OKTOBER#FAIL

In the latest issue of BeerAdvocate magazine the Beer Scribe Andy Crouch, in his trademark cheery prose, lays out an argument that American craft brewers do a terrible job with the Oktoberfest style:

“American brewers sure do make some shitty Oktoberfests. While giving a required nod towards the tradition of Germany, many so-called American versions of this historic style, their resulting beers fall so wide of the mark as to be unrecognizable. Often cast as ales, the trademark smoothness imparted by extended cold conditioning is replaced for a ubiquitous and yawn inducing fruit character. For many U.S. crafts, Oktoberfest beers also just mean a lightly red-hued beer, with no toasted or bready malt character, and little to no soft and subtle beauty. Often brewed without the addition of German or Euro malts or noble hops, the beers offer little if anything beyond the chance to slap an Oktoberfest label on the bottle and score some easy seasonal sales.”

Each year as the leaves begin to change I pick up a selection of Oktoberfest brews from the bottleshop, but what always seems like a fun seasonal purchase ends in disappointment when I get the beer in my glass. Often heavily-carbonated and cloyingly sweet in a way that overwhelms the noble hops, I’ve yet to find an example that gets me excited about these beers. Unlike Crouch, who lays the blame at the feet of American craft brewers, I’ve always assumed I just didn’t like the style. After all, living in western Pennsylvania in close proximity to prominent German-influenced craft breweries such as Victory, Pennsylvania Brewing Company, Stoudts, and Great Lakes, it seems unlikely that ALL of these brewers are somehow cutting corners for “easy seasonal sales”. The Victory Oktoberfest offering dubbed Festbier, for example uses 2-row Pilsner, Munich, and Vienna malts and whole flower German hops. The result? A resounding “Meh” that could be heard throughout the Sixpack neighborhood. And this beer is no slouch, so to speak- even winning Gold at the Great American Beer Festival for German-Style Oktoberfest in 2007. It has a pleasant bready aroma, a toasty-sweet flavor and a touch of bitterness to balance… the Victory Festbier has everything you would want in a domestic Oktoberfest and it’s… OK. Perfectly pleasant and drinkable, but would I like another? None for me thanks, I’ll move on to Golden Monkey, Headwaters Pale Ale, Hop Wallop, or any number of outstanding offerings from Victory. And this is for one of the highest rated American versions of the style available!

I’d infer from all this that the fault lies not with negligent American craft brewers, but with the Oktoberfest style. Frankly, it kind of sucks. Drawing complexity from primarily the malt bill, for the average American palate it just can’t compete with styles like IPA that utilize our northwest hops to impart powerful, delicious flavors. If this style was only known as Marzen and not named after the world’s largest drinking party, would these be brewed at all in this country? We can hardly blame brewers for cashing in on a name that is guaranteed to move beer each fall, even when the resulting drinking experience for the customer is many times uninspired. A quick look at mean scores-by-style supports this notion- reviewers on RateBeer just don’t like Oktoberfests that much in comparison to other styles.

So what to do? Crouch suggests we, “As a beer loving nation dedicated to preserving and promoting great and classic beer styles from around the globe… need to step up and help resurrect Oktoberfest beer.” I’d counter that it’s time for some good old-fashioned American ingenuity. Oktoberfest are traditionally brewed in the spring and lagered cold throughout the summer, then served in autumn during annual harvest celebrations… but rather than relying on noble hops, why not experiment with some of our flavorful domestic varieties? Sure, the result might not be a traditional Oktoberfest/ Marzen but it might, you know… be interesting and taste good. Don’t tell the Style Police, but I’m suggesting we start working on a new America-style Oktoberfest beer style; hopefully one that will make Aleheads look forward to the coming seasonal change. Heresy I know, but if somethings broken- you gotta fix it. Brewers: you have your marching orders.

So what say you, Alehead nation? Do you enjoy the Oktoberfest style, or is it need of an overhaul?

