It appears that COVID is going rob us out of the full contingent of Oktoberfest parties that punctuate the fall season between now and the end of October. Traditionally – at least in Munich where the real deal takes place — O’Fest is celebrated between the second week in September and the first or second week in October. O’Fest is in full swing across the pond right now, having started exactly at noon on September 18, and ending on Sunday, October 3.
Prior to COVID, the multitude of events around our state provided Alaskans with an excellent reason and ample opportunity to party with beer as a central theme. In years past, I had to de-conflict multiple gigs that often overlapped, and since there’s only one me and I only have one liver, I had to make some difficult choices.
Despite our lacking as much opportunity to don dirndl, tracht and lederhosen, and twist to the chicken dance while sloshing around dimpled liter mugs with the pulsating enticement of polka from the tubas, trumpets and accordions of an oompah band egging us on, there’s ample opportunity to enjoy the traditional Marzen/Oktoberfest beer style that goes with the season. Many establishments aren’t throwing crowd-centric parties, but featuring the festive beer season with special O’Fest beers and food offerings to give us at least a full taste of the celebration.
First, the beer. An Oktoberfest beer is traditionally a malt-forward, cool-conditioned lager that pours squeaky clean, is typically red or sparkly copper (and can be even lighter) in the glass under a frothy white topper, and is accented by noble German hops that give the beer its signature spiciness and zest. Don’t get too hung up on style nuances and try to determine if the O’fest you’re drinking fits the style or not, it’s varied. The Brewer’s Association recognizes both American-Style Marzen/Oktoberfests and German-Style Oktoberfest/Wisens, but who cares? Just expect something clean, clear, malt forward, lighter and spicy for the celebrations.
For you IPA-heads out there, you’re in for a disappointment. Yeah, I used the “H-word,” or hops, but the O’Fest style is not metered with the bold hop aroma and flavor aggressiveness, or the often wrenching bitterness that goes with America’s favorite style of beer right now. I, for one, welcome the departure.
The hops in a good Marzen/O-Fest come across as subtle, both in aroma and flavor – which are dignified and elegant in this style, and are just balancing in terms of bitterness. Malts take center stage in this beer, and toasted bread or biscuit flavors a common. The beer ebbs toward the sweet side of the flavor spectrum, and expect a clean finish after the swallow. Although a party beer, Oktoberfest/Marzen is just north of sessionable in the alcohol department, and the traditional styles range between 5.1 and 6 percent alcohol by volume. I love the style.
Sure, you can go to any liquor store and find some O’Fest-inspired beer, but local is best and fresher, there’s a lot of it, and our breweries forever deserve your patronage.
Here are some examples of the beers that are starting to pour on the southcentral road system, but bear in mind, this list is not all inclusive; breweries are weighing in every day through the sudsy season, so keep your mug to the wall for new announcements every day.
Let’s start in the Valley.
You can’t go anywhere more consistently German themed on a year-round basis than Schwabenhof, the place I’ve affectionately called “the little rathskeller on the hill” right next to Bearpaw River Brewing Company’s location at Mile 6.5 on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway.
Strangely absent on social media is any reference to any big gig out there, and I get that, but no matter. The taps out there are always decidedly German with some of the best styles in the world pouring, but this year, add Palmer’s Lazy Mountain Brewing Company’s Schwabenbock to the draft lineup on the hill. The brewery’s describing this one as “a dark, robust & earthy seasonal lager,” that’s been brewed exclusively for the Schwab.
No, Schwabenbock isn’t outside of the style parameters; the earlier versions of O’Fest beers when the original O’Fest kicked off around 1810 were darker beers; they’ve just morphed into today’s lighter style over time.
