Time is right for tasting the brews of Oktoberfest


OKTOBERFEST IS kaput in Germany, but here in Baltimore we don't care. We are going to continue our autumnal ritual of drinking the seasonal beer.

That is the attitude that fueled our panel of tasters as we sampled 18 different brands of bottled Oktoberfest brew and picked our favorites. We knew that the German version of the shindig -- a 16-day Munich festival that traces its roots back to the celebration of the 1810 marriage of Bavaria's Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen -- had ended early in October.

Hugh Sisson, a member of our tasting panel and head of Clipper City Brewing Company, had recently returned from the German version of the festival. During our Baltimore tasting, Sisson entertained us with tales from Munich. He was impressed with the amount of beer -- 12.3 million pints -- consumed during the event and with the good behavior of the participants. His one quibble was that the beer halls charged to use the restrooms.

In Baltimore most of the Oktoberfest hoopla is held in mid-October. This year, for instance, celebrations at the 5th Regiment Armory, Baltimore Brewing Company and the Racer's Pub in Parkville were completed long after the Munich festival had quieted down.

Our tasting panel couldn't match the thirst of the beer drinkers in Munich. But sampling 18 beers isn't a bad afternoon's work. Joining me on the tasting panel were Sisson; Joe Schweiger, the assistant manager of the wine and spirits department of Eddie's store in Roland Park; and three sippers from Rotunda Wine and Spirits: Dave Butcher, Tim Hillman and Daniel Zetlmeisl.

As we rated the beers -- sniffing their aroma, eyeing their color, and noting their flavor and finish -- we munched on German sausages from the Baltimore County shop of Egon "Everything-but-the-Squeak-of-the-Pig" Binkert. Our tasting set-up, a table at the Clipper City brewery, wasn't a Munich beer hall, but it wasn't bad.

After the sniffing, sipping and munching had stopped, each named his top five Oktoberfest brews. Thanks to Schweiger's quick calculations, the top five favorites emerged.

The top three finishers hailed from German breweries. First was the Hacker-Pschorr. It had delightful "toasted nut" aroma, or nose, a smooth malty body, and a tight, hoppy finish. It sells for about $8 a six-pack.

Our second favorite was the Oktoberfest from Ayinger. It had an aroma as big as Bavaria, and a malty flavor that Butcher said reminded him of his favorite hot cereal. Here it is sold in big, 16-ounce bottles, for about $2.50 a bottle.

Third place went to Paulaner, which won last year's tasting. The Paulaner was slightly sweeter and thinner than last year's version. It sells for about $8 a six-pack.

The Oktoberfest offering from Catamount in Vermont,with its pleasing citrus notes, both in aroma and flavor, finished fourth.

Fifth was the Clipper City Oktoberfest. Sisson, whose brewery made it, described this beer as the "IPA" (India pale ale) of Oktoberfest. This meant it used a healthy dose of hops to balance the malty flavor in the body of the beer and to give it a dry finish. It sells for $7 a six-pack.

Each of the tasters also had a personal favorite Oktoberfest offering that didn't make the top five. They were, in, no particular order, Victory Fest, Harpoon, Dominion, Lancaster and Dock Street.

All in all, a good year for Oktoberfest beers, on this side of the Atlantic.

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