I have made no bones about my love for Oktoberfest beer. In a perfect world, Oktoberfest (or Märzen, if you prefer) would just be called “beer.” It’s generally rich, bready, viscous, and delicious. But I usually stick with the big Munich breweries, and then Ayinger, which is in a class by itself. This despite the fact that just about every American brewery worth its saltmakes one. Therefore, I decided to make a flight of domestic Oktoberfests to see how America does this style. Overall? We do…pretty okay.
This is kind of a super flight, because I wanted to cast a wide net of breweries that I generally like. That lead me to have eight (EIGHT) samples. This required an extra day, but I was willing to make that drastic sacrifice. Here’s what I tried:
Heavy Seas: Heavy Seas usually produces well-crafted beers, though my favorites of theirs tend to be “big” beers. Now, having tasted their Oktoberfest…that’s still the case. It’s too thin, the flavors don’t really blend, and there’s actually some hoppy bitterness that just seems out of place. I’d call this one a miss.
Sierra Nevada: As with most Sierra Nevada beers, this one does the job reasonably well. It tastes good. However, it lacks the viscosity of its German ancestors and still doesn’t balance the flavors in that very pleasing way to bring out the maltiness the way, say, Paulaner does. Still, not a bad time.
Lakefront Brewery: This one has a bit of that viscous nature, and, like Sierra Nevada, it tastes good. However, all the breadiness just seems muted, and there’s a hint of hop bitterness that shouldn’t be there. All things considered, though, this is a pretty decent showing by an American brewery making a German style. What else would you expect from a Milwaukee beer-maker?
Harpoon: I like Harpoon IPA. Harpoon IPA was the first IPA I really liked. In recent years, they’ve had some really well-crafted limited run beers. This one just seems kind of…blah. At this point, I started to feel like American craft brewers see this style as, “beer for people who like bland flavors.” Oktoberfest beers needn’t be boring, people! Which is not to say that this is a “bad” beer; it tastes fine. But I’m looking for better than fine.
Saranac: As with Harpoon, this is a nice beer. But, if this is what all Oktoberfest beers tasted like, I wouldn’t wait all year for them to come out.
Great Lakes: Great Lakes makes great beer. Several of their brews are recent favorites in my house (mmm…Edmund Fitzgerald Porter…). Their Oktoberfest is viscous. It has malt. It limits its hops. Everything is good. But…none of it is enough to overthrow their Mūnchenish brethren. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good beer. I would drink it again, happily. It’s just that I would drink all my Hacker-Pschorr first.
Brooklyn: Viscosity? Check. Bready malts? Check. Minimal bitterness? Check. But, much like Great Lakes, it just barely misses the mark. It lacks that certain je ne sais quoi. Maybe it’s the water?
Sam Adams: The leader of the craft-brew pack. It’s a solid beer. It’s probably the closest of the bunch I tried to the creators of the style. But, even here, the flavors are all just a little too prickly. What I mean is, the malt doesn’t balance the bitterness in the right way to make it taste like fall, and that’s what Oktoberfest beers are supposed to do, in my mind.
The bottom line is, none of these beers is bad, and several of them are really good. But, do yourself a favor. Buy a six-pack of one of these, and then a six-pack of Späten, Hacker-Pschorr, or Paulaner Oktoberfest. Drink the American first, and then immediately drink the German competitor. You will very quickly feel the difference in your mouth. Plus, then you’ll still have ten tasty beers left.