According to The Oxford Companion to Beer, in 1553 a Bavarian ordinance decreed that beer be brewed only between September 29 and April 23. Thus beer consumed in September and October would often have been brewed in March—or in German, “März,” which still gives a particular style of lager its name. Interestingly, at least to me, the lower fermentation temperatures employed by Bavarian brewers near the German Alps, who used cellars or caves to lager their beers in the summer months, resulted in the inadvertent selection of strains of cold-tolerant, slow-working yeast centuries before the science of microbiology existed.
Anyway. Oktoberfest lagers are traditionally Märzenbiers; strictly speaking, they must come from one of six designated brewers in Munich and conform to the Reinheitsgebot (aka the German Beer Purity Law). Obviously the term “Oktoberfest” isn’t policed too aggressively in this context, though, given the proliferation of Oktoberfest and Oktoberfest-style beers all over the States in late summer. For the past couple decades Europeans have preferred golden Oktoberfest lagers, but Americans expect an Oktoberfest to be richly toasty and deep copper in color, like the beer that made a sensational debut at the world-famous Munich festival of the same name in 1872 and dominated it for decades afterward.
Taking a hint from the fellows at Guys Drinking Beer, this year I observed Fall Beer Freedom Day—it’s the beer-nerd version of not wearing white after Labor Day, except in this case you don’t partake of Oktoberfests or pumpkin beers till then. (This is easy with pumpkin beers, because most of them are nasty.) Since FBFD I’ve tried ten Oktoberfests, though only one of them, Spaten, would qualify by the narrowest possible definition. I haven’t yet made it to the versions from Hinterland, Central Waters, Brooklyn, or Goose Island, or to the 5 Rabbit Vida y Muerte, though I’ve spotted them all around town. Great Lakes, Victory, and Ayinger were mighty fine. Left Hand was acceptable and Leinenkugel’s was way too butterscotch-sweet. The Sam Adams Octoberfest, which I drank at an office “happy hour,” was pretty mediocre, which makes me wonder if the corpocrats cheaped out and bought leftover bottles from last year’s batch—a friend with gold-plated taste buds has called it “one of the unsung heroes of American craft beer.”
So far my three favorites have all been local: Metropolitan‘s Afterburner, Revolution‘s Oktoberfest, and Two Brothers‘ Atom Smasher. Doubtless this is partly because I’m not sufficiently expert with German styles in their pure forms to be effectively snobby about how they’re “supposed” to taste. I’m sure it’s also partly straight-up Chicago chauvinism.
- Yes, I’m aware this isn’t appropriate glassware. For some damn reason I decided it was important that they all match, and this was the best I could do.
Unsurprisingly the three beers look alike, aside from extremely subtle variations in hue. The Afterburner runs a touch darker, and it’s the only one to leave any lacing on the glass. But in a dimly lit bar, you’d never be able to tell them apart using just your eye holes. Fortunately beer goes in the mouth hole, and these beers taste about as different as you could expect from three Oktoberfests.
The Atom Smasher, which spends some time in Two Brothers’ giant oak foudres, smells of roasted almonds, caramel, vanilla, leather, and bourbon. Tannins from the wood give it a sharper, winier flavor than a typical Märzen—underneath the usual toffee and toasted malts, I taste pear skin, oak, bitter orange peel, and celery. There’s even something faintly sour, which reminds me of jiuniang, a soupy Chinese pudding made by fermenting glutinous rice with yeast and koji. (How’s that for a comparison out of left field?)
Revolution’s Oktoberfest is the sweetest and easiest drinking of the three. I know this is gonna sound weird, but the dominant notes are rose, honey, and iced sweet tea, both on the nose and on the palate. The taste also includes maraschino cherry, sugar cookie dough, browned biscuit, stewed prunes, and candied orange peel, followed by grassy, spicy hops that have some of the pleasant prickliness of rye. That sweet-tea thing, though—I’m a displaced southerner, and it’s what keeps me coming back.
