After more than a decade of beer writing, and at least double that span of generally being insufferable about beer to all in earshot, I am finally going to visit one of the Wonders of the Ancient Beer World. Odds are pretty good this is the first you’ve heard of their existence. Most have been lost to the ravages of time (not to mention how stingy those UNESCO World Heritage party-poopers are with the designation), but a few still persist. There are few more sacred than the Tomb of the First Guy Who Started Drinking From Ceramic Pots Filled With Waterlogged Grain In Desperate Search of a Buzz, though the Great Sphinx of Giza is a close second. It’s too weathered to make out now, but legend holds that the original edifice captured the face of pharaoh Khafre wincing after sampling history’s first milkshake IPA. Thankfully the Wonder I’ll be experiencing is as vital now as it was 209 years ago: Oktoberfest.
Fun Fact: Though Munich’s annual Oktoberfest is now synonymous with beer consumption, festival beer wasn’t served to the general public there until 1892. Prior to that, the highlights for most were horse races, agricultural shows, makeshift bowling alleys, swings, and, no shit, tree climbing. Needless to say, on the occasions where it was canceled due to the Napoleonic Wars or cholera outbreaks, there wasn’t a ton of push-back.
While only Munich-produced beers that conform to the stringent Reinheitsgebot (pronounced just like it’s spelled) brewing regulations can be served at the festival, I think it goes without saying that I have zero intention of holding myself to any purity standards during this trip. I’m going to drink every German and Czech beer I can get my grubby little fingers on.
This will be no trivial undertaking. As much as it pains me to admit it, even a journeyman liver like mine hasn’t been faced with beer consumption of that magnitude. It needs to be whipped into fighting shape. This may well be some of the most rigorous and inspirational sipping I’ve ever faced. (On a related note: To anyone out there considering producing a biopic based on my life’s work, I’d really appreciate it if this portion of it could be presented as a training montage set to the Rocky IV soundtrack.)
Funner Fact: If your cellphone is running low on battery, stream Survivor’s “Burning Heart.” It will gain no less than 5% charge from out of nowhere. Physicists cannot explain why.
As it happens, Burning Beard Brewing Co. has a ready-made dojo for me. Their OktoBEARDfest beer menu (September 16 -21) is a fantastic way to do circuit training on archetypical Oktoberfest styles and beyond, which I was fortunate enough to sample. Plus they have a jukebox, which can be helpful for individuals who definitely need to expand their musical touchstones beyond the Rocky franchise for once.
“Hammer of the Malts” – Festbier (5.9% ABV)
I prefer to dip my toes into the deviance pool rather than dive right in, so I opened with a largely Oktoberfest-compliant festbier. In recent years the Bavarian volkfest has favored this lighter bodied, crisper style over the bready märzen as the stein occupant of choice, and it doesn’t take more than a sip to see why. It has a tender, almost fluffy texture to the mouthfeel and light notes of caramel, but the finish counters with an appropriately old world hop character of white pepper and earthy herbs. The dryness of the finish really enhances its sessionability, a dimension that cannot be undervalued when living life by the liter.
“Lieber Augustine” – Vienna Lager (5.6% ABV)
Not only is the Vienna Lager not an Oktoberfest brew, one could argue it’s actually an English beer (depending on how historically pernickety you are). It shares an origin with the märzen in that they both were inspired by the British method of using convection to toast malts, which moderated the roast character and color imparted to it compared to kilning over fire. And by “inspired” I mean “entirely and unapologetically duplicated.” The brewer who brought it back to Vienna dubbed grains roasted with this new technique “Vienna malt” and the toasty lager that shares its name was the outcome.
Lieber Augstine (which, by the way, is a helluva historical reference if you’ve got a minute to have one of the Beardos behind the bar unpack it) expresses medium bread crust and caramel flavors with a subtle, but distinct citrus note in the finish. The additive effect of these sensations amounts to a lovely candied orange character that still manages to finish dry. It’s kind of a shame this beer wouldn’t be allowed past the Oktoberfest threshold, because it would make for a stunning culinary multitool – it’s as capable of cutting through the fattiness of knackwurst as it would be standing up to the tang of the neighboring mustard.
“Roggen the Lightning” – Roggenbier (5.5% ABV)
Though rye was a common malt in Bavarian beer until the 15th century, the aforementioned purity laws relegated it to baking fodder. Granted, there are worse fates in life than to become an integral component in a Reuben, but that’s cold comfort when you’re no longer invited to parties.
A comparison to pumpernickel bread is hardly surprising for a roggenbier. However, what makes this beer interesting is the way it uses that note as a stage for the neighboring flavors. It opens with a bright, almost tart fruitiness, which is immediately countered by a spicy black pepper and clove-y tone. It evolves considerably as it warms, so I suggest a tall enough pour to revisit it.
Normally I would unpack this liquid sonnet to the Fall season further, but Ladybeard Stephanie Laughery effectively nailed it in her description. “It’s just a beautiful marriage of deep, rich, luscious rye character and hefeweizen yeast,” she shared.
“Demeter’s Crown” – Dinkelweiss (4.2% ABV)
The only suitable follow-up to a beer that isn’t allowed to exist in Oktoberfest is one that barely exists at all. Demeter’s Crown is a Dinklelweiss, a style that should have persisted strictly on the merits of how fun it is to say. It is a kissing cousin of hefeweizen from the south of Germany, primarily employing spelt rather than the characteristic wheat malts.
While the Dinkelweiss can be enjoyed on its own merits, I strongly suggest experiencing it shoulder to shoulder with their Lo.Ki hefeweizen to really crystalize what differences that simple grain substitution makes. The spelt summons dried orange peel, potpourri, and fruit cocktail flavor layered atop a rustic, almost meaty character to the body. It has a ton of protein heft without tasting grainy, which is equally apparent by its unusually stoic and webby head. I’d wager Demeter’s Crown would be a peerless brew even if I had other Dinkelbiers to compare it to.
I can’t say for sure if all of this has readied me for the rigors of Oktoberfest drinking, but I do know one thing – when you get forwarded the viral video of the Munich tourist requiring rescue after their lederhosen snagged halfway through a drunken tree climb, you’ll know exactly who it was.