When I attended the University of Southern California’s year-abroad program in Madrid, I found myself over winter break pounding steins at the world-famous Hofbrau Haus in Munich. The winter trip was a master-stroke of genius by friend and classmate Joan L.
She, Eleanor, and I bought a Peugeot with tourist plates, Joan recruited a couple other classmates, John and Paul, to accompany us, and we all pitched in for gas. Joan proposed an itinerary from Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $10 a day, and off we went.
I’ll never forget driving overnight from Italy and through Austria in a snowstorm, hydroplaning at dawn down a long, unplowed offramp into Munich, the Peugeot’s slide gently halted by the curb in front of the Löwenbräu Brewery. It was January, not October, but after the most blissful 24-hour sleep under eiderdown in a comfortable modern hotel, my traveling companions and I joined the throng at the long tables inside the Hofbrau Haus, which thundered with holiday steins as if it WERE Oktoberfest.
Why March in October?
On my beat as the Ventura Craft Beer Examiner, back in 2010, I found myself at the First Annual Salute Beer Festival in Ventura. The festival, which took place in June, was organized by the incomparable Joby Yobe of the OBC (Ojai Beverage Company). Breweries from all over California displayed their wares under tents on the picnic grounds at San Buenaventura State Beach.
The two guys in lederhosen at the Sudwerk tent could not be ignored. After tasting their beer and learning about their approach — “Our beer-making processes are rooted in traditional German brewing methods but blended with modern, West Coast craft beer practices” — I arranged with one of the lederhosen-clad lads, Director of Marketing and Sales Aaron Warshawsky, to visit the brewery up in Davis, CA.
As we’ve mentioned before, UC Davis, along with the Siebel Institute in Chicago, are the premier places in the country to master the brewer’s craft. When I visited Sudwerk — the only brewery in Davis I’ve ever visited — I remember thinking, You’ve got to be pretty ballsy to open a brewery in THIS town. That said, the facility was amazing and the beer, while not strictly the West Coast IPA style that everyone was addicted to in those days, was very well made. And it was there that I first heard the term “Märzen” beer. [For a tutorial, check out BeachRock Bill’s Oho! Oktoberfest post.]
What? You’ve never heard of Sudwerk? It might interest you to know that they were awarded Brewery of the Year at last year’s Great American Beer Festival and that their beers have medaled 18 times in the past 30 years, including a Gold Medal in 2022 for “The People’s Pilsner.”
Fondest Octoberfest Beer Memory
By far my fondest memory of an Octoberfest beer comes from the Summer of 2016. Eleanor and I were visiting her Cousin Tim and his wife B.B. They have a lovely home on the shores of Ossippee Lake, which is the only place to be in August, believe me, especially if you’re visiting from hot and smoggy Southern California.
B.B. is a musician, so her part of the house contains a beautiful piano and a library of music for singers. Tim builds remote controlled sailboats for local competitions, and so his part of the house contains a workshop and a small pub, with two taps. One of the taps that summer was hooked up to a keg of Sam Adams Octoberfest Beer.
Malty, refreshing, with a great round mouthfeel and a lingering taste that is utterly satisfying.
It may have been our wonderful hosts, the location, the air, the water, and it may have been August, but it will always be Octoberfest in my heart.
Besides the Sam Adams, I picked up four Oktoberfest-themed beers at my local grocery chains (Trader Joes, Whole Foods, Sprouts) to evaluate for this year’s post.
On the list are two festbiers — one from Germany and one from Anaheim (which is German for “Ana’s Home,” after the same Santa Ana that is the county seat of Orange County) — and two bronze Märzens, one from Germany, the other from Moorpark, California.
Straight up, of the two styles, fest or Märzen, I’m not a big fan of the festbier. That said, of the two I tasted, one was a clear winner over the other. Let’s break it down.
Weihenstephaner bills itself as the oldest brewery in the world: “Almost a thousand years ago the Bavarian State Brewery Weihenstephan was the monastery brewery of the Benedictine monks. Then, the Royal Bavarian State Brewery, it is now operating as a state directed enterprise under the control of the Bavarian Government.”
I like Weihenstephaner’s Original Premium (Helles style lager) and Vitus (wheat bock) brews. There was nothing about this festbier, however, that said “Oktoberfest” to me, making it the least “craveable” of the lagers I tasted this October.