To return to the Afterburner: It’s the toastiest beer under consideration today, with the fullest body. It smells like barley tea (mugicha or boricha, take your pick), griddled brown bread, ground roasted sesame, and dry hay, with just a tiny bit of violet and jasmine curling around the edges. The toastiness keeps on coming in the flavor, mingling with burnt sugar icing, sweet orange, and floral custard (which I presume is the yeast). I especially like the way this lager finishes, with a crisp, peppery bitterness—by far the strongest hop presence on the table. Married with the malts, it does something that reminds me of very dark coffee. Afterburner has the biggest flavors, a few of which are heading in entirely different directions, but it succeeds because it yokes them together beautifully.
- The aftermath. You’d best believe I finished that Metropolitan. Aw, who am I kidding—I finished all of them.
Fortunately these beers are all still findable, though perhaps not as easily as they were earlier in the month. This past weekend I saw Atom Smasher on the shelves at In Fine Spirits, for instance, and Afterburner on tap at the Hopleaf and Jerry’s Andersonville. (I don’t mean to suggest that you won’t also see them further south. It’s just that I live in Edgewater.) And I know where there will be plenty of Revolution’s Oktoberfest: at the brewery’s Oktoberfest Party, Fri 10/4 from 6 till 10 PM in and around the Kedzie production facility and tap room (3340 N. Kedzie).
The $35 admission fee, payable only in advance and online, gets you a one-liter commemorative glass stein and a single beer ticket; you can either buy more beer tickets on-site or attempt to win them at an assortment of carnival games. (I’d recommend trying the games before you blow all your cash on beer and food—at that point they’ll be a lot more difficult.) Several Chicago beer characters will sacrifice their bodies to a dunk tank that benefits local nonprofit Concordia Place, including Adam Vavrick from Binny’s, Tracy Hurst from Metropolitan, Barnaby Struve from Three Floyds, and Josh Deth from Revolution. Three Chicago bands will play too: Meat Wave, Treasure Fleet, and all-female Kiss tribute Slutter.
Revolution will also make an appearance at Piece’s Oktoberfest party on Thu 10/3. And that same night at DANK Haus, Metropolitan, Revolution, and Two Brothers will all be pouring at Bridetoberfest, presented by the Chicago Green Wedding Alliance and the local chapter of Barley’s Angels. It describes itself as a “beer tasting for brides, grooms, couples of any description, and their friends, combined with a casual wedding event featuring eco-friendly wedding vendors and tips for creating a more mindful event.”
So! I’m sure you don’t need me to keep telling you about Oktoberfest parties. You can use Google just as well as I can. This seems like a fine time for my customarily awkward transition into the customary metal portion of the post. Let’s begin with the entirety of Atomsmasher’s 2000 self-titled LP for Hydra Head, from before they changed their name to Phantomsmasher. This demented experimental grindcore combines guitar, bass, and electronics from James Plotkin (Khanate, O.L.D., Jodis) with vocals from somebody calling himself DJ Speedranch (I think his real name is Paul Richard) and drumming from the estimable Dave Witte (Municipal Waste, Discordance Axis, Melt-Banana).
Next here’s Japanese trio Boris with “Afterburner,” from the 2006 album Pink. If you’d care to read a dizzyingly hyberbolic concert preview I wrote about the band back then, you can get there by clicking on their name. Fair warning—it includes the phrase “I’m gonna be mighty disappointed if these people aren’t literally shooting fire from their bodies.”
My last pick is a bit of a stretch, even by the standards of this column, but bear with me. The first Oktoberfest, held in Munich in 1810, celebrated the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I, to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. Ludwig I was the grandfather of Ludwig II, famous for the ornate fairy-tale castles he built and for his patronage of the arts—without his aid, Wagner almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to finish the Ring cycle. In English, Ludwig II is sometimes known as “the Swan King,” and as it so happens a Chicago metal band has taken its name from that epithet. This is “Flood Tactic” from the Swan King’s 2012 EP Pay to Pray.
PS: In case you don’t already know what the deal is with Oktoberfest and that white-and-blue diamond pattern that shows up on beer labels and posters and so forth, well, it comes straight from the lozenge variant of the Bavarian flag.
Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.