To be a legitimate Wisconsin brewery, you need to make an Oktoberfest, says Dan Carey of New Glarus Brewing. "If it's not a state law, it should be," he adds with a laugh. Even though autumn is still around the corner, it's now commonplace for these beers to be released in August. If you like the style, that's actually a good thing, because it makes for more selections to taste.
New Glarus is out with its Staghorn Octoberfest, a seasonal treat that is the recipient of multiple industry awards and is highly rated by beer enthusiasts. Given the number of choices one has for an Oktoberfest this time of year, Carey has good reason to be proud of his beer -- it sets the standard for the style in Wisconsin.
What is it? Staghorn Octoberfest from New Glarus Brewing Company of New Glarus, Wisconsin.
Style: The Oktoberfest (or Märzen) is a medium-bodied golden to light copper lager. The emphasis of the flavor is on a firm but medium-sweet maltiness with a light bready or biscuity nose. Overall, these beers are nicely balanced, with a light hoppy bitterness that can lend a crisp-cleanness to the overall flavor. The finish can be dry, but these are lagers that should not be overly bitter. Oktoberfests usually range from 4.8%-5.7% ABV.
The style emerged as a beer made to celebrate the wedding of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen on October 17, 1810. The 2014 edition of the German Oktoberfest celebrations begin on Saturday, September 20 with the ceremonial tapping of the first keg by the Lord Mayor of Munich, and the festivities continue through Sunday, October 5. The Oktoberfests that are served today at the festivals in Munich and elsewhere around Germany are very similar, although usually lighter in body and color than many that are currently brewed in Wisconsin.
Background: Dan Carey, brewmaster and co-founder of New Glarus Brewing, describes Staghorn as an old school take on the Oktoberfest style with an American twist. That's because he uses a combination of American and German ingredients along with brewing techniques from both the new and old worlds. "Staghorn is an American-German beer, a hybrid like many of us with German blood," he says.
Most of Staghorn's malt bill is composed of Wisconsin-malted barley from Briess Malt & Ingredients of Chilton. But Carey also uses more traditional ingredients like Munich malt from Germany. The beer's hops include Cascade (American), Hallertau Mittelfruh (a German noble variety) and Saaz (Czech). The Cascade hops lend a light crisp citrus bitterness and are slightly more assertive than what you might expect for the Oktoberfest style. The Hallertau and Saaz varieties lend hints of herbal and spicy bitterness.
"We use that blend of hops because it bridges well with the other hops and malts," explains Carey. "Cascades are more assertive, fruity, and citrusy, and they give an extra twist that people just seem to like."
However, Staghorn is really a showcase for malt. Carey uses a decoction mashing technique, commonly associated with traditional German brewing, to bring out more rich malty and bread-like flavors. The result is a flavorful, malt-forward brew, with hops providing a distinctive accent that don't overshadow its essential caramel and biscuit character.
Earlier in his brewing career, Carey spent time in Germany studying the traditions of brewmasters there. "I learned a lot about brewing German style beers," he says. "Most of the Oktoberfests over there, nowadays, are pretty tame beers. They are pretty light compared to how we in the U.S. think of Oktoberfests being rich and malty."
Staghorn has been an autumn beer for New Glarus since the mid 1990s. Its name is a nod to the fall hunting season. It's also a fixture of the annual Oktoberfest celebration in New Glarus, where a ceremonial wooden keg gets tapped by Carey amidst cheers from fans looking forward to a taste.
New Glarus Staghorn Octoberfest takes about five weeks to make. It finishes at 5.7% ABV, and sells for around $8 per six-pack. The beer won a silver medal at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival, and has been recognized at several other competitions, earning silver medals at the 1998 and 1997 World Beer Championships.
- Aroma: Light malty and bready tones.
- Appearance: Clear copper color, with a medium soft and light-tan head.
- Texture: Medium-bodied, round and bubbly.
- Taste: There is a solid maltiness to this beer that is reflected in the bready and biscuit flavors. There is also a pleasant hoppiness in the background that lingers into the finish. This isn't a hoppy beer at all, but there's enough bitterness to make it seem crisp and clean.
- Finish/Aftertaste: A light spicy bitterness blends with the malty dominance. In the end, it finishes clean.
Glassware: To get into the seasonal mood, hoist at Staghorn in a big dimpled glass mug of the type that one associates with Germany’s bier halls!
Pairs well with: A good Oktoberfest should have enough maltiness to match with German sausages and schnitzels, as well as typical Wisconsin tailgating fare. Vegetarians will appreciate it next to sweet stews and roasted veggies.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: The Oktoberfest style is one of my favorites, as I really enjoy its solid, rich, malty flavor that finishes clean. Staghorn is among the best Wisconsin made versions of the beer. It certainly falls among my top three favorites, which also include Tyranena Gemuetlichkeit Oktoberfest and Capital Oktoberfest.
What distinguishes Staghorn is how its malt-forward caramel and biscuity flavor gets accented by a blend of hops that hit the palate with light layers of bitterness. It starts with an initial citrus-y layer provided by the Cascades, followed by herbal and spicy tones from the Hallertau and Saaz hops. Yet Staghorn is not a hoppy beer. You never forget you're drinking a clean malty lager -- it's simply that its creative blend of hops provides exceptional balance. Overall, Staghorn is a beer with lots of flavor, and it's a great choice for those celebrating Oktoberfest in Wisconsin.