Fearful Symmetries

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04 October, 2015

Just Say Yes to Oktoberfest: Oktoberfest by Sierra Nevada und Brauhaus Riegele



The folks at Sierra Nevada have set themselves "on a mission to explore the roots of Germany’s festival beers" and so they will be pairing up with a different German brewer each year to brew an Oktoberfest. For the inaugural batch Sierra Nevada has collaborated with Brauhaus Riegele in Augsburg. Brauhaus Riegele was established some time ago. Indeed, at the time in 1386, the last white person to step foot on the North American continent was Leif Erikson.

About 150 years after Brauhaus Riegele came into existence the Märzen-Oktoberfestbier also came into existence. Bavaria introduced laws on at least two separate occasions in the 16th century regulating the brewing of beer during summer months. The first law or laws were put on the books in 1539 followed by a decree in 1553 which declared that beer could only be brewed from 29 September through 23 April. I'm not sure how the decree of 1553 differed from the laws on the books in 1539 nor am I exactly sure why the laws were enacted in the first place.

Some sources say brew kettle fires were too frequent in the summer months and so brewing was relegated to the other seasons during which the medieval Bavarian version of Smokey the Bear declared the fire risk to be low. Personally I think this is apocryphal. Methinks it's one of those goofy myths concerning the Middle Ages just like that one portraying medieval people as being too dumb to find potable water and so they drank beer and wine all day, every day.

More likely is the other explanation I've come across which is simply that beer spoiled in the summer's heat.

Regardless, a 16th century text refers to beer called the "Merzen" ("March") or "Sommer Byer" ("summer beer"). Brewers spent the final weeks of winter/earliest weeks of spring brewing beers that would spend months in either cellars or caves lagering away until the warmer weather hit when they'd emerge from their hibernation.

The ur-Märzens were dark beers and surely consumed during fall festivals. In the 1840s the style got a bit lighter as brewers, including Spaten's Gabriel Sedlmayr, began experimenting with new paler malts. In 1871 Spaten re-darkened the beer a bit and gave it the appellation Oktoberfestbier that we know today. There are six breweries in Munich that get to use the "Oktoberfest" appellation. Everyone else has to use Oktoberfest-style or Märzen. By the early 20th century the Oktoberfest was once again a dark beer. At some point in the 1990s the beer was considerably lightened but this version of the venerable style seems to be available at the Oktoberfest grounds exclusively. However, Paulaner did export some of the lighter brew to the States a couple years ago as Oktoberfest Wiesn.

As for how the taste of Märzens have changed over the years, I'm not sure. Ur-Märzens must have been smoky owing to malting practices in the Middle Ages. I'm sure they had a fair amount of hops in them as well to help them keep over the summer months but the hop flavors must have faded considerably by the autumn. My guess is that the style has always been malt-forward and was probably rather sweet until fairly recently. From what I can tell, American brewers today tend towards an amber-colored brew that is malty and often rather sweet. Some breweries, including Milwaukee Brewing Co., have opted to load their version of the styleup with hops.

Let's see how the Sierra Nevada/Brauhaus Riegele collaboration turned out. (Finally!)

It pours a light gold color – much more in line with Paulaner Wiesn instead of the more common amber color of American takes on the style. The beer was clear and my pour produced no head, which I found odd. Think of photos of dirndl-clad maidens carrying kurgs of bier at Oktoberfest. All the krugs have nice heads on them. I'd have thought the use of German Steffi malt would have guaranteed a big, foamy head. Must have been my poor pour. Still, the effervescence was evident with all the bubbles forming on the bottom of the glass and going up.

Oooh, the aroma was fine – it was mostly bread with a touch of sweetness in the background that was kind of like bread dough, honey, and/or stonefruit. This boded well for my dream of a malty, melanoidiny, Maillard reactionary barley nectar.

I was not disappointed by the flavor. Beer should be like this year-round. It had a nice medium body imbued with all the clean malty flavors I crave (most of them, anyway) – bread crust, toast, and yeast. While I'm not smart enough to know if I was tasting the bountiful harvest of actual Maillard reactions, I can say that I thought I was because the malt sweetness was quite subdued. Carbonation added a little acidic bite while also abetting the dryness of the spicy hops. This contrapuntal chorus made for a nice, but not overwhelming, contrast to the mellifluous malt backbone.

The beer finished dry with spicy/peppery hop bitterness lingering well after the beer had gone down into the old brooko. Alas and alack, my glass was left just a smidgen of Schaumhaftvermoegen.

Despite this beer being on the foam-challenged side of things, it was simply marvelous. It lacked the sweetness of many domestic Oktoberfests and really emphasized wonderful bready and yeasty flavors. Sierra Nevada says that it was looking to bring the "style back to its authentic roots". I suppose it depends on which roots they're talking about but the German hops and German grains, including the rather rare Steffi malt, certainly produced a fest bier that tastes much more like the Oktoberfests of Munich than most American versions of the style.

This collaboration with Brauhaus Riegele created a great beer that adhered to German tradition. It will be interesting to see with whom they partner next and if tradition will find itself tweaked a bit or perhaps even thrown out the window.

Junk food pairing: I will say it now and will say the same thing for all Oktoberfests: drink this beer with deep-fried cheese curds. There's just something about adding deep fried grains to liquid grains and how a dose of salt just brings all the grainy goodness alive in your mouth. Plus you get fat and cheese that has even more fat.

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|| Palmer, 1:59 PM

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