Hark, fine denizens of the DMV, Octoberfest season is upon us! This time of the year conjures up images of perfect early fall afternoons, Americans in poorly fitting lederhosen, giant pretzels and sausages, and copious amounts of beer steins filled with (hopefully) copper-gold to amber lager. It is also one of the favorite times of the year for your local crew of beer nerds, the writers, editors, and podcast hosts of DC Beer. In honor of all this, we got together with some of our nearest and dearest to blind taste test our way through ten local Oktoberfest offerings and ponder the deep questions of life. Do wings or pretzels and beer cheese go better with marzen? What makes a good festbier? Can there be a “best” festbier or is subjective taste the only real truth any of us can aspire to?
Marzen or Festbier?
When most of us think of Octoberfest beer in America, we think of an amber lager with some breadiness and caramel sweetness, relatively light in noble hop character. This traditional style of Octoberfest beer often features a healthy amount of darker Vienna malt. The style, known as “marzen,” was traditional brewed in the month of March, hence the name, and then lagered until Octoberfest began in late September. However, the modern festbier served in Munich and throughout Germany today is quite different. Usually, golden to copper in color, this beer has a bready and slightly sweet graham cracker flavor, but with none of the lingering caramel sweetness of a marzen. It also has a stronger hop aroma and some noticeable bitterness in the middle of the tongue, before finishing dry and crisp. The Benediktiner Festbier and Rothaus Eiszäpfle are two great examples of this modern version. During the course of the blind tasting we mostly had marzen, as that is what American craft brewers tend to make for Octoberfest.
The Moment of Truth!
A great beer is both a sensory experience and subjectively enjoyable. With that in mind we looked at the tangible categories of aroma, appearance, mouthfeel, and taste; half the possible points for each beer were assigned to “overall impression.” The top three beers were Union Craft and Manor Hill Festbier (separated by 2/10ths of a point), followed closely by Silver Branch Octoberfest. Union Craft’s festbier is slightly lighter in color than the other two, but all three hew to the amber side of the color spectrum. Union Craft won because the crowd thought it had the best appearance (super clear with a beautiful golden amber color), mouth feel (starts off full and finishes crisp and clean), and taste (bready, caramel, graham cracker, malty, slightly bitter balance). However, Silver Branch’s third-place finish came about because its combination of qualities gave the best overall impression, despite not finishing at the top in any of the sensory categories. Port City Brewing was close as well.
Other accolades to consider, courtesy of Mike Stein are:
Palest Festbier: Atlas Festbier German-Style Lager
Darkest Oktoberfest: DC Brau German-Style Oktoberfest Lager
Hoppiest aroma: Dynasty Fest Märzen Style Amber Lager
Hoppiest in the glass – Manor Hill Festbier Vienna Lager
Two-way tie for poshest: Väsen Festbier
Two-way tie for poshest: Elder Pine Festival Lager German-Style Festbier
Three-way tie for frugality: Port City Oktoberfest Märzen-Style Lager
Three-way tie for frugality: Union Fest Beer Oktoberfest Lager
Three-way tie for frugality: Manor Hill Festbier Vienna Lager
Bitterest according to Ms. Stein: Manor Hill Festbier Vienna Lager
Sweetest according to Mr. Stein: Solace Gute Nacht Märzen
Most Märzen according to Steins: Silver Branch Oktoberfest Märzen
Best use of local malt: Dynasty Fest Märzen Style Amber Lager