The Toast: Oktoberfests 2013

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The Toast will run in two parts in October. Here we present Part One, our Oktoberfest taste-off. Big thanks to the team at Elevated Beer Wine & Spirits for underwriting this story and helping us develop this ambitious slate of autumnal beers.

Here at Toast HQ, there isn’t a seasonal beer we avoid quite like Oktoberfest. It seems like every one we drink is either disappointing or, at best, ordinary. We’re still waiting to taste one that makes us giddy for another pint.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

But we’re all about periodically challenging our biases, so we took a trip to Elevated and came home with a dozen well-known Oktoberfests to gauge what we’d normally be passing up. We used the participants of a recent copy editing meeting for The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food to comprise a panel for a multi-flight blind tasting. Note: We waited until we were done editing; if the book is riddled with typos, it won’t be because we got anxious and started pounding Märzens.

The beers were served in four flights of three, with our editors collecting notes and voting for the best of each flight. The four winners were then tasted against each other to determine the champion. Overall, balance was the most important aspect to our tasters. We were looking for something predominantly malty, with just the right amount of hop bitterness to anchor the body. Nothing too sweet, nothing too citrusy, just a good clean amber lager. We ended up finding more than one we’ll begin ordering more regularly.

What say you, readers? Agree / disagree with our tasting notes? Are there other good local Oktoberfests we’ve neglected here? Comment below or tweet @johnpgarland — the reader with the best comment on autumn brews receives a Heavy Table pint glass.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Grand Champion : Schell’s Oktoberfest – New Ulm, MN

When Schell’s was announced as the winner, the panel let out a collective “Huh. Interesting.” But the more we thought, it became clear how much we overlook Schell’s amid all the craft brew hubbub in the Cities. We’ve always liked their Emerald Rye and their FireBrick Red, and their Oktoberfest is a worthy complement. It’s a proud, robust lager with pleasant spice, heavier than many, but ultimately smooth, with a toasty aftertaste. It’s big and balanced, comforting and classic. A well-deserved gold medal here for Schell’s.

Other Winners of Best-in-Flight:

Central Waters Brewing Octoberfest Lager – Amherst, WI

Our panel bestowed the silver medal on Central Waters’ effort, calling it exactly what a good Oktoberfest should taste like: crisp and autumnal, with an amiable malty body and an effervescent finish. A smooth, straight-up backyard beer, very mellow and drinkable. If we work from our original thesis, that the best thing an Oktoberfest can be is inoffensive, then this beer stands out, wonderfully fortified in the middle of the road.

Boulevard Brewing Bob’s ’47 Oktoberfest – Kansas City, MO

Boulevard ends up with the bronze medal for one of the lighter beers in the tasting. It had a more profound hop presence than most we tried, adding a bright tang that enlivened the beer without throwing the balance overboard. We called it fizzy and sweeter, but undeniably easy drinking, tasting like an old-world lager with just a touch of the modern — a good example of how Oktoberfests can successfully stray from a malt-dominated profile.

Lake Superior Brewing Oktoberfest – Duluth, MN

Here we give a nod to a more aggressive brew. Lake Superior’s Oktoberfest was more bitter, with a burly, toasty spice component. Our tasters wrote “meaty and smoky,” “like drinking a bratwurst,” and “a plaid hunting cap of a beer.” The malt had good sweetness to it, and the deeply tangy spice worked to balance it out. Pair this beer with a long hike through a forest.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Also Quite Good:

Lakefront Brewery Oktoberfest Lager – Milwaukee, WI

A generally agreeable sip, definitely pint-worthy, woodsy and well founded. It has all the classic flavors of the genre, and is light enough while still delivering enough malt by the end of the sip. Our tasters said “leathery, smooth and sweet,” “good, though very much a same old, same old Oktoberfest.” Predictably tasty. Like Central Waters’, an inside-the-box classic.

Summit Brewing Oktoberfest Märzen – St. Paul, MN

Our tasters didn’t have a ton to say about Summit’s Märzen, but what they did was reverent and positive. “Straw and spice,” they said, “beery in the best way.” The alcohol shows itself early, but is quickly subsumed by some nice toffee sweetness. Confident and composed, one we’d return to. Chalk up another stylistically faithful winner for the Summit camp.

Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest – Munich, Germany

Here we find our control beer, the time-tested quality standard thrown in to keep the tasting honest. We certainly enjoyed it, finding it woodsy and approachable, with a honey, floral, nectar-like thing going on. The taste lingered nicely.

The Indifferent:

Two Brothers Brewing Atom Smasher Oktoberfest Style Lager – Warrenville, IL

They call it “Oktoberfest Style” and our tasters found it too far out of bounds against the more traditional Märzens. It had an herbal tang to it: “tongue numbing” wrote one taster. It was light, sweet, and “slightly medicinal.” There was something with the hop character of this beer that threw us for an unfortunate loop.

Hinterland Brewery Oktoberfest – Green Bay, WI

We found that this was generally a beer with an identity crisis. A distinct citrus on the mid-palate makes it doubtful we’d peg it as an Oktoberfest in a different setting. Its bitterness is present and sharp, though the overall effect isn’t damaged terribly, since there’s some good malt in the backbone. It finishes somewhat indistinct. Not a bad brew, but not very compelling either.

Great Lakes Brewing Oktoberfest – Cleveland, OH

This one surprised us. We’ve known Great Lakes to have a great reputation for their Oktoberfest, yet our panelists were all over the board with invectives — “Miller High Life,” “Tastes like Cedar Rapids smells,” and “Cheap, ugh.” We found another bottle for a follow-up tasting a day later, and it showed somewhat better. Spice is suspended in mid-sip, before sulking away, with a lighter than expected body.

Leinenkugel’s Oktoberfest Lager – Chippewa Falls, WI

This beer came and went like a ghost; we weren’t sure exactly what to make of it. It started mellow and composed before running acidic and watery. And then it was gone, swallowed up to very little effect.

The Disliked:

Leinenkugel’s Big Eddy Über-Oktoberfest – Chippewa Falls, WI

This beer had a distinct caramel smell to it, leading to a strange citrus taste our panel found too sugary and aggressive. One likened it to lemon fudge, another to lemon Pledge. “Like drinking my Grandma’s wallpaper,” one wrote, “super sweet and floral.” A decently light and playful beer, but non-traditional flavors and a disjointed body made it stand out in the worst way.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Oh yeah, and we also tasted a few pumpkin or pumpkin-ish beers:

We liked Rogue Farms Pumpkin Patch Ale for its mellow flavor and spice on the finish. Tyranena’s Painted Ladies Pumpkin Spice Ale was full of cocoa and pie-spice, a little sweeter but not overpowering. Our tasters were all over the map with this one, and were mostly nonplussed.

We found Third Street Jack’d Up very ordinary as well and less gourd-like than most. It had an agreeable enough pumpkin taste that perhaps suffered for not enough body. We seemed to like it a lot more under the blazing heat at the State Fair.

Since it’s totally unlike the other three, we were skeptical but ultimately satisfied with Millstream Brewing Great Pumpkin Imperial Stout. It’s chocolately enough, with a spicy-molasses-coffee thing going on. It’s not trying to be a pumpkin beer and perhaps that’s what makes it good. And Indeed Brewing’s Sweet Yamma Jamma, the sweet potato ale, we called smooth and flat, or conversely, fresh, festive, and cider-like. We’ve generally liked this beer better on nitro tap at the brewery than in the can.

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