Fearful Symmetries

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18 October, 2016

A Final Wisconsin Oktoberfest With Addendum

Today will be my terminal tasting of Oktoberfests from Wisconsin breweries. By and large this year's crop has been disappointing. Words like "full" and "rich" were sadly inapplicable to most of these biers. At least one was laden with diacetyl – a big disappointment. But most were simply one dimensional, thin and watery with a touch of caramel sweetness and perhaps some hops.

There were, of course, many more homegrown Oktoberfests that I haven't tried than those that have crossed my lips. Amongst bottled brews are New Glarus, Ale Asylum, and Sprecher. Add to that those from brewpubs and I'm sure you've got quite a total.

I'm no statistician so I am not sure if 12-14 samples is representative enough of Wisconsin Okto-output to render a valid verdict for 2016. But as far as my tongue is concerned this year was simply disheartening. I'd like to be able to just put this episode behind me and wait for Wisconsin to shine with its Weihnachtsbiers but we don't really brew many of those. What is my state's preferred winter seasonal?

First up is the venerable Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company. I wrote about the special place in my heart for Leine's not too long ago. Having said this, their output is uneven. They brew some fine beers but they also brew liquids that are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the style listed on the bottle. It's like they're starter beers. They get you into the ballpark of what the style is about without ever going all in.

Will the same fate befall Oktoberfest?

It poured a deep gold which was something of a relief as I figured it wouldn't be overly sweet. Clear as day, I could see a fair number of bubbles rushing upwards to a big, frothy, white head that decided to stick around for a while.

As expected, my nose caught a bready smell first. It was joined by some tasty grassy hops. Sure, there was some caramel sweetness but, as the color foretold, it was rather mild. And really, overall, the aroma was pretty tame. Not bad, but certainly not an olfactory fanfare.

The taste was mostly more of the same. A restrained bread/biscuit maltiness bolstered by a touch of caramel sweetness. While the hops were grassy on my nose, they pulled a Jekyll and Hyde routine and took on a sharp herbal/spiciness on my tongue. Add in just the right amount of carbonation and you've got a nice little bit of zing going.

The malt fades at the end leaving that zesty hop flavor to come forward for a rather dry and bitter finish. My glass was left with some scattered patches of Schaumhaftvermoegen.

Leine's Oktoberfest was just about what I expected it to be – a Virginia Slims beer. It's got all of the Oktoberfest components but not enough of most of them. More malt flavor was needed in place of the hints of bread and biscuit here. I will admit, however, that I really like the hoppiness. Grassy to the nose but spicier on the tongue with a little bite. Really nice.

Junk food pairing: Pair Leine's Oktoberfest with something simple like potato chips and a bacon & horseradish dip.

This is really more of an addendum as the Old Style brand is, to the best of my knowledge, still owned by Pabst which is, in turn, owned by a "beer entrepreneur named Eugene Kashper and a private equity firm based in San Francisco. According to Wikipedia, anyway. And so, while Old Style is not a Wisconsin company, it is being brewed in La Crosse again at City Brewery, the former of of G. Heileman.

Old Style was very popular in Chicago when I was growing up there and when my friends and I would steal beer from our fathers' stashes, it was usually Old Style. (And sometimes Special Export or Hamms.) I don't have an affinity for the beer or the brand because of this but Old Style has a long history in Wisconsin and I think it fits the theme here, if only tangentially. Having said this, I see that the Old Style website plays up its (former?) popularity in Chicago heavily. "Chicago's beer" is everywhere. Oh well. Alia iacta est.

I haven't found any indication that Old Style used to brew an Oktoberfest while it was still brewed in La Crosse back in the day although G. Heileman may have under a different label.

As with the Leine's Oktoberfest, I didn't go into this with great expectations.

Old Style's Oktoberfest was amber in color which augured a sweeter bier. It was clear and, against all odds, I managed to pour a bier with a nice head. This was was firm and off-white and, happily, it lasted a while. There was a modicum of bubbles inside.

As was forewarned by the color, Oktoberfest had a not insignificant caramel sweetness to it that managed to somehow not lapse into being cloying. There was a little biscuit flavor as well as a healthy dose of peppery hops. The carbonation fell into the optimal range. And there was also this nebulous earthy/spicy flavor. The best way I can describe it is that it was as if they were going for that peppery flavor you find in some amber lagers such as Eliot Ness but couldn't quite get there. It wasn't unpleasant, really, it just malformed or perhaps undercooked.

For the finish the malt bid farewell leaving some peppery hops to do their thing. Here that meant a fairly firm dryness and attendant bitterness. Along the lines of a German pils, I'd say. Schaumhaftvermoegen was everywhere with streaks all around my glass.

With a medium body Old Style's Oktoberfest had a bit more heft than Leine's but this is purely because of the additional sweetness. What both biers had in common was a real lack of maltiness – especially the kind that doesn't taste like caramel. They were both thin and in need of more of a grainy foundation. The peppery hops in the Old Style were a pleasant surprise but they required more malt to play against.

Sadly, these Oktoberfests by larger, maybe less crafty, brewers are very much in line with those brewed by smaller, craftier ones.

Junk food pairing: Pair your Old Style Oktoberfest with some Doritos dipped in a vat of warm, gooey Velveeta cheese food product.

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|| Palmer, 4:47 AM


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