I Need You to Drink Oktoberfest Beer Right Now
Our columnist hopes that celebrating Oktoberfest can bring back the tradition of seasonal beer drinking.
By the time you read this, Oktoberfest—the original Oktoberfest in Munich, the mother of all Oktoberfests—will be over. From what I saw, it was, as always, joyful, happy, and completely bad-ass. Brass bands played, whole oxen were roasted, giant loaves of gingerbread were eaten and a small ocean of beer was enjoyed.
But Germans, of course, don’t just consume any old beer for Oktoberfest. Generally, the festbier that is made in the spring and then consumed during the fall “delivers malty aromatics, bready depth and full mouthfeel,” says Bill Covaleski, co-founder of Victory Brewing in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. “The best of them do all of the above and leave a dryish impression that begs for another sip.” He should know, since the first beer he brewed at Victory was a fest beer—I was actually there on that fateful day back in 1996.
While Oktoberfest beer is the king of all seasonal beers, it’s not the only seasonal beer in Germany. There is bock during Lent, a special maibock in May and foamy wheat beer in the summer.
We used to enjoy seasonal beer in America, too. It was one of the things craft beer did best. We drank toothsome fest beer in the fall, winter warmers through the holidays, burly barleywine in the very depth of winter, invigorating bocks and maibocks in the spring and spritzy hefeweizens in the summer. It was so widespread, that I once wrote up a proposal for a beer-based “book of days,” a calendrical compilation of what beers would be best for each day, and why, and what foods would make a proper feast with them, and recipes.
I dropped that proposal, because seasonality doesn’t really exist in our beer world anymore except for a few disparate days.
But Oktoberfest beer might be the way back to seasonal drinking.
The loss of beer seasons actually started with, sigh, pumpkin beer and the seasonal creep it engendered. Pumpkin beers became so popular in the fall—along with flavored coffees, damn them all—that they not only eclipsed Oktoberfest beers, which would have been sin enough, but they eventually broke the whole beer calendar. Unforgivable.
Brewers, wholesalers, and drinkers are all to blame for this sad state of affairs. Pumpkin beer sales grew every year through the 2000s, and they didn’t even slow down for the Recession. It’s hard to tell, but my hunch is that pumpkin beers may have even triggered the whole pumpkin spice latte madness.
Brewers joked about “pumpkin beer zombies,” the drinkers who would start asking in July: “Is the pumpkin beer out yet?” Wholesalers ordered big as soon as the pumpkin beers arrived because they wanted to sell through by Halloween despite people clamoring for pumpkin beer to have with Thanksgiving dinner. As a result, brewers started making the gourd brews earlier and earlier, because they didn’t want to miss the early ordering frenzy.
It got to the point where pumpkin beers were becoming available in early August, and from there seasonal creep began to spread to Oktoberfest beers, which started going on sale ever earlier. Then we got winter beers in early November, and maibock in March...The calendar was blowing apart and the idea of beer seasons was becoming quickly obsolete. In October and November, stores could barely stock all the pumpkin, Oktoberfest and holiday beers available. It was like we were having dessert before our entrees and then finishing with appetizers.
Then the IPA steamroller came out of nowhere, and shattered what was left of the beer calendar like plates at a Greek wedding. When all anyone wants to drink is variations on IPA, or simply any beer the brewer labels an IPA, seasonality goes out the window.
As a result, the growth of pumpkin beer finally trailed off and bocks gasped and disappeared. The only months on the beer calendar now left are December, because holiday beers are still hanging on by their fingertips, and September, the month of the hop harvest when fresh-hop IPAs come out. I could applaud the recent resurrection of harvest beers, but not when it comes at such a price.
So, how do we bring back seasonal beer drinking?
Fortunately, there are still pumpkin beers and Oktoberfest beers. (I never thought I would be grateful for pumpkin beer.) The demand is much diminished, but the heart still beats.
And I accept that IPA is here to stay and chances are good that it will have a hugely long run.
We don’t need to vanquish IPA, but to reclaim the space the calendar beers used to own. To do that, I need your help. Please grab a stein of malty fest beer, wrap it in a flag of Bavarian blue and white, and shout nein! to the IPA-crazed category.
Long-time brewer Dick Leinenkugel is ready, and so is his Leinenkugel Oktoberfest Beer. “We definitely see the love for Oktoberfest, and there’s an inevitable craving for something else when IPAs have been popular for so long,” he recently told me.
There sure is. My wife and I love a good IPA, of many types, but when September comes around, we start buying (and drinking) Oktoberfest beers by the case. We’ve been very happy with Sierra Nevada’s series of collaborations with German brewers, including this year’s with Bitburger.
One we can’t get enough of is Von Trapp, out of Stowe, Vermont. I was happy to find it on tap in Philly last week, and jumped on it. I’ll let brewer J.P. Williams describe it. “The style is a bit darker than traditional marzens [the German name for Oktoberfest beer], but the flavor is spot on. It’s a mix of caramel, toffee and sweetness with the malt that is balanced with a touch of noble hops.”
That flavor is a classic, and the balance of caramel, toffee, toastiness, and that hint of hop, is what makes tasting all of them in a season so much fun.
Sam Adams Octoberfest is often a bit heavier on the caramel. Hacker-Pschorr is, I think, a bit more pronounced on that toasty malt dryness Bill Covaleski from Victory talked about. And Jack’s Abby Copper Lager is more firm with the hops.
No matter which one you choose, Oktoberfest beer is the key to jump-starting the beer calendar, the defibrillator jolt to re-set our seasonal beer heartbeat. Why? Well, for one, its name is a month; that’s a marker. But mainly because it’s just awfully good, and with a small move back to lager beer taking place, now’s the time for it.
“Why are they coming back?” Williams asked. “They were awesome to begin with, and what took people so long to figure that out is beyond me.”
So, here’s what you need to do. Go get a six-pack or two and chill them. While that’s working, grill some bratwurst, roast a chicken, cook some hot dogs. Heat up some kraut, and slice up some gouda and Swiss with honey mustard and a hearty loaf of rye bread. Pour those Oktoberfest beers and chow down.
Because it’s time. It’s the right beer season.
Now that you’ve got Oktober covered, what are you going to be drinking in November?