As soon as we begin to feel the weather turn and the first leaves reluctantly abdicate their comfortable summer homes high in the trees, we immediately feel a compulsion toward lederhosen and liter steins. Yes, Oktoberfest is upon us.
The beers—or biers—named for this momentous occasion are plentiful, but we've picked just a few good ones to share with you. This year's selections from American craft breweries seem to be trending a bit toward the traditional—a respect for the Reinheitsgebot (the German beer purity law) and German ingredients popped up in almost all of them. These beers may be brewed in the US, but they're just the thing to pair with traditional German fare as you ring in the autumn.
Sun King Oktoberfest
The Indianapolis-based brew crew at Sun King has taken their Oktoberfest beer and packaged it up in decidedly less traditional sixteen ounce cans. The brewery's Dustin Boyer tells us: "We are harnessing our inner German brewer when we brew our Oktoberfest."
The burnt orange beer has a nutty, sweet aroma with a toasted malt character, while the hop profile is subdued and doesn't stray far from the noble recipe. There is a spicy, flowery presence that lingers from mid-palate through to the finish. The beer is dry, which makes it quite gulpable; perhaps that's why those tallboy cans were a natural fit.
This beer was released as a part of Ninkasi's Prismatic Lager series, which tackles traditional lager styles, adding the brewery's own twist. Other Prismatic offerings include a Helles, a Munich-style Dark Lager, and a German-Style Northwest Pilsner.
Ninkasi's Ali Aasum explains: "We decided to make a traditional Dortmund for our Oktoberfest release. There are so few versions of this style left in the world." They even honed in on the water chemistry intrinsic to that particular German region in order to nail the style. Aasum explains the difference between this style and other Oktoberfests: "The modern Oktoberfest and Dortmund differ only in color acceptance and alcohol content as per the Brewers Association style guidelines."
The beer pours straw gold and immediately packs a pronounced hop profile, which seems reflective of the Pacific Northwestern brewery's hoppy home. The spicy bitterness is clean and when set against the bright, crackery malt the result is a well-balanced, crisp, and highly drinkable brew.
Ninkasi recommends classic German pairings to enjoy alongside their beer: hard to go wrong with sausages, schnitzels, spaetzle, and potato salad.
Hangar 24 Oktoberfest
This Redlands, California based brewery chose an old-school route for this fall seasonal beer. "Modern Oktoberfests are on the trend of getting lighter in color and body. Ours is more similar to some of the beers they would have served in the early days of Oktoberfest," says Head Brewer Kevin Wright. In keeping with tradition, Wright also explains that the beer is "brewed in true Reinheitsgebot fashion using the finest imported German malt, German hops, and German yeast."
The hearty malt character presents a sweetness reminiscent of caramel and nougat. The beer is, as Wright purported, a bit more robust than some of the other examples we've tried. Go for a grilled bratwurst pairing, where it can easily take on a supporting role or shine as the star.
Penn Brewery Oktoberfest
"Penn Brewery was founded in 1986 as a German-style brewery, so Oktoberfest was a natural fit for us," says Linda Nyman of Penn Brewery. The brewery takes their influences so seriously that it's been hosting an Oktoberfest event annually for several decades, drawing thousands every year.
"Our Oktoberfest is brewed in the classic style. We're purists about it, and don't do any funky flavors with that particular variety," says Nyman.
And there's no disputing that. A touch of sticky toffee and flavors reminiscent of biscuits straight from the oven accompany the underlying spice character of the delicate Perle hop variety that Penn selected. Freshly baked pretzels would complement the bready caramel malt perfectly. This beer was a home run in terms of clean, classic O'Fest flavors.
Saint Arnold Oktoberfest
These guys went a little rogue on the traditional Oktoberfest. Instead of brewing with lager yeast as is customary, the folks over at Saint Arnold decided to test the beer out using their house ale yeast. Why? "For shits and giggles," they say on their website. Whatever the motivation, they decided to settle on the ale version after a blind tasting and the Saint Arnold Oktoberfest was born.
The hop character of the Czech Saaz and Hallertauer hops bring classic aromas both woodsy and spicy along with a balancing, but not biting, bitterness on the palate. There's almost a clover honey shade of sweetness to the malt profile along with notable caramel. Though the beer is fermented with ale yeast, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of ester interference to detract from the dominant malt character. We'd happily drink this one again.
What's in your stein this Oktoberfest season?
About the Author: Stef Ferrari is a Brooklyn-based Certified Cicerone, food writer/photographer, and author of a forthcoming beer industry guidebook with Wiley & Sons Publishing. In addition to her passion for craft beer, cocktails, and fine food, she considers ice cream to be life's greatest pleasure and spends most spare moments in pursuit of the Mr. Softee truck. Find her on the web and on Twitter at @stef_ferrari.