US brewers look to Germany to give Oktoberfest ales a little more oompah

Visitors toast with beer on the first day of the 182nd Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, on Sept 19, 2015.
Visitors toast with beer on the first day of the 182nd Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, on Sept 19, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

(THE WASHINGTON POST) - Oktoberfest officially begins on Sept 16 in Munich when the mayor taps a ceremonial keg at noon. Over the next few weeks, bars and beer gardens around the world will be full of customers hoisting giant one-litre steins of German beer and bellowing their way through Ein Prosit.

At its best, maerzen - the style most associated with Oktoberfest in the United States - is a gorgeous amber-coloured harvest ale, with a toasty malt backbone and a dry finish with a kiss of spicy hops. On a crisp autumn afternoon, it is bliss.

When you are toasting with friends at an Oktoberfest party, you are probably not paying too much attention to what is inside the glass, and that can be a good thing: Many Oktoberfest-style beers made by U.S. craft breweries miss the mark.

All too often, they veer to the sweeter side of the spectrum: caramel malts and sticky toffee flavours. And that does not do much for a style that is already traditional to the point of conservative and boring. I once hosted a blind tasting of American and German Oktoberfest lagers. Midway through, the entire crowd was complaining that all the beers tasted the same. They weren't wrong.

Maerzens are not IPAs or saisons, which allow you to fundamentally change the recipe with varied hops or malt and then try to convince consumers that it is still the same beer. And in a state that is still ruled by the 500-year-old Reinheitsgebot purity law, which limits beer ingredients to barley, hops and water, traditions are hard to change.

Since 2008, Max's Taphouse in Baltimore has thrown a three-day German Beer Fest over the opening weekend of Oktoberfest. Bob Simko, the food and beverage director at Max's, says that by the end of the weekend, 80 to 90 German beers will have appeared on the bar's 102 taps. Of the 71 beers on the first draft of the menu, only 11 are Oktoberfests or festbiers.

"Everyone at this time of year wants to try the Oktoberfest beers," Simko says. "They're definitely more user-friendly than the goses and rauchbiers," but they represent only a fraction of the beers poured during one of the bar's busiest weekends of the year, and "user-friendly" is not exactly a glowing compliment.

So how do you make Oktoberfest beers interesting and relevant 176 years after they were introduced in Munich? For some U.S. craft brewers, the answer is looking back across the Atlantic.

For the past three years, Sierra Nevada has worked with a different small Bavarian brewery - Riegele, Mahr's Brau and Faust, known as Miltenberger in the United States - to create a one-time-only collaboration beer.

"Over the years, the Oktoberfest style has gotten muddied," says Bill Manley, a Sierra Nevada beer ambassador who works on the brewery's product development team. "It's veered from the style of what's served in Bavaria. (American Oktoberfests) are much darker, much sweeter. In Germany, the beers tend to be golden and don't veer into these sticky-sweet toffee flavours."

Sierra's ties to Germany run deep - founder Ken Grossman has visited Germany "dozens of times" over the years, Manley says, and Scott Jennings, the head brewer at Sierra's North Carolina plant, studied at the prestigious VLB brewing school in Berlin. But each collaboration brings discoveries. "There are literally hundreds of different ways to approach the style," Manley says, notwithstanding brewing philosophies. "Some brewers have been really adamant about ABV (alcohol by volume), or 'it has to be this ending gravity or it will be ruined!' "

In 2015, Riegele introduced Sierra's brewers to a heritage strain of German barley called Steffi, which Manley calls "super complex, almost crackerlike." (It has appeared in every recipe since.) Last year, Mahr's Brau suggested brewing with Record, an herbal, "vaguely minty" European hop that has not been widely used for decades. This year, when brewer Cornelius Faust and his team came to North Carolina to make the beer, they proposed krausening, a technique that involves adding fermenting wort to a tank of lager that has finished fermentation.

"It adds bubbles and roundness to what on paper should be a really singular beer," Manley explains, and provides an extra sparkle to a well-balanced and very drinkable festbier - possibly the best one yet.

While Sierra's transatlantic collaborations have been based on cultural exchange, Otter Creek's new Oktoberfest is more of a celebration. Last summer, the Vermont brewery installed an enormous 120-barrel brewing system - the largest in the state - built by Germany's BrauKon. Beyond building brewing components, BrauKon also operates an experimental brewery, called Camba Bavaria, in the Chiemgau region of southern Germany.

"We were trying to figure out a fun way to work with those guys," says Otter Creek marketing director Jed Nelson. "We've done a ton of collaborations in Vermont and across our distribution footprint, but we'd never done an international collaboration before."

Otter Creek had made a fairly standard sweet Oktoberfest beer in the past but had dropped it from the lineup before Nick Smith became the brewer. Still, he says, when working with a German brewer, it was an obvious choice.

"My heart is in the maltier styles," Smith says. "We've been doing really hop-forward beers instead of malt-focused beers, so this was different. It gave us the opportunity to get some spicy noble hops into the building."

Smith and Camba brewer Martin Simion shot emails back and forth about recipes, agreeing that it would use all-German malts and hops.

"Camba brought tradition" to the collaboration, Smith says. "Working with Martin, he kept me in line. It didn't go over the top."

The biggest change from a traditional recipe, Smith says, is that "we wanted to make the hop addition later, giving it a spicy back-taste without making it bitter."

Like a Bavarian Oktoberfest, Otter Creek's version does not hit you over the head with caramel. There is a noticeable nuttiness to the flavour, and the grassy, peppery hops come through.

These takes on Oktoberfest styles differ from most other lagers crowding the beer aisle at this time of year, but that is the point.

"It's really easy, when there is so much choice, to look past classic styles," says Sierra's Manley. "I think that's an oversight. People have the misconception that these styles are boring and don't have a lot to offer."

Leave it to German craft brewers to remind us what was so great about Oktoberfest beers in the first place.