Monday, September 14, 2015

Showdown! Oktoberfest beers

Oktoberfest may not be my favorite beer style, but I have fond memories of certain brews. Plus, their release traditionally rings in my favorite time of year – late summer/early fall. I thought it would be fun to have some friends over to judge a showdown featuring nothing but Oktoberfestbiers: six German and six American.
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There are six “official” breweries who each make a beer for the annual festival in Munich. Unfortunately, not all of them are exported to the United States. I was only able to include two of them in this showdown (denoted by the * in the list below). The other three were included because they market themselves as “fest biers.” All of the American entries were chosen for the same reason.

But here’s the thing about Oktoberfest beers: there are technically two different styles. The new 2015 BJCP Guidelines actually makes a clear distinction between the malty, amber “Marzen” style (6A) which is popular among American breweries and drinkers; and the lighter, golden, pilsner-like “Festbier” style (4B) of the Munich Six. As is the case with all my showdowns, I always tell the judges to grade to their personal preferences since none of us are BJCP certified judges (not yet, anyway). If a beer markets itself as an “Oktoberfest” – whether it’s German or American – you, as a consumer go into it with an expectation. Most of us were not aware of the difference between the Marzen and the Festbier styles, so there was some confusion when certain beers were lighter than the rest. Once we realized they were of the “Festbier,” genre, we adjusted our opinions accordingly.
This is this order in which the beers were drank:
  1. Weihenstephaner Festbier
  2. Brooklyn Octoberfest
  3. Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest*
  4. Jack’s Abby Copper Legend
  5. Paulaner Oktoberfest Marzen
  6. Victory Festbier
  7. Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen
  8. Saranac Octoberfest
  9. Hofbrau Oktoberfest*
  10. Ballast Point Dead Ringer
  11. Dinkelacker Oktoberfestbier Marzen
  12. Samuel Adams Octoberfest
  • Though Paulaner is one of the six official Munich Oktoberfest breweries, this particular beer is not the one served there and is brewed for export only (their Oktoberfest Wiesn is the official beer, and it’s not that good IMHO).
  • The order rotated between German and American brews, but none of the judges seemed to pick up on this (if they did, they didn’t mention it).
  • Because these types of beers tend to be mild, each beer was taken out of the fridge about 30 minutes before it was to be tasted so the flavor wouldn’t be completely masked by the cold.
Here’s how they scored (from worst to first):

12: Ballast Point Dead Ringer
12 Ballast Point
This came as an absolute shock to me, since Ballast Point has been putting out some great beers lately. I dare say they’re one of my favorite breweries (both presently and all-time). I don’t know if I got a bad bottle or if this is how this beer is intended to taste, but there was no head, no carbonation, and it had an aroma and taste very close to cider (almost as if it was blended with cider). I thought perhaps the bottle was a 2014 edition, but the label clearly indicates it’s this year’s batch. I had never had this beer before, but I will buy another bottle and give it a formal review in a few weeks. Did anyone else feel this way when they drank this beer?

11: Hofbrau Oktoberfest
11 Hofbrau
While the previous entry was a surprise, this one was not at all. Hofbrau is one of the last of the major German breweries to still use green bottles in nearly every beer they package (at least the ones we get here in the USA). I reviewed this beer twice and I disliked it both times due mostly to the fact it’s skunky from the green bottle and that spoils the taste as well.

Nearly everyone mentioned on their scoresheet that it’s not the kind of taste they normally associate with an Oktoberfest, which is due to the fact it’s technically a “Festbier” rather than a true Marzen. Dustin and I both mentioned that it seems like a German-style pilsner with its spicy Noble hops and dominate pils malt flavor and high carbonation. Al called it an “Oktoberfest lite”. Though as not-good as Weihenstephaner was, it still scored over seven points higher than the Ballast Point (which really puts the mediocrity of the BP in perspective, eh?).

10: Dinkelacker Oktoberfestbier Marzen
10 DinkelAcker
Though this beer scored low, most of us said it tasted somewhere in the “okay” to “good” range. What held it back was the fact there was no foam, no carbonation, a mild aroma, and a dull mouthfeel. There were no off-flavors or other flaws like the previous two entries, but there was just nothing about this brew that really made it pop. Its distinguishing feature is the fact it has the longest, most ethnic name.

9: Saranac Octoberfest
8b Saranac
Good ol’ Saranac. I try to include them in nearly every “showdown,” but they tend to score below average in these blind taste tastes. I find that somewhat odd considering I usually like their offerings when I drink a full serving (I guess I attribute some cachet to this brand). Since the average score was 30.47 and this came in at 29.17, it was technically the last beer on the list to fall below the median grade. Interestingly enough, it tied with Paulaner for the best-looking beer at 2.5/3.

All six judges remarked on their scoresheets that the beer has a citrusy smell and/or taste. They’re probably using American hops because they’re presumably cheaper (in fact, I think nearly all the American versions are made with American hops). As an amber lager this isn’t bad at all, which seemed to be the consensus of the group, but it’s not what you really want in an Oktoberfest.

