GREG KITSOCK It was mid-August. Air conditioners were set on overdrive. And in the supermarket aisle, I stubbed my toe on a stack of Samuel Adams Octoberfest six-packs.
Oktoberfest? In August?
Welcome to "seasonal creep" in the beer world.
The Munich beer blast that celebrates this style started this year on Sept. 17. Most American versions of Oktoberfest take place later. The event that inspired it -- the 1810 wedding party for Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony -- is properly celebrated on today's date.
Premature Oktoberfest is a ritual that brewers ruefully call "keeping up with Sam." Sam Adams, that is (though he's far from the only culprit).
Jerry Bailey, president of Old Dominion Brewing Co. in Ashburn, bottled his Dominion Octoberfest in late July and shipped it to wholesalers the first week in August. Shelf space is tight, he said, and taps are even more precious.
"If you're trying to sell kegs of seasonal beers and you're not there with the first summer wheat beer or Oktoberfest, you're dead," Bailey says.
Craft beer -- that is, beer made without corn or rice and with more flavor than the typical mass-market product -- is the hot commodity in the alcoholic beverage market. Sales growth is outpacing not just mainstream beers but also wine and spirits.
Oktoberfest is the most popular seasonal style of craft beer in America: Bailey estimates that his Dominion Octoberfest outsells his spring brew 4 to 1. But it presents a narrow window of opportunity for the marketing department. "If it's not gone by mid-November, you're never going to get rid of it," says Bailey. And so players such as Sam Adams and the major imports buy a little extra time by rushing the season.
This seasonal creep is not ideal for the beer drinker. Oktoberfest beers are amber to copper-colored, fuller-bodied and sweeter than mainstream beers. They're great with a wide variety of foods, from chicken mole to wienerschnitzel to pizza. But they also contain 15 to 30 percent more alcohol than Budweiser, and you might not want to drink them after jogging in 90-degree weather.
Now that the weather is more appropriate for heftier beers, look for some store owners to knock a buck or two off the price of Oktoberfest six-packs to make room for the winter seasonals.
Here are my picks of the Oktoberfest lot:
Dominion Octoberfest is a copper-colored brew, a little drier and more hoppy than other versions of the style, with an appetizing, fresh-baked- bread flavor. The beer won a silver medal at last year's Great American Beer Festival in Denver, besting 51 competitors in the German-Style Maerzen-Octoberfest category.
What's Maerzen? The word means "March" in German, originally signifying a beer that was brewed in the spring and tapped to celebrate the fall harvest. Balto MaerzHon, a year-around brand from Clipper City Brewing Co. in Baltimore, pays tribute to the local dialect, where everyone is addressed as "Hon." The beer is light on the palate, with a pleasant caramel flavor, and it has a lingering sweetness.
Samuel Adams Octoberfest and Brooklyn Oktoberfest are smooth, drinkable, clean-finishing. Otter Creek Octoberfest, from a small Vermont brewery best known for its Wolaver's line of organic beers, is a ringer: It's fermented with an ale, rather than a lager, yeast. Its peppery, floral hop character comes from the liberal use of German "noble" hops.
Spaten Ur-Maerzen Oktoberfest from Munich tops the list of the imports. It's a rich honey-amber color, with a mouth-coating caramel sweetness and a roasty, nutty finish. The 600-year-old brewery numbers among its customers
Pope Benedict XVI, although the pontiff
reportedly prefers a different brand, Franziskaner Weissbier.
Greg Kitsock is editor of the bimonthly Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and senior editor of American Brewer magazine. He'll be writing about beer once a month for Food and can be reached at email@example.com.