Oktoberfest comes early: A taste test of three popular variations

Like Halloween candy in mid-August and Christmas decorations in October, nothing prematurely announces the change in seasons in the beer world like the year’s first Oktoberfest. It’s even more jarring in a year like this one, where temps are dipping below 80 for the first time since all of that Summer Shandy showed up on shelves back in May.

Honestly? I don’t care about the seasons. Bring on the Oktoberfest.

The Oktoberfest we see in stores in our area goes by two names: Oktoberfest and Märzen. To distinguish the lineage and style-differences between regional Märzen styles requires both an advanced degree in beer history and a near-native knowledge in the German language. Suffice it to say, we can assume Oktoberfest beers are both a celebration of the changing season and a nod to German beer heritage.

The beer itself is often secondary to the festival that bears the same name. While we in South Dakota have a pseudo-Oktoberfest in the annual Germanfest, the folks in Minnesota go a bit more traditional with Oktoberfest in New Ulm - and a bit more non-traditional with Surly Brewing’s annual SurlyFest.

Meanwhile, in Munich, the official and original Oktoberfest is a 16-day festival that stretches across the end of September and the beginning of October. It is an unofficial celebration of the Reinheitsgebot - the “German Beer Purity Law” - which dictates that beer can only contain water, barley and hops (with an unspoken agreement that, yes, yeast can also be part of the mix). It’s also an unofficial celebration of the general notion of “excess,” with over 7 million liters of beer served during the festival.

Oktoberfest in Munich serves beer from several area breweries, forming a similar-but-different mix of German’s best. Back in the states, every brewery seems to want to jump into the Oktoberfest game. I, like I assume many others, have a hard time determining the subtle differences between similar styles when tasted on their own. If I’ve just finished a stout, or if I’m simply thirsty and cracking open my first beer of the night, an Oktoberfest tastes like, well, an Oktoberfest. Some may be clearly horrible, and some may be clearly wonderful, but for the most part my imperfect palate regards them with the same profile: sweet, toasty and crisp.

With this in mind, I wanted to do Oktoberfest right. So I commissioned my wife and our friend to do a little bit of side-by-side Oktoberfest tasting. We grabbed three of the more prominent Oktoberfests - from Summit, Schell’s and Sam Adams - and we blind tested the three beers.

"HEY YEAH BUT WAIT A MINUTE."

Yes, reader?

"IF YOU’RE GOING TO DO OKTOBERFEST RIGHT, WHY ALL THE AMERICAN BEERS?"

Well, because I shop at HyVee, and because I love Minnesota craft brew. Also: it would seem obvious that the German Oktoberfests would blow the others out of the water, so I wanted a fair fight between some easily accessible beers.

We started with Schell’s, which is a usual favorite of mine. Tonight, however, certain bottles were marred with a metallic taste that brought to mind less-than-savory bottling conditions. This is the second time in recent memory that my Schell’s has been more metallic than I’d like. Metal status aside, the beer had both more caramel and a touch more bitterness, with a floral tone that made us assume Schell’s ups the hops from a traditional Oktoberfest.

In comparison, the Sam Adams selection was more flat and less subtle. It was more syrupy, which is the reason it took me so long to get around to appreciating the Oktoberfest style, and seemed like an also-ran in comparison with the two Minnesota breweries.

Summit’s Oktoberfest - the only one to claim Märzen-style status - dropped a much more refined and complex taste onto our plates, with a nuttier flavor and respectable sweetness. This seemed almost dry compared to the stickiness of both Schell’s and Sam Adams. I’d buy it again in a second.

The winner by far was the Summit, with Schell’s coming in a close second and Sam Adams falling to the bottom. This was, however, nowhere NEAR a complete analysis of the style. Some other notes on various Oktoberfests, of which there are seemingly billions: * I tried the Shiner Oktoberfest a few weeks back. It was highly carbonated and thin - not at all what I expected. * It’s not released until their annual festival, but Surly from Minneapolis brews a Surly-style take on the Oktoberfest: SurlyFest. It’s not technically even in the Oktoberfest style (it’s listed as a Rye Lager) but it’s still a great addition to the Oktoberfest tradition. * I haven’t seen it in Sioux Falls yet, but Brooklyn Brewery’s Oktoberfest was one of my favorites last year, though it seemed like very few people agreed with me. * Leinenkugel has an Oktoberfest, but I’ve lost complete faith in that brewery’s ability to do anything worthwhile anymore. I’ve never tried it, but every review says it’s one of the least inspiring.

Sure. It’s probably too early to get excited for fall beers. But, like Halloween candy in August, or conversation hearts in January, there’s something comforting about settling into a seasonal routine, no matter how early it comes. Here’s to Oktoberfest, even if in my house it’s something more like Augustfest.