Oktoberfest is not only a huge deal in its native Germany but has taken on a big following with craft beer drinkers in the US in recent years. While restaurants like The Berghoff and The Brauhaus have hosted yearly Oktoberfest celebrations here in Chicago for many years to celebrate their German roots, we’ve also seen a lot of local smaller breweries starting to join in on this tradition. For instance, Rodney’s favorite Buckledown Brewing hosted their first Oktoberfest festival this past weekend. Even if the brewery itself isn’t hosting a full-on festival, it’s almost a given that there will be a special release beer for the season!
The traditional beer of Oktoberfest is a Märzen, which of course happens to be our category of the month for September. To refresh your memory, a Märzen is a smooth, amber, bottom-fermented lager with a malty sweetness and a smooth dry finish and little hop aroma. März is March in German, and this beer was historically brewed in March and lagered in cold caves over the summer months. Today a different, lighter beer called Festbier is served during the festivities in Germany but that’s a story for another day.
In light of this Märzen and Oktoberfest explosion, Beertasteslike decided to have our own little Oktoberfest celebration! We got a bit overzealous and ended up with so many beers that what was going to be a casual get together expanded into a blind tasting and boy oh boy were we all surprised by the results.
First, let’s set the stage with the tasters. They were Adam, Joanna, Rodney, Rodney’s wife Sarah who happens to hate lagers, and our friend Russell. Russell’s girlfriend Ming was kind enough to volunteer to pour the beers and run the “blind” part of the tasting. Basically, she poured and handed us our beers all night so thank goodness we had her there! She recorded all the numbers and pours as well. Thanks, Ming!
Before we get to the beers, let’s go through the food spread. If we were going to drink 13 beers, we were going to have to put some fuel in the tanks! I made some awesome pretzels, beer cheese, honey mustard sauce and sauerkraut with onions and bits of caramelized kielbasa. I purchased some dill pickles from my local Polish store as well as some fresh baked crusty rolls. Rodney made some brats in the crockpot with onions and beer as well. Sarah also made a fabulous pumpkin quickbread with chocolate chips. We were more than set for the night!
First, we lined all the bottles up to check out our haul. We decided to look over the labels and talk about our favorites. How would our favorite labels stack up against the blind tasting results? Most had the traditional blue and white colors or checkered theme somewhere on the bottle or can, but also stuck within their brand standards, such as Surly, Left Hand, and Revolution. The Two Brothers label employed the colors, but left the rest of the branding alone. Sierra Nevada used the checkered background, but the colors and illustrative elements are autumnal; oranges and browns instead of blue and white. Great Lakes did the same, going with simple illustration of two large beer steins in warm colors. The rest of the label is black with the updated Great Lakes logo. Half Acre’s Lager Town label also stayed away from the blue and white combination in favor of darker colors, but portrays characters and scenery inspired by a traditional woodland German scene.
An overall favorite with many of us, the New Glarus label may be the simplest stylistically but also one of the strongest images in the lineup. New Glarus always kind of marches to their own drum because they don’t really compete with anyone else. Sarah, a marketing professional, noted that the Two Brothers label was her favorite because it’s true to the brand but also true to the Oktoberfest theme. I tend to disagree because I personally don’t love the newer Two Brothers labels in general because there’s just too much going on for my tastes. I also really love the Lager Town illustration and label because I appreciate the creativity and the metallic ink on that label is gorgeous! We also chose the Metropolitan label as one of our favorites because it’s quirky but still elegant, and again, really nicely printed.
We also had two traditional German Oktoberfest beers in the mix, Ayinger and Spaten. The Spaten label is easily the most traditional looking, oval with the checked background and Gothic lettering on a shield with a crest. The Ayinger label is actually pretty subdued in comparison to the rest. Nothing super special here, no checks, no blue and white! There are some great design choices throughout this entire set of beers. Now let’s see how the actual products stood up in the tasting.
Each of us had our own tasting glass for this part, so we got about a 2-3 oz pour of each beer. The glasses were rinsed thoroughly between each pour and we were not allowed to see which beer was coming. Each person took notes in their own way (Rodney had a 57 point rating system – that’s an inside joke) on each beer. We didn’t share our opinions during the tasting so that we wouldn’t influence each other. After taking a few food and water breaks, we came back together to share our results.
Each person put their beers in order from 1-13, and then we assigned points to each beer. (Your #1 beer would get 13 points, your #13 beer gets 1 point.) That means, each of the 13 beers would have five different scores to tally, and that sum would be it’s final ranking. The beer with the most points would be our top Oktoberfest beer, and so on from there. It sounds more complicated than it was, although I was super confused because it was midnight and I was tired and half in the bag!
Here are our results, from “best” to “worst”:
- Buckledown Brewing Oktoberfest
- New Glarus Staghorn
- Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest
- Left Hand Oktoberfest
- Urban Chestnut Oachkatzlschwoaf
- Great Lakes Oktoberfest
- Ayinger Oktoberfest
- Two Brothers Atom Smasher
- Half Acre Lager Town
- Surly Fest
- Revolution Oktoberfest
- Metropolitan Afterburner
- Spaten Oktoberfest
Whaaaaaaaat?? It’s safe to say that we were all pretty stunned by these results. Some of our favorite breweries were at the bottom of this list? Seriously!? Let’s talk about some of these results and what influences how we taste and perceive different beers.
Here are some notes on the top 5 beers: Buckledown without a doubt makes great beer, and that particular beer may have had an advantage of being incredibly fresh. They were hosting their own Oktoberfest celebration that same day, so Rodney picked up a growler just a few hours before we got together. I’m not sure that the New Glarus ranking even needs to be discussed since it’s New Glarus and they know what they’re doing – making amazing beer. Sierra Nevada just doesn’t make a bad beer, and this includes their Oktoberfest. The Left Hand came as a bit of a surprise to us all, even though we do all enjoy their beers. Urban Chestnut makes fantastic German style lagers, so we were all expecting them to place highly in the final ranking.
But what about the bottom 5?! Shocked may be kind of an understatement here. The very bottom beer is THE Oktoberfest lager! But it was skunked and it was severely off – tasting notes that we all had on our cards. At final evaluation, we noted that this beer comes in a green bottle. Green glass doesn’t protect against the effects of UV and the light certainly did its work on this one. The Metropolitan placing was another really surprising final ranking. Adam and I had the Afterburner both on tap a few nights before and then in the bottle at home and we really enjoyed it. The Revolution is widely enjoyed as is the Surly. We also love drinking the Half Acre Lager Town every year. So, what happened here overall? Is this a testament to the power of opinion and marketing? Do we favor certain beers and breweries and then beers just because we do? How much does that label really influence our taste buds? When we stack them up against a number of other beers, how do they really rank?
There are a number of other factors to think about here too. None of us can be considered professional beer tasters in the least. Adam is the only Cicerone Certified Beer Server among us, and some of his rankings were significantly different than other the tasters’. Does that make a difference? Were our palates fatigued by the end of the night? Maybe, maybe not. The 3 BTL-ers do our fair share of tasting and comparing notes.
Ultimately, this was a fun exercise for us to get together and celebrate the season and the style. In the end, it did give us a lot to think about in terms of beer, design, marketing and how all those things work together which is always a fascinating dialogue.
In conclusion, the only beer that was truly bad was the Spaten because it was skunked to hell. All of the other beers are really great examples of the Märzen and Oktoberfest-style beers that are available locally here in the Chicagoland area and beyond, in some cases. You should try any and all that you can get your hands on at your local bottle shop or bar that has them on tap!