With so many specialty brews available this time of year, what really sets Oktoberfest suds apart from the usual go-to beers?
With Oktoberfest looming, many in Tulsa are looking forward to cool nights spent at River Parks, enjoying a local tradition that has drawn both national and international attention, while giving a nod to old-world Germany. Our Oktoberfest has plenty of history and numerous festivities that go hand in hand with the event.
For most people, however, Oktoberfest is synonymous with beer — and plenty of it.
It’s not just a Tulsa thing. Although Tulsa’s is one of the five largest in our country (and ranked in the top 10 by USA Today), many other cities in the U.S. hold their own Oktoberfest celebrations. As such, breweries of all sizes capitalize on the season to create and market their own Oktoberfest beers.
With so many Oktoberfest brews available, it got us thinking: What really sets an Oktoberfest beer apart from the rest, and what characteristics should you look for in an authentic brew that stands out from the crowd of pretenders?
Being that Oktoberfest is just that — a festival — there is not one style or type of beer that is specific to the event, although there are some common characteristics that usually translate to your typical brews identified with the festival and season. The brews most commonly identified with Oktoberfest in the United States are typically darker than those served for Oktoberfest in Germany.
Wes Alexander, director of sales and marketing at Marshall Brewing, provided some history for perspective. Oktoberfest originated when the crown prince of Bavaria, Kronprinz Ludwig, married Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen (Theresa of the Meadow) in October 1810. In celebration of their wedding, a two-week festival, including horse races, was held just outside the city gates for all the citizens of Munich to attend. With a repeat of the festivities in 1811 and thereafter, the festival has since become an annual tradition. Being a festival with so many in attendance, a variety of different beers were and have been served, with no one specific beer being a distinguished Oktoberfest beer.
Now, with that covered, most brews commonly identified with Oktoberfest are lagers, partially because the brewing process began out of a way of preserving grain until the next fall harvest. Storing brew for long periods of time in cold temperatures ( from six weeks to six months) is part of the process of creating what is now commonly known as lager, so most beers served at a traditional Oktoberfest will be lagers.
A Märzen lager is typically brewed in March, as that was believed to be the last month that the brewing process could be done and the grain last until the next harvest, usually resulting in roughly a 6.5 percent ABV (alcohol by volume).
“Our Oktoberfest brew is a traditional Märzen style lager,” Anderson says. “It was our first seasonal beer release, but the first year , we were unable to get it to the market until November, due to some unforeseen delays, so we marketed it as a ‘Novemberfest’ beer. Ours is copper in color and right around 6 percent ABV. It has a light sweetness because we use lightly malted grains, to stop the reaction process and preserve it, which puts a natural layer of caramelized sugar on the outside of the grains.
“Also, our Märzen lager has very little aroma, because we use traditional German Noble hops merely to balance the sweetness. That gives it a dry finish and balance to keep it from finishing too sweet.”
Anderson also says that another common characteristic of Oktoberfest beers is that because they are festival beers, made for an occasion like this, they are usually not strong beers.
Glenn Hall, of Renaissance Brewing Company, says that his brewery’s seasonal offering will be a Vienna lager, “Mostly because that’s what I like. That’s the adopted style of Mexico, with Modelo lager being a good example,” he says.
Unfortunately, much like Marshall experienced in its first year, some delays and licensing issues will delay Renaissance’s initial release. Even so, Hall has a great attitude and is looking forward to joining the season.
Hall admits that when he thinks of Oktoberfest brews, he typically thinks orangish-red, malty, complex beers. But it’s not that way in the original land of Oktoberfest.
“If you go to Germany, though, what they serve is almost exclusively lighter, gold or blonde lagers,” Hall says. “That’s really where ours will fall. Most of the German brewers actually make a darker, amber version for the U.S. markets, because that’s what people here have come to expect.”
Alexander agrees, saying that Hellas or light lagers are most often found in Germany, but any vein of amber or lighter lager is usually acceptable for Oktoberfest beer.
“They are all generally lagers that are lighter in color, anywhere from amber and copper to golden in color, and 6.5 percent alcohol or less,” says Alexander regarding the characteristics he usually identifies with Oktoberfest brews.
Other beers he looks to as strong Oktoberfest examples include Boston Brewing Company (Samuel Adams), as a great American reference point, and all the major German brewers are usually served at Oktoberfest. Spaten, Warsteiner, and Hofbräu are all great beers and good examples.
“My favorite is Andechs,” says Hall. “It’s brewed by a little monastery outside of Munich. I’ve been to the monastery, so I feel a little more connected to it, but they make a fantastic lager. They were at Tulsa’s Oktoberfest last year, and I had to search for them, because they only had one tap in one of the tents, but it’s worth searching out.
“Marshall has their own tent, which is cool, because they’re great at what they do, but there’s also a tent this year for all Oklahoma craft brews. We’ve got two taps this year and will be serving our Renaissance Gold and Indian Wheat, but there are a group of Oklahoma craft brewers in the tent. I always recommend that as a good place to start for people who want to find out what we have to offer locally.”
Oklahoma craft brewing companies that will be featured include Anthem, Hanson, Dead Armadillo, Nothing’s Left, Coop Ale Works, and Renaissance, while Marshall Brewing will feature eight different beers.
Whether you’re going out to the festival or enjoying a specialty brew at home, make sure to keep your eye out for these common characteristics: color ranging from a deep golden hue to the more common copperish amber; a mild aroma; a slightly sweet and malty flavor that’s not too sharp or hoppy; and an alcohol level usually in the 6.0-6.5 percent range.
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