Before we start, there’s one potentially confusing thing about Oktoberfest to clear up.
Germany’s largest folk festival, staged in Munich for a little over two weeks each fall, takes place mostly in September, running through the first weekend of October (somewhere in here, there’s a Jerry Seinfeld joke about “Septemberfest”). Given the penchant for American breweries to push seasonal releases to shelves early, you may very well find beers labeled “Oktoberfest” available for purchase starting in August.
Munich’s Oktoberfest started in 1810 and has grown into an event synonymous with massive tents, liter mugs, and the kind of conspicuous cleavage that shouldn’t, but does, make its way into tourist brochures. Six major German breweries are allowed to serve beer at the festival. The biggest tents have up to 10,000 seats, and, according to “The Oxford Companion to Beer,” around 6.5 million beers are served.
Another thing you should know: There isn’t really one Oktoberfest beer. Each participating brewery makes a slightly different festival brew. Those beers, malt-forward and light in color, may be wildly different from American versions of the same name. Oktoberfest is not so much a style as it is a mind-set, and is, in many cases, a marketing term.
Sierra Nevada used to make an Oktoberfest on a limited basis, available only at the Chico, Calif., brewery. This year, the American craft beer pioneer known for its pale ale decided to do something different, partnering with German brewery Brauhaus Riegele for a wider Oktoberfest release. Each year going forward, Sierra will pair with another German brewery to make its Oktoberfest. “We have a great respect for brewing tradition,” says founder Ken Grossman. “With Brauhaus Riegele this year, and with our future partners, we get to make excellent beer, share knowledge, and build friendships. It certainly shows that the spirit of craft beer is global and growing.”
Grossman travels to Germany several times a year, and he and the Sierra staff liked the boundary-pushing vibe they got from Brauhaus Riegele, which has a 600-plus-year history. Most of the recipe fine-tuning was done on the phone and via e-mail, with the German brewers traveling here to sign off on the final product.
“We knew we didn’t want to do kind of an Americanized version of an Oktoberfest,” says Bill Manley, a Sierra beer ambassador. “The version that [Brauhaus Riegele] brews is absolutely perfect. It’s one of the most perfect beers I’ve ever had.”
Sierra’s previous Oktoberfests were nontraditional, with tons of roasted malts. This one is closer to the marzen-style beers sold at the actual festival. An heirloom barley called Steffi, introduced by the Germans, adds a rich, crackery flavor, like saltines without the salt. The beer pours lighter in color than the Oktoberfest beers I’m used to and drinks easier. It’s not hard to envision spending a few hours under a tent putting back several of the brews. Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest ($10.25 for a six-pack) should be on shelves through October at Lukes Liquors, Rockland, 781-878-0226, and Gary’s Liquors, Chestnut Hill, 617-323-1122