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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Best Oktoberfest Beer?

Brian Yaeger
Our Oktoberfest lineup, identities scrupulously concealed.
​In honor of the 200th anniversary of the marriage of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen, better known today as the derivation of Oktoberfest, this month's blind tasting panel lined up samples of Festbiers. Over six million people will fill the tents and bierhalls of Munich beginning Sept. 18. They'll be drinking mostly Märzen-style lagers known for their toasty maltiness, with Nobel hops scarcely carrying their load. Märzen (like the Gordon-Biersch flagship we couldn't find as a single) means "March" in German, which is when this beer is historically brewed, then cellared ― or lagered ― through the summer to enjoy in fall. If Munich's too far, there's always Pier 48. At Oktoberfest by the Bay, where you'll be able to do the chicken dance Sept. 23-26.

Other than this blogger, tasting panelists included Jason King and Danielle Oakley (owner and "bartendress," respectively) of Church Key, and beer blogger Jeff McClure. The following is every single Festbier bottle we could find (sadly, most breweries release Oktoberfests closer to October, even though it's in September; too bad we didn't get a growler of Bear Republic's).

We scored them on a scale of 1 to 10 based purely hedonistically ― they're listed here in order of overall preference. (Note: ABV stands for "alcohol by volume"; prices are approximate)

Brian Yaeger
The reveal: Note the three-way tie for second place.
1. Paulaner Oktoberfest (Munich): 23 points. Not surprisingly, five of our six samples were imported from Germany. And therefore not surprisingly, there wasn't a huge disparity in the quality or flavor. They all exhibited medium body, toasty malt, and workhorse carbonation. For Paulaner, King ("pleasant breadyness") and Oakley ("mellow but fits the style") scored it the highest, even though this blogger couldn't get past the DMS infection too often present. (5.9 percent ABV, $2.50)

2. Schönramer Festbier (Schönram, Germany): 22 points. Yours truly got into the "super butter-toasty" flavor, but the beer lost points once it warmed up, and it was those same "sour, stale" notes that turned off McClure. (6.2 percent ABV, $4)

2. Sam Adams Oktoberfest (Cincinnati,Ohio): 22 points. Oakley said this one "smells like August in die Vaterland," which is funny since it's the only one not from the Fatherland. Still, on account of it having the shortest distance to travel, it was the freshest, gentlest at the fest. (5.3 percent ABV, $2.25)

2. Weihenstephaner Oktoberfest (Freising, Germany): 22 points. Not that anyone objected to the Paulaner, but the panel afterward said they'd have expected this sample to take top billing. The balance and complexity in this beer from the world's oldest brewery demonstrated the power of fundamentals. King felt this leaned more towards a Munich Helles lager on account of being "wonderful, full-bodied (with a) rich grain profile." (5.8 percent ABV, $4)

5. Spaten Oktoberfest (Munich): 20 points. The overtly sweet nose and taste stemmed from diacetyl, which is often present in lagers but isn't the goal of Märzens. Thus, the "wet cardboard" flavor that McClure noted was the result of oxidation, and another reason why, if you're going to do Oktoberfest, you should do it in München. (5.9 percent ABV, $1.50)

6. Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest (Munich): 19 points. This one lost points across the board for oddly displaying little to no aroma. It had hints of butterscotch and mild hops, and ultimately, only earned four fewer points than the Paulaner, but someone's gotta lose. (5.8 percent ABV, $1.50)

The tasters, from left: Danielle Oakley, Jason King, Jeff McClure, the author.
​Tune in next month when a new panel will blindly taste pumpkin beers. After all, Halloween candy is already on the shelves.