I'm forever tempted to geek out in Froth: Hop varieties from New Zealand, Gemini astronauts on labels, fat tankers, coolships - I'm curious about everything, and I'll drink most of it once. Today I'll attempt to make a few points, mention beer early, then get out. Here we go:
Oktoberfest is not a style of beer. In fact, it has more to do with a horse race than anything we drink.
Most beer drinkers have heard the basic origin story: On October 12, 1810, crown prince Ludwig married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen and everyone in Munich was invited to party on the fields in front of the city gates, which have been known as Theresienwiese, or "Theresa's meadow" ever since. Everyone had a great time, and you know damn well there was some beer involved, but the highlight of the party for everyone but the non-royals (probably) were the horse races which closed the jubilation. It was the desire to have the horse races again the next year which lead to Oktoberfest becoming an annual tradition. The 1811 redux was moved up to September to take advantage of slightly warmer weather, which is where the party has stayed.
The horse races were eventually nixed, and various other events have gotten in the way of the 'fest iteself from year to year: the Prussians acting up (as they do), Napoleon grabbing everyone and throwing them at Austria, cholera, but people like a party, and that is the tradition which has survived intact, bearing the Oktoberfest name.
OK, OK - I know this is a beer column, so: what were they drinking? What are we drinking, anyway? "Oktoberfest beer" is just a name. It's marketing. When Bavaria was a kingdom, no one ever walked up to a giant barrel and said: "Pour mich an Oktoberfest, brüder." When we order a Sam Adams Oktoberfest or a Two Roads Ok2berfest, etc., what we're really getting is a Märzenor Maerzen. Märzens are lagers, which means they like to ferment at cooler temperatures, and were impossible to make during hot summers before refrigeration. In order to be able to makemärzen and sell it in the warmer months, brewers had to make a lot in March and then cellar it, hence the name.
The resultant beers was made both stronger and hoppier, since both the alcohol and hops had preservative effects. By the time summer was over and cold-brewing could begin again, the brewers released all the Märzen they had in stock. This is what people would have been drinking at Oktoberfest.
One of the best examples I've had is Original Hochzeitsbier von 1810 Oktoberfest, from Brauerei Hofstetten. This week I had the opportunity to sit down with Ben Neidhart of Beverage United International and OEC Brewing to try a couple European marzens and bocks. He worked with the the head brewer at Hofstetten in Austria to shed the ubiquitous marzen formula standardized by Paulaner and Spaten, and research into 200 year old recipes gave rise to this Hochzeitsbieror "wedding beer."
Hofstetten Hochzeitsbier pours a reddish amber with medium frothy, but lasting head. There's not too much aroma, but what's there is a slightly dry scent with a vanishing suggestion of hops. There is sweet, deep malt on the first sip, with more than a hint of raspberries and purple grapes, even though the ingredients are just barley, hops, yeast and water. This was super enjoyable for me; I like malty beers, but the heavier, syrupy examples try my palate's patience.Not this, though - the slightly acidic fruit profiles knife right through the dark malts and keep the flavor from getting stale, even while all that toasty grain is coating the tongue. I could drink this by the liter, enthusiastically, although it might not be the best idea at over 6%abv. Easily, and instantly, one of my favorite marzens.
Why are marzens so dark and sweet?
"Sweeter, maltier beers and popular in Germany because people are eating a lot of sour foods, I think," Ben said. "Saurkraut, sausages and pretzels with sour mustard, that kind of thing. But the other part is the water: Munich has harder water with a higher pH, which isn't so great for beer, so brewers used more darkly roasted malts to bring the pH down, like in modern bock beers, which were much lighter in ancient times."
We made our way into what I've thought of as one of the more polarizing beers available in the U.S., Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier marzen. This beer is made by Brauerei Heller-Trum in Bamberg, Germany. The "Schlenkerla" part is the name of the six hundred year old tavern long associated with the (even older brewery) - the word itself is used to describe the wobbly, weaving walk of those who have been enjoying themselves therein.
"Rauchbier" means "smoked beer." Malts were dried over open flames in the millenia before modern indirect heat and natural gas were used, so all beer used to have a smokey flavor. Heller-Trum keeps that tradition alive by roasting their own barley malts over beechwood flames for over 24 hours.
"Some people call this bacon beer," Ben told me. He said he likes to pair it with Mexican food.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier marzen pours dark brown, and the head dissipates almost instantaneously. The smoke wafts right off it into one's nose, and even though I'd had it before, I understood Ben's "bacon beer" comment at once, and for the first time. The rauchbier isn't just smokey (like the repulsive Evil Twin Ashtray Heart), it's rich. I could definitely envision how the meaty body of this beer would work alongside the spicy, stewed proteins and abundant starch of Mexican dishes.
You can find out where to get these beers by contacting B.United right here, and bottle shops like Harry's in Fairfield or Greenwich Wines should be able to order them for you if they're not in stock.