One of my fondest fall memories consists of German House residents coming together under the auspices of Oktoberfest to share a decent meal. Sandwiched in neutral territory between the German and Russian houses, we broke good German bread, enjoyed traditional ‘wursts, and threw back a few drinks.
It was an unpretentious event, absent of any mention of beer (there probably was—I just lacked the ability to comprehend). Perhaps the circumstances dictated as much. We had faculty in attendance and I had already bent some of the “drinking in common spaces” rules, but the take away from the dinner was a good meal with great people.
Naturally, I was confused after the evening. What had I just participated in? It certainly wasn’t the stereotypical picture of Oktoberfest that we’re fed by the media. (Full disclosure: Beerfest wasn’t the principal reason for spurring my interest in beer, but it was a prominent contributor.)
I asked the German exchange students about what Oktoberfest meant to them. Their responses weren’t much different from the ones I recently heard from my good friend, a German born in the Communist northeast, who also scoffed at my Oktoberfest inquiry.
“What do I know about Oktoberfest?” my friend asked. “I have as much to do with some of those southern traditions as you do with your own south’s rites.” I realized that I didn’t really know what Oktoberfest was, what its origins were, or its significance. I needed to do some research.
Oktoberfest has been celebrated in Munich, Germany since 1810. Then-ruler Prince Ludwig wanted his fellow Bavarians to party it up in honor of his recent marriage to the gorgeous Princess Therese.
Over the years, horse races have occurred, millions of beer steins have been served by women in somewhat-revealing, somewhat-traditional outfits, and every third year there has even been an agricultural show on the Theresienwiese, the original field from 1810.
My German friend, tempering his prideful Prussian nature, further explained to me that many typical Germans suffer in the towering beer tents that distinguish Oktoberfest.
In these tents, each associated with a particular brewery, they have trouble speaking, mainly for two reasons. A) It’s impossible to hear anything in the tents because they are obnoxiously loud (imagine six million people confined to tents) and b) even if you were able to the discern speech from another beer-loving tent chiller, you both would have trouble communicating because that person is most likely an American college student or a tourist.
After this somewhat-complicated, somewhat-contradictory account of Oktoberfest, I travelled to Coaltrain Wine & Spirits to test some Oktoberfest offerings.
A typical Oktoberfest beer is a Märzenbier, or March beer; traditionally the brewing ended in the spring because summer heat compromised the brew process. These lagers typically have a copper-to-earthy complexion with a low hop profile and maltiness. The first beer I tried was an exceptional incarnation of this tradition.
Ayinger Brewery has a rich brewing tradition dating to 1877. It seems fitting that, by now, they can craft dynamic, though not overbearing, beers like their Oktober Fest-Märzen. A malt lattice provides guidance for the other flavors in this beer. Caramel or toffee discretely frees itself from the lattice in order to interact with the soft hops.
Bookending the malt is the delicate carbonation, creating a narrow chasm for this traditional-style beer to navigate. The Oktober Fest-Märzen avoids going too far in one direction without remaining average.
Some argue that the only truly American beer is the pumpkin ale. Not a response but certainly an interesting parallel to its continental cousin, the pumpkin ale doesn’t quite do for me what, say, a good Märzen does. I should also note that, as a 21-year-old, I can’t be jaded enough to deprive entire beer styles from my palate. So I settled on Frog’s Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale from Hoppin’ Frog Brewery of Akron, OH.
I’m prejudiced, but I didn’t like this beer. The dark, translucent orange pour did little to bring out the nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon, flavors all common to the pumpkin ale style. This beer, at 8.4 percent ABV, lets the flavors get lost instead of setting them up for subdued harmony for the final, medium carbonated swallow.
Traditionally, this time of year means breweries deliver seasonal brews such as the ones reviewed above. Try them out. Purchase a Märzen or pumpkin ale, finish your homework, and let them bring you into the Colorado fall of yellow aspens and cool sunsets.
And please, don’t knock over Coaltrain’s bombers, as I did on my first outing. They don’t like that. And don’t ask a Prussian about Oktoberfest. They don’t seem to like that either.