Danke fürs lesen!

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9 comments

  1. Herr Hordeum · · Reply

    I think you hit the nail on the head. I would buy Octoberfest beers if they tasted good. But they don’t, so I choose something else.

  2. Anonymous · · Reply

    I’m closer to Crouch’s viewpoint. I like more traditional, toasty German Octoberfest brews on occasion, and get annoyed by the sweetness, caramel and fruitiness that you find in most American examples. Not all are like that, though. Capital is a good example of a brewery making very strong German styles in America. I always get some Capital Octoberfest and some Capital Autumnal Fire each year.

  3. Dear Germany, we are sorry we suck at brewing boring-ass beer.

  4. My understanding of Oktoberfest is that it’s all about the malts and the lengthy lagering period, so while amping up the American hops might make for an interesting beer, it would probably still have a muted hop presence. Personally, I can see what Crouch is talking about here. I think a lot of American brewers actually are trying to put their own touch on the style (perhaps even using American hops), which is why Crouch is getting his panties in a bunch.

    On the other hand, I agree that Oktoberfest is a pretty lame style… Even the German examples I’ve had (this year I had a Warsteiner and a Spaten) have been pretty horrible (the Spaten was skunked to high heaven, so I’m not sure I got an accurate read on that one, but they used green bottles, so it’s still their fault). Most American takes on the style are middling at best. I’ve had a few VIctory Festbiers, and it’s grown on me, but the “resounding meh” was my exact reaction upon drinking my first one about a year ago.

    There have only been two Oktoberfests that I’ve really enjoyed. One is Ayinger’s (a German beer which I’ve been using as the gold standard) and one is Live Oak’s Oaktoberfest (a Texas beer from a great, recently discovered brewer).

    But whatever, I don’t have to love every style of beer out there. I’m all for American brewers taking on the traditional style. I think it’s pretty awesome that American brewers make at least one or two credible example of just about every style that has ever existed (perhaps an exaggeration, but still). So bring on the Oktoberfests and English Milds. They’re not my preferred styles, but I’ll try them at least once.

  5. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    I think Wisconsin might be the place to go for decent American festbier. Perhaps it’s on account of all the German ancestory, but there’s a decent number of good examples of the style out there, including Capital, New Glarus, Central Waters…

    I even had a good overhopped take on the style with noble hops from Milwaukee Brewing Company; it was called “Hoptoberfest” I believe.

  6. Short’s Brewing Company from Michigan brewed what they called an “Oktoberfest” this year, but also free admitted making it their own. The brewery’s description was:
    “Our new fall seasonal which is a Northern Michigan version of a German style Marzen or Oktoberfest, done the Short’s Brew way. This beer is well balanced with Noble hop additions which provide a subtle bouquet and pleasant flavor which melds well with the malt profile consisting of 2 row, chocolate, special roast, caramel and Munich malts.”
    I thought it tasted more like an ultra hoppy brown ale, but the idea was interesting. I believe it’s exactly what this article calls for.

  7. There’s no lack of brewers around here that describe their brewing origins as distinctly German, so I’m surprised I haven’t stumbled across something I liked better. It does sound like Wisconsin is the place to go for this style- unfortunately most of those breweries are so popular within their home state it’s next to impossible to find without visiting there yourself.

    Love everything I’ve tried by Short’s, which unfortunately is very little.

  8. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    Short is of course also the maker of one of the most specifically weird flavored-beer creations out there: the Shorts Key Lime Pie.

    …not a fan. But almost everything else they make is the bomb.

  9. I find the Great Divide Hoss to be at least somewhat drinkable, if, as you said, a little dull.

    Avery’s The Kaiser is probably my favorite American Marzen. I appreciate that instead of screwing with the malt-forward style by upping the hop profile, they instead decided to just jack up the booze to tongue-burning levels. It’s basically a traditional Oktoberfest with a shot of whiskey dropped in. Now THAT’S how you make a bland style interesting.

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