After almost 30 years of writing this food column — first known as The Happy Eater, then later morphing into a feature topped with a photograph that showed my ever-receding hairline — I am switching genres. I am joining the ranks of the editorial department of The Sun.
Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that my weekly column in the Taste section was on vacation this summer. That is because I was pinch-hitting in editorial department, substituting for staff members who were away. Now I have become a full-time member of that team.
Writing a first-person food column has given me a terrific amount of freedom. Over the years, I have had much fun describing the meals and beverages I sampled at venues ranging from the glamorous Inn at Little Washington to our family's often-chaotic kitchen table.
I also greatly enjoyed the letters, phone calls and street-corner comments from readers reacting to the column. Along the way, the column won several national journalism awards. Now that our kids are grown and mostly gone and our family meals are significantly smaller, I am ready to try something new, to bring my experience of three-plus decades of living and working in Baltimore — and perhaps a little humor — to a different section of the paper.
I will still do some restaurant reviewing and will probably opine, from time to time, on matters of gastronomic importance.
Fittingly, this final column deals with one of my favorite topics: beer. One of my seasonal rituals has been to review the annual autumnal offerings of Oktoberfest beers. I started doing this annual tasting in 1993. Then there were only a handful of beers, seven, that were on the market. Recently, when I sat down with a panel of four other professional tasters — Jed Jenny and Tim Hillman of The Wine Source liquor store, Hugh Sisson of Clipper City Brewing, and Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal Ales — we sampled 37 bottled brews, wrapped in brown bags to preserve their anonymity.
We picked favorites in three categories: Oktoberfest beers brewed in Germany, those beers brewed in the United States, and pumpkin beers.
When I started doing this fall tasting, there were no pumpkin beers. Although the category is now popular, I am not sure the fact that the nation continues to churn out pumpkin beers is a sign of progress. I don't like pumpkin beers, but the rest of the drinking world seems to crave them. So much for my editorial judgment.
So here, in order of preference, are the picks of this year's crop of fall beers.
And thanks for reading.
Warsteiner Oktoberfest: Warsteiner Brauerei, Warstein, Germany, 5.9 percent ABV, $13 for a 12-pack of 11.2-ounce bottles. Distributed in Baltimore by Republic National (410-724-3300): A golden beauty with clean, crisp flavor and excellent balance of malt with a light hop bitterness. Very easy to drink.
Spaten Oktoberfest: Spaten Franziskaner Brau, Munich, Germany, 5.9 percent ABV, $8.50 a six-pack. Distributed in Baltimore area by Bond (410-945-5600): A mainstay of the Oktoberfest festival in Munich (Sept. 18-Oct. 4), this Marzen is light and mild. Some bread and caramel notes, with the malt peeking through. True to style, no bite here, a comfortable companion for long autumn afternoons.
Paulaner Oktoberfest Marzen: Paulaner Salvator Thomasbraeu, Munich, Germany, 8 percent ABV, $10 for six-pack. Distributed in Baltimore by Republic National (410-724-3300): Another stalwart of the Munich festival, this crisp Marzen is exceptionally smooth with a slightly sweet caramel malt flavor and signature toastiness. The label shows frauen carrying several frothy mugs, the amount of this well-made brew you could drink without feeling full.
Stoudt's Oktoberfest: Stoudt's Brewing, Adamstown, Pa., 4.7 percent ABV, $9.50 a six-pack. Distributed in Baltimore by Bond (410-945-5600): Crisp Marzen flavors with caramel malt, toffee and a pleasing grain notes. Quite refreshing with a hint of lemon on the finish. Easy to spend time with this one.
Shiner Oktoberfest: Spoetzl Brewery, Shiner, Texas. 5.8 percent ABV, $6 a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles. Distributed in Baltimore by Bond (410-945-5600): This Texas brewery shows its German roots with a malty, slightly sweet Marzen that tied for first with Stoudt's in our tasting . A hint of toffee and a touch of hops. Satisfying, if not complicated.
Gordon Biersch Festbier: San Jose, Calif., 5.4 percent ABV, $9 for a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles. Distributed in Baltimore by F.P. Winner (410-646-5500): This one surprised the panel with a good marriage of malt and a hop bite on the finish. A little lighter and hoppier than most Marzens.
Jack's Pumpkin Spice: Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis, Mo., 5.5 percent ABV, $6.50 a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles. Distributed in Baltimore by Winner (410-282-1600): Bristling with pumpkin pie spice, this brew is clean and balanced.
River Horse Hipp-O-Lantern: River Horse Brewing Company, Lambertsville, N.J., 9.0 percent ABV, $12 a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles, Distributed in Baltimore area by DOPS (301-839-8650): The big boy of pumpkin beers, strong spices, big malt, high alcohol, nicely put together.
Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin: Weyberbacher Brewing, Easton, Pa., 8 percent ABV, $11.50 a four-pack of 12-ounce bottles. Distributed in Baltimore by Legends Ltd. (410-918-2537): Cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and cloves swim in this ale that could be called spice city.
Heavy Seas The Great Pumpkin: Clipper City Brewing, Baltimore, 8.0 percent ABV, $6 a 22-ounce bottle. Distributed in Baltimore area by Republic National (410-724-3300): Pumpkin pie spices, especially cinnamon, in a hearty ale . A buttery beer for pumpkin lovers.
The dining and news column returns next week.