A golden fall day begins with sweet aromas, has a toasty middle, finishes crispy and leaves you hungering for more. That is also pretty much the way Michael Jackson, the world-renowned beer writer who died last month, would describe the classic Oktoberfest beer, the seasonal beer of autumn.
Like many good ideas, the tradition of drinking beer in the autumn sunshine is the result of what happened at a wedding celebration. The 15-day festival that annually draws legions of lager drinkers to Munich, Germany, got going in 1810 as a bash honoring Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig's marriage to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. It has been going strong ever since.
Not to be outdone, the loyal beer drinkers in the United States each fall have been lifting their glasses at various Oktoberfest shindigs. In Baltimore, one of the larger celebrations is the Maryland Brewers Oktoberfest set for Oct. 20 at the Timonium fairgrounds. In addition, there are many backyard and neighborhood pub gatherings that celebrate the seasonal brew. It is a great time of year.
The current crop of autumnal beers is a big one. The 36 bottled beers that flooded an annual Oktoberfest tasting were divided into four categories: domestic Oktoberfest lagers, German Oktoberfests, autumn releases and finally the gourd-group, also known as pumpkin beers. A panel of eight professional beer drinkers (what a title!), myself among them, conducted a blind tasting of the brews and picked our favorites.
Flying Fish OktoberFish, malty and tangy, finished atop the heap of the 12 domestic Oktoberfests. The Victory Festbier finished a close second and the Samuel Adams Octoberfest was third.
The Germans, who started all this fall festing, delivered some amazing, malty brews. Our top three were Spaten, then the Warsteiner, with a tie for third between the Erdinger Weizen and the Ayinger.
Next, we tasted the beers that brewers have released this fall; in other words, whatever a brewer thought was a "harvest-time" brew. The styles of these beers were all over the spectrum. Our top two were the Magic Hat Jinx, an ale that the brewery says was inspired by medieval chemists, and the unfiltered Troegs Dead Reckoning Porter.
Finally, we forced our way through the pumpkin-flavored beers. Frankly, no one on the panel could muster much praise for any pumpkin brew, but we know they sell well. The best of the bunch was the Dogfish Head Punkin Ale. It comes from a brewery in Delaware, a state that is also home to an annual Punkin Chunkin competition. I am all for putting pumpkins in catapults, but keep them out of my beer.
How they ranked
Best Domestic Brew
Flying Fish OktoberFish,
Cherry Hill, N.J. $7.99 a six-pack. An ugly fish is on the label, but the bottle holds a beautiful malty brew with a tangy finish.
Downingtown, Pa. $8.49 a six-pack. Another winner from this Pennsylvania brewery that perfects the seasonal union of malt body with a kiss of hops.
Samuel Adams Octoberfest,
Boston. $7.99 a six-pack. Five varieties of malted barley deliver a smooth, reddish brew with pleasing toffee notes. Refreshing.
Best German Brew
Spaten Oktoberfest Marzen,
Munich. $7.99 a six-pack. Medium body, slightly sweet, bold finish.
Warstein. $11.99 a 12-pack. Golden brew that brings out the fruity flavors of the malt.
Erdinger Oktoberfest Weizen,
Erding. $8.99 a six-pack. Not my favorite, but panel liked this wheaty version of the season.
Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen,
Aying. $2.99 for a 17-ounce bottle. Traditional and toasty.
Best Autumn-Release Brew
Magic Hat Jinx Ale,
Burlington, Vt. $7.49 a six-pack. An ale in Marzen clothing, sporting a touch of malt madness.
Troegs Dead Reckoning Porter,
Harrisburg, Pa. $8.49. Tastes of roasted barley and chocolate malt in a classic, unfiltered style.
Dogfish Head Punkin Ale,
Milton, Del. $7.49 a four-pack. A brown ale brewed with pumpkin and spices. Thankfully, you taste the ale, not the gourd.
[Tasting panel: Al Spoler and Hugh Sisson, co-hosts of the Cellar Notes radio show on WYPR; Brian Leonard, Jed Jenny and Tim Hillman of the Wine Source, the Hampden liquor store that organized the tasting; Mary Zajac, a columnist for Style and Edible Chesapeake magazines; Wayne Mahaffey, owner of Mahaffey's Pub in Canton, and myself. Beer labels were covered with brown bags.]