The Mountain Times

°F Sat, April 19, 2014

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Bavariations

We're in the middle of Oktoberfest, which is an annual festival originating in Bavaria - and which, yeah, mostly takes place in September (one of those nonsensical things like how Boxing Day doesn't have anything to do with boxing). This 16-day German holiday began as a celebration of King Ludwig I's marriage to Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen and has lasted, so far, 112 years, notwithstanding the occasional break for war or cholera.

At some point, beer got involved in the event, and Oktoberfest became popular in North America, too. We don't celebrate for 16 days - let's be honest, that type of quality of life doesn't exist on this continent - but we'll at least have a couple pints of Sam Adams's fall seasonal while comical images of mug-toting men in lederhosen and stout, brindl-wearing women with blond braids dance through our heads. (The real Oktoberfest in Munich is one of those bucket-list travel experiences that, like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, probably are just infernos of noise, Porta Potties, bad food, sexual harassment, and American tourists.)

Anyway, a special style of beer is brewed for Oktoberfest, and this kind of beer is itself called an Oktoberfest or occasionally a "Marzen." Traditionally brewed in March to last till fall, it's a little darker in color and richer in flavor than the average pale lager and is supposed to be a great autumn drink - echoes of summer, hints of winter - if you like German beer, which America apparently does. (America gets everything about Europe wrong, believing that Germans make the best beer, Italy makes the best food, and England writes the best books, when in fact, Belgium makes the best beer, France makes the best food, Russia writes the best books.)

Well, OK, so let's try a few of these.

The first Marzen I had this year was Harpoon's Octoberfest Beer (with a "c" - how xenophobic), which I guess is Samuel Adams's biggest hometown competition. It pours out an autumnal amber and smells super malty, but it's peppery when it hits the tongue; medium-bodied and well-carbonated, it finishes with surprising bitterness. Overall, though, it's a little boring, I actually recall the Sam Adams rendition having a greater variety of flavors - maybe some pigskin and candy corn and other fall-ish things, I don't remember - so, a little disappointed (rating: 4 out of 10), I moved on to Victory's Festbier.

Victory Brewing Company, a Pennsylvania operation, is one of the most trustworthy East Coast breweries, but its Oktoberfest - a cloudy, tawny brew - doesn't taste all that different from Harpoon's: maybe a little hoppier, a little woodier. The primary impression remains not much. (Rating: 8 out of 20.)

For me, the first really good Marzen of 2012 came from a slightly smaller North Carolina brewery called Foothills, a Winston-Salem establishment that generally adorns its bottles, nicely, with what looks sort of like Soviet poster art. Theirs is a substantial mahogany concoction available only in bombers, not in six-packs. A lot more is crammed in here than in the other two - caramel, toffee, nuts, toasted malts, very few hops - yet it finishes clean, without any syrupiness sticking to the tongue. (Rating: 13 out of 15.)

On the other end of the Marzen spectrum, but maybe just as good, is Hacker-Pschorr's pale orange Original Oktoberfest - one of the relatively few examples of the style that, because they were brewed within Munich's city limits and meet some other presumably very strict German criteria, actually qualify to be served at the real Oktoberfest. Bright, grassy, floral, and gently sweet, it bespeaks summer - or even spring - more than it does fall, and it's incredibly drinkable, though it finishes with a beguiling touch of indecipherability (rating: 1547 out of 1785). Paulaner's very popular Oktoberfest - another "legit" entry - is, by comparison, just another boring lagery lager. It's probably fine, but whatever. (Rating: 2.49 out of 5.)

"Dogtoberfest" by Flying Dog, meanwhile, is said to be very sweet, but I was in the midst of eating an entire package of Keebler Fudge Stripes when I began drinking it, so it didn't seem sweet to me at the time. When I finished the cookies, though, some of the beer's toasty caramel flavors came through, along with a faintly acrid smokiness. It's a little thinner than I'd like, but it's kind of cool. (Rating: 14 out of 20.)

I finished up this experiment with Yuengling's stab at the style. I dunno why: nostalgia, maybe, or curiosity as to how a lame macrobrewery would view the Oktoberfest. Well, Yuengling's Marzen tastes a lot like plain, bland Yuengling, only a touch maltier. Before this, I'd never had any of Yuengling's beers apart from their flagship lager, and now I wonder whether they're one of those corporations that secretly just sell the same product over and over, with minor modifications designed to fool us, like Taco Bell. (Rating: 10 out of 10000.)

In summary, Marzens really aren't that great, and except maybe for the Foothills one, they definitely don't seem worthy of those big powerful mugs you always see in cultural depictions of Oktoberfest (it's like using a wheelbarrow to haul a twig), but hey, it's beer, and it's basically not bad, so you may as well drink up; at least it's a good excuse to wear lederhosen.

The thing to remember about most seasonal products, like roast turkey and Buche de Noel and those little candy hearts with romantic enticements written on them, is that, if they were actually good, people would just consume them year-round, but if they were truly bad, people wouldn't consume them at all.

Tagged: Oktoberfest, Generation Y