Billed as the world's largest public festival, Oktoberfest kicks off this weekend in Munich, Germany. The first Oktoberfest held in 1810 turned into a 16-day party celebrating Prince Ludwig's October 12 marriage to Princess Therese in Bavaria. The event was deemed such a success, it was to be repeated every year thereafter. The clever Germans moved the start date into September in order to take advantage of better weather. While I love a good party as much as the next person, I have to confess that I'm not a huge fan of the Oktoberfest style of lager. I can appreciate the quality of these amber-hued, malt-driven brews, but I find most to be seriously hop-challenged. That said, here's my take on a number that are currently available in the valley:
Both Spaten Oktoberfest Ur-Marzen and Paulaner Oktoberfest Marzen Amber are the real deal and will be poured in the beer tents in Munich. The Spaten is exceptionally smooth and well balanced with a nice citrus zing playing against the racy malt. It's soft on hops, giving just the slightest bite to this appealing brew. Spicy malt and a light hit of hop aromatics mark the Paulaner. There's not a hint of bitterness from those hops, but they do have a drying influence that helps to balance the sweet malt. A nice round finish with lightly toasted grain adds texture and flavor to make this one worthy.
The East coast's Sam Adams Octoberfest eschews the "k" but is otherwise true to the style. Very soft hops lurk in the background in this sweet malt that is laced with an intriguingly creamy hit of ripe orange. This richly flavored beer has an admirably clean finish that lingers nicely. The Widmer Brothers Okto Oktoberfest is the only ale in this group of lagers, but flavor-wise it's completely true to the Munich prototype. A good body characterizes this malty brew with the typically subtle hops, but a nice dry graininess balances things out. Not as big as the Sam Adams, it has a pleasant bit of spice that comes through on the citrusy finish.
While the Mendocino Oktoberfest Lager provides ample rich and creamy malt flavors on the palate, you can actually taste the hops. Nothing overly bitter, but they provide the kind of balance I crave in my beer. Light citrus also comes into play, along with a nutty caramel quality that is especially noticeable on the very smooth finish. It may bend the Oktoberfest model ever so slightly, but, to my taste, that's a good thing.