We've finally beaten the Germans at their own game.
That's the only rational conclusion one can draw from the results of Oktoberbest 2011, in which the lone Teutonic entry got its ass handed to it. Paul Hightower and Brian Brown, Craft Beer Examiners for Dallas and Plano, respectively, narrowed down 16 Oktoberfest beers in four divisions (Hightower taking Texas and The Rest of America, Brown taking Germany and Offbeat) to the four division winners, which we pitted against each other in the Final Pour on Friday.
To determine the best, I invited a few Observer folk I knew to be beer lovers, along with editor Joe Tone, who is a devoted Modelo drinker but who is also my boss; I figured it might be prudent to share with the guy who approves my expense checks, not to mention my still having a job.
While Hightower and Brown are both certified beer judges and could have easily scored the beers according to standard criteria, the level of connoisseurship in the Observer conference room was otherwise not especially high. It seemed simplest to just taste them, share our general impressions and individually rank them in order of favorite to least favorite. I assigned four points for every first-place vote, three points for second-place votes, two for third-place votes and one for last-place votes. Following are a few notes, quotes and boner jokes from Oktoberbest 2011: Final Pour.
Hightower and Brown gave us a thumbnail version of the standards for Oktoberfest beers, which are intended for all-day festival drinking. They should be easy-drinking but not flavorless, showcasing rich malt without being too heavy or hoppy. We promptly forgot all this and just talked about whether we liked the beers or not.
Generally, we all agreed that America division winner Boulevard Bob's No. 47 Oktoberfest was on the light end of the spectrum, hoppier and with a creamier texture, while the Texas winner, Real Ale Oktoberfest, was much heavier and complex, with more roast-malt flavor. Magic Hat Hex Ourtoberfest proved the most divisive, with some lauding the complexity of the smoked malt, the fruity hints of cherrywood and the darker character while others found it too heavy. Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen was almost universally reviled for a weird plastic or waxy off flavor that most of us picked up on; likely it was because the beer didn't travel well during shipping.
Hightower again found himself coming back to Bob's No. 47. "I like Bob's, flat-out. Hex, I like. Real Ale is third, but I don't know if I like it for an Oktoberfest. It would be a good brown ale. It's too heavy, too flavorful -- not a bad thing, but for an Oktoberfest, it doesn't fit the profile."
Hightower also teed up Tone for a one-liner with the money quote about Hex: "I'm getting a little wood."
"I also have an erection," Tone confessed.
Brown ranked Hex first: "Everything here is tempered well. It's not so sweet you want to toss it, it's not woody enough that it's like sucking on a piece of wet wood." It was followed by Bob's 47, Real Ale ("too grainy for my taste") and Paulaner. "I like the soft malt of Bob's with the earthy malt. It would have more longevity for a day of drinking. Hex is heavier, with notes of wood and fruit but it's still complementary to the Oktoberfest profile.
I had the same order of Hex, Bob's No. 47, Real Ale and Paulaner, liking Hex the most because it was the least adherent to the guidelines of a beer style I find dreadfully dull no matter how much I try to get enthused about it year after year.
Food critic and Budweiser fan Scott Reitz said he hates hoppy beer, but nonetheless found the hoppiest of the bunch balanced enough to name it his favorite, ranking Bob's 47 on top followed by Real Ale; Paulaner and Hex "suck," he said, giving them a last-place tie. "Hex is too heavy for me," he said. "I wouldn't want to drink it, ever."
Though he tossed out the disclaimer that "I don't like beer except to get drunk," Tone was full of opinions, or at least some good quips. "Real Ale smells like a high-fiber cereal," he said. Paulaner "smells weirder than it tastes." He ranked Bob's 47 first, followed by Hex, Paulaner and Real Ale.
Clubs editor and fellow homebrewer Daniel Hopkins liked Real Ale the most, followed by Hex, Bob's and Paulaner; of the middle two, he said, "They're pretty close, but I would probably drink more of the Hex. I like my beer really, really carbonated."
Robert Wilonsky, who prefers bourbon to beer, joined us later, declaring Real Ale to taste "like fucking Grape Nuts. It's very boring. It tastes unfinished." Bob's 47, he said, "is like the beer I assume we'd drink if we were occupied." Of Hex, "How is this an Oktoberfest? Just because you call it that doesn't mean it is." He had to be coaxed into even sipping Paulaner after recoiling from the scent of it, exclaiming, "Whoa! This smells like feet." The taste, on the other hand, was "rubber." His ranking: Bob's 47, Hex, Real Ale and Paulaner.
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Later on IT guy Eric Garcia and retail account executive Jana Donohoe tried them. Garcia's picks demonstrated how much expectation can color perception. Before he even tasted anything, he gushed over how much he loves Paulaner beers, having missed the earlier conversations about how awful this batch was; he ultimately chose Bob's 47 as his favorite, followed by Paulaner, Real Ale and Hex. Donohoe, a former Ginger Man bartender and avowed stout fan, picked Hex first, followed by Paulaner, Bob's 47 and Real Ale, though she cautioned that a sinus infection was throwing off her sense of taste.
Counting them all up, Bob's No. 47 nudged out Real Ale Oktoberfest on that side of the bracket while Hex easily clobbered Paulaner in the Offbeat vs. German matchup. Score-wise, Boulevard Bob's No. 47 won with a total of 27, followed closely by Hex with 26, Real Ale with 22 and Paulaner a distant last with 14.
So what did we learn? Hightower summed it up for us: "For beers that are all supposed to be the same style, there's a lot of variation here. The side by side tasting brings out things you don't notice about each when you try it alone."
I agree. I also determined that I'm done drinking märzens for the year. Bring on the Christmas ales, the big stouts and the winter warmers.