At Bearpaw River Brewing Company’s new production facility on Railroad Avenue in Wasilla, Festbier release in the taproom on September 24, accompanied by fresh-baked pretzels. If you haven’t been to the new brewery out there (and may be used to the smaller brewery at Mile 6.5 on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway), it’s worthy of the road trip. Beer variety ate the bigger brewery continues to expand, but chasing down Bearpaw’s nod to the O’Fest style makes for a good excuse to get out there. Don’t discount the smaller location either, it remains viable and is where the creative juices flow and the fun beers emerge with a little more regularity.
Here in Anchorage, 49th State Brewing Company’s leading the pack with a September 2 (or thereabouts) release of their Oktoberfest Lager. This one’s a bit headier at 7 percent alcohol by volume, but in my book, that just makes it more fun. It’s traditional, so expect the style’s clean malt forwardness, and the biscuit and caramel flavors doing the oompah on your palate in this deep copper color lager that’s as snappy and crisp as an early winter day in September in Alaska. The downtown brewery’s got it on tap and to-go in cans. It’s available at Brown Jug locations, so grab some of this to go and celebrate the season with.
Midnight Sun Brewing Company’s Festbier Oktoberfest Style Lager is already pouring at the brewery, at discerning locations around town and can be had in cans from the brewery or the better grog shops around town, making for a great party to-go grab of the festive style.
Not that the others aren’t, but if you want the full-blown authentic stuff, Glacier Brewhouse’s annual nod to the season is brewed traditionally “using only the finest German Pilsner and Munich malts, along with very subtle German hops.” The beer’s already on tap, and although I haven’t had it yet this year, I find Glacier’s entrant one of the cleanest and closest to what I recognize in the style as any. This year’s version weighs in at a very sessionable 4.97 percent alcohol by volume, so when I get there, I can have more than one.
King Street Brewing Company always bangs out a very traditional Oktoberfest style, and it’s been pouring since the beginning of the season, is available on draft at the brewery, and in convenient take-away cans. It’s clean, it’s traditional, and it’s sessionable, making it an easy party-goer no matter where you end up if it’s BYO or you’re hosting a gig yourself.
For you Farbanksians in the north, your local HooDoo Brewing Company’s Oktoberfest is aligned with Munich’s, and started on September 19 and runs through October 4 this year. I think it’s totally cool that the HooDoo crew is always able to get Mayor Jim Matherly to bang the tap into the first HooDoo cask of Oktoberfest Lager every year, and this year was no exception.
I haven’t had this beer yet either – I really wish our distribution system got us more HooDoo Beer and other northern clime beers – but it’s described as having been brewed back in July in the most authentic German fashion, has been snoozing at 32 degrees since then and until being hauled out of the cellar for serving. It’s “malty, rich, and toasty,” and is available on site at the brewery and to go in kegs, growlers and four packs of 16-ounce cans.
HooDoo’s always been decidedly German-themed, especially at this time of year, and every Thursday through O’Fest, the “Mein Diner” food truck will be on site and serving their signature old world German specialty foods. If you want to go to were the dirndl is and engage in or start some impromptu chicken dancing with some excellent, authentic O’Fest beer, HooDoo’s the place.
Nearby, Lat 65 Brewing Company of Fairbanks is also featuring their own Oktoberfest/Marzen style, weighing in at 5.8 percent alcohol by volume and can be served in the .5 liter dimpled Lat 65 glass that you can take home (empty of beer of course) for $15.
Fairbanks’ Black Spruce Brewing Company’s Alasktoder Festbier is at the brewery and available in 16 ounce tall boy cans that I hope make their way down here to Los Anchorage to help spice up our celebrations.
Down on the Kenai Peninsula, Kassik’s Brewery released their Oktoberfest “early,” on October 14, and is now on tap. This one pours rich, dark copper and weighs in at a sessionable 5.0 percent alcohol by volume.
Again, this is just a smattering of what’s out there, and what’s to come, so don’t rely on this as an end-all guide, but rather get out there and chase this seasonal specialty beer down, with a heavy focus on our local entrants in the style. Drindl, lederhosen and tracht is always optional, but strongly encouraged to help add a little color and fun to the season.