Get 'em while they're hops
It's like Christmas in September when the fleeting Oktoberfest brews reappear.
Around the time when summery, sweet wheat beers start leaving you cold—voilà!—darker and heartier Oktoberfest brews begin elbowing for space on store shelves, ready to cradle you in their warm, inebriating arms.
But the timely appearance of Oktoberfest beers has more to do with tradition than with anticipating your drinking desires. Back before refrigeration, brewers worked furiously to get their brewing done by March (or Märzen, in German), and then stored the nectar in deep, cool caves to be drawn up over the summer. To ensure the brew wouldn’t go skunky on them during this period, brewers added plenty of malt, which makes for a darker, highly alcoholic brew, similar to today’s Oktoberfest beers. If there was leftover beer around mid-September, when brewing could begin again, the excess was hauled out for a huge feast. You can do your part to keep history alive by checking out our favorite Oktoberfest beers, some of which are only available for a couple of months each year.
Ayinger During the warm days of Indian summer, we’re usually on the lookout for an Oktoberfest that doesn’t overwhelm with malt (read: sweet) flavor. Ayinger’s foray into Märzen is just that beer. When it’s served chilled, the citrus notes and the frothy head make this beer mighty refreshing after polka-ing your pants off. $3.29 for a 16.9oz bottle at Binny’s (3000 N Clark St, 773-935-9400).
Hacker-Pschorr’s Oktoberfest This brew is the benchmark by which all contenders are measured. With understated malt flavor (that doesn’t cause your face to scrunch up like a fist) and a bit of toastiness, this is one of the brewery’s best sellers. $8.99 for a six-pack at West Lakeview Liquors (2156 W Addison St, 773-525-1916).
Paulaner Because its brewery is smack in the middle of Munich, Paulaner is one of only six beers served during the city’s annual blowout Oktoberfest. Available year-round, this brew has a bready, pleasantly bitter aftertaste. $8.99 for a six-pack at West Lakeview Liquors.
Sprecher This Milwaukee brew netted a silver medal for its Oktoberfest at last year’s World Beer Championships, and it’s easy to see why the judges fell in love. Nutty with sweet caramel notes, it’s not as malt-heavy as some Oktoberfests, making Sprecher an accessible introduction to this beer style—just don’t be intimidated by the 16-ounce bottles. $6.99 for a four-pack of 16oz bottles at Binny’s.
Stevens Point Brewery After a long period of selling exclusively in Wisconsin, Point’s marketing gurus decided to expand their reach into neighboring states, and brewmaster John Zappa has gotten a bit more creative by introducing more lines to the brewery’s thirsty fans. Its first Oktoberfest has a moderate malt character, slightly roasted for a bitter taste that comes on strong, but ends with a clean, nutty finish. $6.29 for a six-pack at Foremost Liquors (2300 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-278-9420).
Raise a stein to the Midwest's best German bashes.
Although Chicago’s Germanic culture is disappearing in enclaves like Lincoln Square, the city still represents Teutonic-style.
No fewer than five Oktoberfests are going down next weekend, but we recommend splitting your time between Lincoln Park Oktoberfest (Clybourn and Southport Aves, Sept 29, 773-868-3010, chicagoevents.com) and Lincoln Square’s DANK-Haus Oktoberfest (4740 N Western Ave, Sept 29, 773-561-9181, dankhaus.com). Both fests bust out the lederhosen and steins for a day of revelry complete with oompah bands and authentic German chow.
Up the road in Milwaukee, that most Teutonic of American cities, you can take a trip back in time to the Old World Third Street Oktoberfest (1000 block of Old World Third Street, Milwaukee, WI, Sept 29, 30, oktoberfestmilwaukee.com), where tons of Hofbrau, Spaten and polka will be on tap. But we think it’s worth saving your beer money to make a road trip to Oktoberfest USA (1 Oktoberfest Dr, La Crosse, WI, Sept 28–Oct 6, 608-784-3378, oktoberfestusa.com). Where else can you take part in the Beer Tapping Olympics, ogle Miss La Crosse/Oktoberfest and visit the world’s largest six-pack?—Tim McCormick