Saving Oktoberfest

Unfiltered by | Oct 2011 | Issue #57

Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

Oktoberfest is an unavoidable tourist trap of a beer-drinking holiday in much of the world, with perhaps no greater faux revelry than in the United States. With no ties to any continental or European history or tradition, bars simply stock up on some half-liters (often plastic, ugh), some white- and blue-checked flags, maybe even an Oompah band, and they’ve got instant fest-in-a-box.

And despite being one of the most popular seasonal beer-drinking occasions, American brewers sure do make some shitty Oktoberfests. While domestic brewers give the requisite nod toward the tradition of Germany, most resulting, so-called “American” versions of this historic style fall so wide of the mark as to be unrecognizable. They’re often cast as ales, and the style’s trademark smoothness, imparted by extended cold conditioning, is replaced with a ubiquitous and yawn-inducing fruit character. For many US craft brewers, Oktoberfest beers just mean a light, red-hued beer, with no toasted or bready malt character, and little to no soft and subtle beauty. Often brewed without the addition of German or Euro malts, or Noble hops, the beers offer little if anything beyond the chance to slap an Oktoberfest (or “Harvest,” or “Autumn”) label on the bottle and score some easy seasonal sales.

In the last decade, Americans have grown quite adept at celebrating if not quite replicating Belgian beer culture, with pubs and restaurants dedicated to all things Flemish and Wallonian. With classy and well-appointed gastropubs popping up in cities throughout America, the future of the Belgian beer bar seems undeniable. These upscale, Belgian-themed establishments offer dozens of characterful and diverse styles, distinctive and well-presented glassware, and rough approximations of traditional pub fare. Belgian brewers often marvel at how well-established their nation’s beer culture is here. Between these dedicated pubs and the wide varieties of Lambics, Tripels and Witbiers available at even your corner packie, Belgian beer culture is arguably more popular now in the United States than in its home country.

The same cannot be said of poor old Deutschland. While the development of the United States market has saved many traditional Belgian beers from extinction, German imports into the country have stagnated. Sure, we’ve got a handful of Hofbräuhaus knock-offs popping up around the country, but few bars, let alone American craft breweries, look to Germany for inspiration and great beers.

That brings us back to the saddest German beer story of them all: Oktoberfest. Perhaps the world’s quintessential and most iconic beer event, the original beer festival now largely masquerades as a beer-selling bonanza for massive, foreign-owned corporate behemoths. While some glorious, rich, toasted and malty beers still exist in Germany, they are increasingly difficult to find, having been replaced at the fest either by lighter-colored facsimiles or just plain Helles beer.

Oktoberfest is undoubtedly one of the most enticing and saleable beer-drinking occasions on the global beer calendar, and its charms are appreciated across the world. Despite its obvious appeal, brewers, bar owners and consumers often just treat it as a German Cinco de Mayo, an excuse to eat vaguely foreign food and get trashed, with a little polka mixed in. But German beer culture deserves better.

That leaves us here in the States with a task ahead of us. As a beer-loving nation dedicated to preserving and promoting great and classic beer styles from around the globe, however obscure (Gose, anyone?), we need to step up and help resurrect Oktoberfest beer. To date, we’ve sufficed with the production of bland, traditionless Autumn or Harvest Ales posing as Oktoberfests. It’s time to start treating traditional German brewing styles with respect, and not just as novelty.