Those who enjoy a good malted beverage know that this time of year reflects the seasonal change in more than the color of leaves. It's when the lighter, crisper brews of summer are nudged aside by the deep browns and big malty brews of fall. "I love the bigger beers. They're my kind of beers," says Jamie Martin, brewmaster at Wisconsin Dells Brewing. Dan Carey of New Glarus Brewing has a similar passion: "I really like a malt-accented beer, and an Oktoberfest is right up there for me."
The first local Oktoberfest beers started popping up in early August (not counting the Hilldale Great Dane's version, called Notoberfest, which is available year-round). Märzenbiers are now in full swing. At a recent trip to one of Madison's large beer stores, I counted no fewer than a dozen Wisconsin breweries offering an Oktoberfest. So in the interest of thorough reporting, I felt compelled to try them all.
The Oktoberfest, or Märzen style, is a medium-bodied golden- to light-copper-colored lager. The flavor has a firm but medium-sweet maltiness that is clean and in balance with hoppy bitterness. They range from 5% to 6% ABV. Historically these beers were brewed in the spring, stored in caves over summer, and then consumed during autumn celebrations. The traditions go back to 1810 and the festival to honor the marriage of Bavarian Prince Ludwig to the Savon-Hildburghausen Princess Therese.
For those concerned about cost yet still looking for flavor, Berghoff (Monroe), Point (Stevens Point) and Leinenkugel's (Chippewa Falls/MillerCoors-Milwaukee) all sell six-packs for around $7. Berghoff makes a mini-keg for $15. All of these brews deserve respect, Berghoff especially because of its malty body and hop balance. Oktoberfest from Point offers solid maltiness with a light nutty finish. Leinenkugel's version isn't bad, just thinner and more subdued.
The next tier up includes Lakefront (Milwaukee), Central Waters (Amherst) and the Great Dane-Hilldale's Notoberfest. (The other Great Danes have put their Oktoberfests on tap within the past week, too.) The brews in this group all have more maltiness and more body. Among this fall's best are Sprecher Oktoberfest and New Glarus Staghorn Oktoberfest. Both use traditional recipes with German malts and solid malty flavor.
But my favorites are two familiar friends, Oktoberfests from Tyranena (Lake Mills) and Capital (Middleton). I like both immensely, but for different reasons. Tyranena's Gemuetlichkeit Oktoberfest has a punchy malt presence up front and beautiful golden color. Capital Brewery's Oktoberfest is a bit darker and more assertive with maltiness, so much so that there's calming warmth in the caramel finish.
The surprise find this year is Oso's Oktoberfest (Stevens Point). Brewmaster and owner Marc Buttera likes to push the limits of mainstream styles with many of his beers, and even calls himself a free-style brewer because he doesn't like to be confined to time-honored styles. Sorry, Marc, but your Oktoberfest is great, and it matches the traditions of the style very well.
More fruits of the harvest show up in local beers. The Great Dane Brewpubs, Tyranena and Lakefront offer pumpkin beers in time for All Hallows' Eve. And the seasonal brew for Furthermore Beer of Spring Green is Fallen Apple, a cream ale made with a large amount of cider supplied by Kickapoo Orchards of Gays Mills.
Also in the tart-beer category is a Wisconsin Cranberry Ale, which Dan Carey of New Glarus Brewing is making early November. The ale rests on a bed of cranberries for nearly three weeks before it's transferred to oak tanks for finishing. The result, yet to be tasted, is sure to have some assertive sourness. "I wanted to make a fruit beer and a Belgian Lambic that wasn't really a Belgian beer; rather, one that has our own Wisconsin twist," says Carey. Wisconsin has led the nation in cranberry production the past four years.
Not a fruit or malty beer fan? You won't hear anyone humming the Stones' "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" in the Ale Asylum taproom. Brewmaster Dean Coffey's popular Satisfaction Jacksin, a big bitter Imperial India Pale Ale, is back on tap at the brewery, and bottles just started appearing this week in local stores. While some might find it a bit pricy at $15-$16/six pack, true bitter beer fans will be satisfied with its aggressive hoppiness and the complexity of malty flavors.
Hops, pumpkins, cranberries and the wonderful flavor of malt. The heck with trick-or-treating - the beer selections sound more like a Thanksgiving feast.