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!