A good Oktoberfest beer is clean with an elegant malty character, sweet but never sugary or cloying, with a toasty finish. Hopping is light, and if it shows at all, it should be the delicately spicy, floral flavor of European noble hops, not the fruity, resiny flavors of American hops. The alcohol is a bit higher than the 5 percent-by-volume benchmark for a lager, but it should never leave a hot taste in your throat. If you can’t enjoy it by the liter mug, it’s not a true Oktoberfest.
The Capitol City Oktoberfest on Saturday featured more than a dozen examples of the style. In a blind tasting conducted by several certified beer judges from the area, Hacker Pschorr (from one of six Munich breweries authorized to pour beer at the German city’s annual Oktoberfest) came in first. The crisp Dominion Octoberfest placed, despite being on the high end for alcohol. (“But 6 percent is a session beer nowadays,” quipped Casey Hollingsworth, vice president for sales and marketing.)
Vienna Lager from Devils Backbone Brewing Co. took third place. A Vienna lager is supposed to be a style in its own right, with a ruddier color, slightly lower strength and a drier flavor profile than an Oktoberfest beer. But the styles are so similar that segregating them is almost an exercise in hair-splitting.
My favorite: Sweetwater Oktoberfest from Northern Virginia’s Sweetwater Tavern chain. This batch was brewed by Brian Quann of Sweetwater’s Merrifield branch. “Every ingredient but the water comes from Germany,” observed Nick Funnell, the chain’s head brewer. He describes the German malted barley as “chewier” than the American equivalent, “bready and rich,” but not grainy or husky. Quann uses Northern Brewer and Hallertau Hersbrucker hops. The latter hops impart a slightly grassy touch to the finish, although Funnell notes that “we dropped the third hop addition because it was adding too much bitterness.” Alcohol is a moderate 5.3 percent. The beer undergoes 10 weeks of lagering, an extravagant amount of a time for a brewpub where turnover is high and fermentation space at a premium.
American brewers are kicking the style up a notch. Prosit! from Heavy Seas in Halethorpe, Md., and The Kaiser from Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo., are examples of imperial Oktoberfest, with elevated alcohol and malt content.
The evening after the Capitol City Oktoberfest, I uncapped a bottle of Danktoberfest, a limited release from Sweetwater Brewing Co. This Atlanta-based regional craft brewer is no relation to the Sweetwater Tavern chain — in fact, the two got into a tussle over trademark issues about a decade ago.
The Atlanta Sweetwater doesn’t market beer north of the Carolinas, but a bottle of Danktoberfest is worth seeking out if you’re on a road trip down south. It has a sweet, pleasant toffeeish flavor that segues into a very dry, bitter hop finish. The beer hides its 8.5 percent alcohol content well. Just to be safe, though, share your 22-ounce bottle with a friend.