8: Jack’s Abby Copper Legend
8a Jack's Abby
Jack’s Abby is a fairly small brewery out of eastern Massachusetts that has been surging in popularity in recent years. They only brew lagers, so if any American brewery could do an Oktoberfest well you’d think it’d be them, right? Most judges remarked at how “Americanized” the beer seemed to be (keep in mind they did not know if the beer was American or German). At 30.67 this was just barely over the average score of 30.47. However, it also had the widest range of scores with 16 as the lowest and 40 as the highest! It’s a love it or hate it brew I guess.

7: Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen
7 Ayinger
When I was asking friends which German beers I should include in this showdown, every one of them suggested this. This is made by the brewery known for their famous “Celebrator” doppelbock, so it stands to reason they could make a good Oktoberfest too, eh? Glancing over the scoresheets, I see the word “light” appears many times. Light aroma, light flavor, light body, light hops, etc. But seeing as how this beer ranked among the middle of the pack, it’s not surprising that there’s not a lot of excitement for it one way or the other. All the scores – both individual components and overall – were fairly close with everyone agreeing that it was pretty much average in all aspects.

6: Weihenstephaner Festbier
6 Weihenstephaner
Much like the Hofbrau, this beer seems a bit closer to a pilsner than a traditional Marzen because it’s technically a Festbier. It also had a bit of a skunky scent because the bottle is more of an olive green than a true brown. But unlike the Hofbrau, Weihenstephaner Festbier actually does have a bit of noticeable caramel and other confectionery flavors, which are nice. Since this was the first beer tasted by the panel I expected it to benefit from an opening round bias. I’m not sure if that was the case and the skunkiness offset that, or if everyone genuinely thought this beer was only average.

5: Brooklyn Octoberfest
5 Brooklyn
This was the first American beer of the lineup and I immediately noticed a slight vegetal character. It was something I would notice in nearly every other American entry in the showdown. I’m not sure what accounts for it, though. It might have something to do with going from German to American and the different yeast strains and ingredients used. Thankfully, it was something I only tended to notice on the first sip and it would give way to all the genuine flavors in the palette. Everyone described this as sweet, except for me as I found it be rather dry and bitter. Looking through my archives, it seems I’ve never actually given this beer a formal review – I don’t know how that’s possible!

4: Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest
4 Hacker Pschorr
Though this placed fourth, I’m actually more impressed with the scores for this beer than I am with the third place beer. Every judge scored this a 30 or higher (30 is generally considered the dividing line between good and not-so-good beers on the BJCP spectrum). This has all the characteristics you’re looking for in an Oktoberfest beer – color, aroma, taste, drinkability, etc. Probably the only reason this didn’t score higher was due to the fact that it was a just a bit too mild for everyone’s preferences. Judges all seemed to remark that they liked it, but weren’t in a rush to drink more of it.

3: Paulaner Oktoberfest Marzen
3 Paulaner
It’s a little-known fact that Paulaner actually has two beers that are marketed as Oktoberfestbiers. There’s this one, which is the export-only, Marzen-style brew; and the Oktoberfest Wiesn, which is of the Festbier golden lager style. I’ve never been to Oktoberfest in Munich and I don’t know what German people think of this beer, but I’m surprised that this isn’t the real Festbier. It’s exactly what you expect and want in the style: beautiful amber color; a bready/malty aroma and taste with easy drinkability. I was a bit disappointed to see Chris and Dustin score it below a 30, but the rest of us thought it was pretty great. It was my favorite beer of the day.

2: Samuel Adams Octoberfest
02 Sam Adams
I had a feeling this beer was going to score high; in fact, I thought it would win Best in Show. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t like this beer: it’s got plenty of flavor for a lager, but not so much that it scares off the average Joe Six Pack type. I’m sure plenty of craft beer nerds are scoffing at its place on this list, but pretty much all the judges agreed it’s exactly what an Oktoberfest should be. Dustin said it best, “It has the elegant malt profile I expect in an Oktoberfest.”

Personally, I noticed a presence of American hops, though there was also a tasty coffee/chocolate character somewhere in there. It didn’t impress me as much as the Paulaner, but I’ll readily admit it’s good for the style. In fact, there’s a six-pack in my fridge right now.

1: Victory Festbier
1 Victory
Every other time I’ve hosted a showdown, I’ve usually liked the beer that scores the highest about as much as the rest of the panel. But for some reason I had quite a different reaction to this beer than everyone else. Much like the Brooklyn, I found the Victory had a bit of a vegetal character to it, though not nearly as bad. I noticed that faded after a sip or two and I began to get a lot of Brown Ale-like qualities of coffee and light roasted malt. I wondered if this was actually a brown ale fermented with lager yeast.
Clearly I was the odd man out, because as soon as the other five judges tasted their sample, their eyes lit up and everyone was smiling. It was the only beer of the flight that anyone asked if they could have more. Jason was able to correctly guess the identity of this right away; in fact, he was able to identify almost half the beers in the showdown despite the fact he didn’t know what any of them were going into it.
Judges’ Averages
Judges averages
The Leaderboard
Oktoberfest standings
How do you prefer your Oktoberfest bier: American or German? Marzen or Festbier?
What’s your favorite brand?
Have you ever been to Oktoberfest in Munich? What’s it really like?
Have you ever had an Oktoberfest/Marzen or Festbier that wasn’t made in either Germany or America?

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