Judging Beers – Oktoberfest by Jack Van Paepeghem

Jack Van Paepeghem works at Meridian Pint and is a Certified Cicerone® You can read his previous post about homebrewing here.

In America, Oktoberfest unfortunately resides in the category of celebrations like Saint Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo where history falls to the wayside and the focus of the festivities is getting wasted on indiscriminate beer and booze while mocking traditional garb and customs. Fortunately I’m here to judge the beer found in those ridiculously massive and tacky boot glasses and not the people wielding them. In fact, Oktoberfest was originally dedicated to the celebration of the marriage of Prince Ludwig I and Princess Therese of Bavaria in the year 1810. The celebration included horse races, brass bands, food aplenty, and beer, of course, in the expansive fairgrounds known as “die Wiesn.” The ceremonial tapping of the cask which kicks off the party has even historically determined the political attitudes toward the Mayor of Munich based on his success in letting the beer flow properly to the people. But the beer in the cask has not always been what we know as “Oktoberfest” beer.

You may remember the story of how the German Pilsner came to being by modeling itself after its slightly older Czech brother in the year 1842. Well, the evolution of German Oktoberfest beers begins just one year earlier in Vienna, Austria where brewer Anton Dreher had begun making toasty amber beer by using British-devised pale malting techniques and employing a clean bottom fermenting yeast which leaves some residual caramel sweetness. This was the birth of the style known as “Vienna Lager;” try the Devils Backbone version for a spot on interpretation of the style or Elliot Ness by Great Lakes Brewing Company for a hoppier and higher alcohol version. But here’s where it gets tricky. Dreher was working with Gabriel Sedlymayer of Munich’s Spaten brewery and the two decided to cold condition, or, lager, the beer in caves during summer months which would be ready to drink by late September to October. The beer was referred to as “Märzen” because it was brewed in March and contained a slightly higher alcohol content to preserve it through the summer months.

Continues after the jump.

As Germans began to embrace the style and brew the beer with Munich over Vienna malt, a slightly more brownish toasty lager emerged and became the “official” beer of Oktoberfest (before this, they were likely drinking darker Dunkels or even smoky Bocks). The beer works wonderfully with the kinds of bratwursts and grilled meats you find in immense beer halls and the non-bitter and bready character serves for true “drinkability” which carries visitors through the three week revelry of Oktoberfest. As years passed, the Oktoberfest style devolved into something lighter and less hearty, perhaps due to the proliferation of helles and pilsner-type beers and the need to market Oktoberfest beers to an international audience. But fret you not, American craft brewers sought to revive the traditional Vienna/Märzen/Oktoberfest (VMO) styles and have given those Munich-brewed lagers a run for their money.

Say you are responsible for buying beers for your neighbor’s “Oktoberfest” themed barbeque and you are not sure whether to go “authentic” and choose the blue and white ribboned six-pack from Munich or Virginia? Here are a couple things to check for: first off, check for a freshness date on the bottles, you don’t want to be drinking last years’ “seasonal release.” Secondly, don’t fall right away for the imported stuff, especially in green bottles like Spaten’s pilsner-like Oktoberfest (Sedylmayer ended up working for Spaten and is probably rolling in his grave). Lastly, and albeit clichéd, drink local! Devils Backbone’s O’fest is one of my personal favorites of the year alongside the Oktoberfest/Märzens by Port City, Heavy Seas, and Flying Dog. These are some of the freshest and well-crafted beers of the style which had to travel fewer than 100 miles to get to your stein.

You’ll have a chance to try both international and American-made Oktoberfest beers side by side at the Meridian Pint’s Oktoberfest Block Party. On Saturday, October 6th, Meridian Pint and its neighbors are closing down the block and throwing the largest Oktoberfest celebration Columbia Heights has ever raised a stein to, Prosit! In the same vein as “celebrating the art of American Craft beer,” we want to pay homage to and celebrate those cultures which have influenced and shaped our own brewing traditions and what better way than an all-inclusive beer garden and block party in your own backyard.

And if amber lager’s aren’t up your alley, we’ll have plenty of other harvest, wet-hop, and even pumpkin ales for the masses. Did I mention masses? This event is going to be huge, as it is in collaboration with our surrounding neighbors and Columbia Heights Day. There will be an Oompah band, neighborhood-celebrity dunk tank, dog show, and a moon bounce for the kiddies. And last but not least, plenty of beer. If I was not going to the real thing (expect a foreign correspondence in the coming weeks), this is where I’d be celebrating my love for this neighborhood and our beer traditions and heritage. The party begins at noon and goes til 6pm outside (11th and Park Road, NW) and inside both floors will be open til close on Saturday, October 6.

One Comment

  • “Well, the evolution of German Oktoberfest beers begins just one year earlier in Vienna, Austria where brewer Anton Dreher had begun making toasty amber beer by using British-devised pale malting techniques and employing a clean bottom fermenting yeast which leaves some residual caramel sweetness. ”

    I find this highly dubious, given that German brewers were producing Marzen as early as the 1500s. In fact, a 1539 law – the Bavarian Brauordnung – stated that Marzen could only be produced between 29 September and 23 April.

    To this day at the Oktoberfest you can order a helles (light) or dunkeles (dark) marzen.

    Ultimately, all you really need to know about Oktoberfest is that Augustiner, served from a wooden cask, is the best beer, and if you want a seat inside a tent, you had best go early.

    Also, it is a crime to abscond with a beer stein from one of the tents – and there is a hefty fine attached – but it’s not uncommon to simply bribe the bouncers to look the other way.

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