WHEN I THINK of party-hearty types, the Germans don't automatically come to mind. Yet during this stretch of September and October, not only do Germans loosen up their lederhosen, they lead the world in a celebration of suds known as Oktoberfest.
The official Oktoberfest shindig runs from Sept. 21 to Oct. 6 in the beer halls of Munich. The party got started back in October of 1810 as a bash marking the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. Also figuring in the festivities was the old-time practice of drinking up the Marzen, the lager that had been stashed in March (Marzen) in the chilly mountain caves.
Although the marriage eventually failed, the party has been going strong even though some of the customs have gotten a little fuzzy. For example, some Oktoberfest beers are available throughout the year, not just in the fall party season. Nonetheless, autumn remains a great time of year to throw an outdoor beer bash, and folks are more than willing to honor the Oktoberfest tradition, even if they might fail a "Name-That-Crown Prince" quiz.
In Baltimore County, for example, Todd Carpenter and his buddy Chris Ricketts invite folks into Carpenter's back yard to celebrate the season and sample their home-brew. The backyard Oktoberfest was first held about 10 Octobers ago and has grown over time. This year, Carpenter said he plans to serve four beers - a Marzen, a Kolsch, a porter and a mild - and have music provided by one, maybe two bands.
The area's largest Oktoberfest celebration will probably be the one held by the Brewer's Association of Maryland on Saturday, Oct. 19, at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. Festivities are set to start at noon, with the tapping of a keg, and continue until 9 that night.
Area craft brewers, including Barley & Hops, Brewer's Alley, the Brewer's Art, Clay Pipe Brewing, Clipper City Brewing, DeGroen's, DuClaw Brewpub, Ellicott Mills Brewing, Fordham Brewing, Ryleigh's (formerly Sisson's), Summit Station and White Marsh Brewing Co., are scheduled to be there and serve samples. Admission is $15.
In addition, area pubs have their own styles of honoring the beer holiday. The Baltimore Brewing Company will have a big blowout this Saturday honoring German food, music and beer.
Finally there are innumerable kitchen celebrations, low-key gatherings in which a beer drinker sits down and cracks open a bottle or two of Oktorberfest brews. To assist such celebrants in finding the good seasonal stuff, I recently sat down with a number of veteran beer drinkers and sampled 17 Oktoberfest bottled brews.
My fellow tasters were Volker Stewart, proprietor of the Brewer's Art restaurant and brewery on North Charles Street; Hugh Sisson, head of Clipper City Brewing; and Kevin Gardner, Mary Zajac and Tim Hillman of the Wine Source, the Hampden liquor store that organized the tasting.
We sniffed, we sipped, we scribbled, then compared our top five favorites. We were looking for an amber- to copper-colored brew with a malty, slightly toasted aroma and a smooth, faintly sweet and slightly nutty flavor. The perfect beer, in other words, to accompany a brat.
Our favorites were the Paulaner Oktoberfest-Marzen ($9 a six-pack), a perennial winner; Kostritzer Oktoberfest ($8.50 a six-pack), a pale but tightly made newcomer from the former East German Republic; Burgerbrau Oktoberfest ($3 for 16 ounces), a Bavarian with a pleasing citrus zing; Spaten Oktoberfest ($8 a six-pack), a crisp, nutty beer; and Otter Creek Autumn Ale ($7 a six-pack), an offering from Middlebury, Vt. The beer at Prince Ludwig's original Oktoberfest was lager, not ale, but we liked the balance, color and flavor of Otter Creek Ale so much, we voted it in anyway.
We also loved the sample of Clipper City Oktoberfest, but because it is being made in limited quantities and served only on draft at six area pubs (Racer's, Sean Bolan's, Duda's, Max's on Broadway, Kooper's Tavern and the Last Chance Saloon), we did not consider it in competition with the bottled beers.
Three other American-made Oktoberfest brews that pleased, if not wowed, the sippers were those from Sam Adams ($7 a six-pack), the Weeping Radish Amber Lager ($7 a six-pack) and Brooklyn Oktoberfest ($7.50 a six-pack).
While we are on the subject of beer, I need to make a correction. A few weeks back in a column about Stephen Demczuk , the man behind the Raven beer, I mistakenly said that American Brewer, a magazine Demczuk had written for, was defunct. American Brewer is alive and being published five times a year in Alexandria, Va.