Oktoberfest is just about here, so this is a good time to review some of the specialty seasonal beers brewed and marketed for this particular time of the year. For this review I grabbed some samples from the local Hy-Vee grocery store. I love how they let you build your own six pack of singles for $8.99. As with my last round of Oktoberfest beer testing in 2011, I chose beers that were being marketed specifically as Oktoberfest beers.
Historically, the German Oktoberfest actually begins in late September and ends on the first weekend in October. It originally ran in October but everyone agreed that Bavaria gets cold in October so the festival was moved into September even though the name did not change. Since its inception in 1810, it is held annually in Munich and attracts more than six million visitors and claims some sort of title as the world’s biggest festival.
Leinenkugel’s Okotberfest is a German-Style Marzen. The color was a deep pumpkin yellow-orange color and it poured with slightly less than one inch of head. This beer had an average amount of carbonation. The head dissipated quickly. The first taste was crisp and effervescent on the tongue. There was a solid malt flavor with some hop bitterness on the back end. This was a brighter and somewhat more bitter beer (a relative term with this group) that was very drinkable. After that there was that peculiar toasted malt and nut or bread taste I’ve always associated with this beer. It was not unpleasant, just unusual. Leinenkugel is usually one of the better beers offered at the Des Moines Oktoberfest each year.
Samuel Adams Octoberfest beer is described as a Lager brewed with five varieties of malted barley and Bavarian Noble hops. Like the Okto and Leinenkugel, the color had a slight pumpkin orange tint to it. When poured, it developed a bit more than one inch of foam. There was a sweet malt taste, not all that much hop bitterness, and a bit more malt on the back end. The balance between malt and hops didn’t seem quite as pronounced as in previous years.
Unlike the other beers in this roundup, the Hofbräu Oktoberfest is a golden bottom-fermented lager. This is described as the same brew that the Hofbräu serves in its own Oktoberfest tent in Munich. Hofbräu is the beer from the original Hofbräuhaus in Munich. This history of the Hofbräuhaus is quite amazing. I highly recommend that you read it here and here. It began in 1589 as a royal brew house for the King’s household and was opened to the public in 1828. The current beer hall was built in 1897. Missing from the official websites are some additional facts, including the story that Mozart composed the opera Idomeneo after a drinking binge at the Hofbräuhaus. Lenin reportedly planned the Russian Revolution while living in Munich from 1900 and 1913 and spent time drinking beer at the Hofbräuhaus. The Hofbräuhaus gained more infamy when a few years after Lenin left to start his revolution and Adolf Hitler showed up with his brownshirts in 1920 and forged the Nazi party right in that same beer hall. Even though he was a teetotaler, he was a constant figure at the beer hall pouring his evil invective against Democrats, Marxists and Jews. Twenty four years later, Hitler gave his last public speech commemorating an anniversary of having made some speech in the beer hall but by 1945 the Allies were dropping bombs onto the Hofbräuhaus with such frequency that Hitler stayed in his bunker in Berlin and skipped his final anniversary speech. So, when you tip back that Hofbrau, there is a lot of history there. The beer itself poured the largest head of any of this year’s roundup beers. There was a fair amount of carbonation, a hint of yeast and hops on the front with a very flavorful and drinkable malt taste to the beer. The color of the beer was considerably lighter than the others, with a fizzy golden color. This was actually our favorite of the five Oktoberfest beers that we tried, historical complexities be damned.
Goose Island’s Oktoberfest beer is another traditional Märzen style beer like the Leinenkugel. The beer color is similar to the Leinenkugel and Samuel Adams offerings, being a deep pumpkin yellow-orange color (the website calls it copper). The head was the smallest of the different beers we tried and went away fairly quickly. There were no discernible hops in the taste, but the beer was super smooth with a creamy texture and a malt flavor that was quite nice if that is what you are looking for. I prefer just a tad bit more spice and bitterness to the beer to get it to punch that taste out. Goose Island is now a couple of years into its Anheuser-Busch ownership. Most of the reviews so far suggest that the market leader is keeping a hands-off approach when it comes to the beer, though some of the different bottlings have been moved to AB facilities around the country.
The last and final beer in our Oktoberfest taste test was Widmer Brothers’ Okto Festival Ale. The color was a medium amber color, lighter than the other American beers we tried but much darker than the Hofbrau. One inch of foam rose during the pour. There was a very round feel to the beer on the tongue and the aroma was quite different, floral and hoppy at the same time. This was not a super malty beer, and it had a slightly bitter aftertaste imparted by the hops. This was a good beer, even if it was very different than the others we tried.
I thought that the most balanced beer from our taste session was the Hofbräu Oktoberfest with the Octo and Leinenkugel hot on its heels. It really depends, of course, on what you want in a beer. I hope that this list helps, but be sure to try some yourself.