expectations. If it didn’t claim to be Oktoberfest, we probably would have liked it a lot more.

Sam Adams Oktoberfest: “This is American, am I right?” asked the astute Nuno. Indeed he was correct, I tried to fool him but he’s a clever fellow. “Very carby,” he added, “nice flavor but nothing lingers.

Probably because there’s no aroma, which typically adds to taste.” The Brit was impressed by its “quaffability…not too fizzy but a nice tingle on the tongue.” In his opinion, they should make it year-round, as it would be “a strong addition to the stable of Sam Adams beers.” This beer is made true to style (as are most offerings from Sam Adams), but it does lack a certain something that marks it as a copy of the style and not a true member of the Marzen family. To a fault, the beer has the tanginess in the malt that is present in the Sam line of beers. This tanginess, however, is missing in the German examples. Again, we though it wasn’t bad but we all had something to say about its obvious “Americanness.”

Hacker Pschorr Original Oktoberfest: This one is nice. I love it. While the other German entry, the Paulaner, was a prototype for the style, this one had a slight aberration that made it stand out. Like me, the Brit was surprised to find it so bitter and hoppy. The strong roasted flavor gave it a nice mouth-feel, making it a pleasure to drink. A nutty aftertaste gives it the perfect finish. I’m not sure if the “Original” on the label means that it was the original beer from the wedding feast mentioned above but Hacker is one of the world’s oldest breweries so it could be true.

Regardless, the boldness won me over, as it managed to both be distinctive and adhere to the style guidelines.

Overall, the tasting went as expected. We easily identified the American beers as imitations. Nevertheless, they were not necessarily bad beers.

The results show that even though something can be imitated time and again, there’s nothing like the original. While the night could have been livelier, perhaps with an oompah band and busty German women filling our steins, it was downright productive. We got to drink some good beers, eat some knockwurst and watch the Yankees win-not bad at all, if you ask me.

October 7, 2002
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