Brewery X’s “Festbier Ja!”, on the other hand, had a little something extra going for it. I have to admit that before finding this beer on the shelves at my local Trader Joe’s, I’d never heard of Brewery X before. Probably that’s a tribute to my ignorance more than a reflection on the brewery’s brand and reputation.
On Brewery X’s website, they address the elephant in the room: “What is X? To us, The X represents and is about crossing paths, coming to a juncture and ending up where you want to be. We are a patchwork of professional brewers, and beer lovers who had too often asked ourselves, If I wasn’t doing what I am doing now, what would I be doing? To us, life is about being where you want to be, not where you have to be.”
I liked the flavor of this festbier a little bit more than Weihenstaphaner’s, perhaps because I detected a bit more “West Coast-iness” in the form of pushing a lemony hop presence forward and making the experience of drinking it linger more pleasantly on the palate and in the memory.
Again, not what I personally associate with an Octoberfest vibe, but to each their own, as they say.
Ayinger’s Oktober Fest-Märzen was the best of the five beers I tasted for this post. It’s the only beer I bought in four-pack form that I rushed out to get another four-pack before Oktoberfest disappeared from the shelves.
I initially thought that Ayinger was one of the six breweries invited to pitch their “tents” at the Wiesn in Munich. But I was wrong. No matter, it was as good as any Paulaner, Hofbrau, Löwenbräu, or Spaten that I’ve sampled. As you can see from the accompanying photo, it has a richer, more coppery color, and a craveable cozy malt-forward taste that keeps pinballing around on your palate in between sips.
“It is not just the proverbial ‘liquid bread’ alone,” begins the brewery’s homepage, “but rather also the social ‘cement’ of our culture, in which values such as conviviality, community, honesty, reliability and solidarity … play a major role. The deep roots in our region, continuously deepened over generations, form the nutrient base of the Ayinger Brewery. The quality of our beer, consistently awarded numerous prizes for its excellence, is consequently not just based on the select ingredients of our region and the capacities of our brewing art. Equally important is the spirit, the mindset, the very values with which we have performed our craft for over 130 years.”
Enegren’s Oktoberfest can looks very German. The two stylized lions, very similar to Löwenbräu’s single lion rampant (Löwenbräu means “Lion’s Brew,” after all) and the blue and white diamond pattern of the Bavarian flag are the dead giveaways.
As it turns out, Enegren focuses on German-style beers, especially cold-fermented lagers. Their “flagship” beer, “Valkyrie” — no doubt inspired by Richard Wagner’s opera of the same name — is a German-style amber that looks remarkably similar to the Märzen. Both are brewed with imported German Munich, Pilsner, Melanoidin, and CaraMunich malts — but whereas the Märzen also uses Vienna malt, the Valkyrie has a Chocolate Wheat malt as part of its profile. Hallertauer, one of Europe’s four “noble” hop varieties (mild with spice, floral, and citrus tones), makes up the hop bill for both brews, but then they diverge, with Märzen going the way of the Nugget hop (woody and piney), while the Valkyrie travels the trail to Yakima Valley and the Mt. Hood hop (warm spice and floral).
While not a 1000- or 130-year tradition, Enegren (founded in 2010) brews a worthy German beer right here in So Cal’s Ventura County.
That’s a Wrap!
This is the fourth of four October posts celebrating the transition from summer to fall, from the scorching heat begging for a Hazy IPA to the mellower post equinox golden hues of sunset daring you to try one of the dozens of beer styles just made for the season!
Thanks to BeachRock Bill for setting us off on this journey with Oho! Oktoberfest!
Thanks to BrewHead Ted for taking us to the spookier side of Samhain by Going Out of His Gourd for Fall Beers
Thanks to Contributing Editor Eleanor for filling us in on Paperback Bocks — and thanks again to BRB and his production team for the Reel he created to promote this post on our socials.
And be sure to check out our coverage of the Great American Beer Festival’s medalists this year — it always happens in October, just like the Oktoberfest. Hmm, wonder if that’s intentional?
We’d love to hear what YOUR favorite Oktoberfest beer or experience is. Let us know in the “Comments” section below, or drop us a line at email@example.com. Did you like this series? Did you like this post? Then press “Like” to let us know!
On behalf of the entire So Cal Craft Beer Blog team, Prost!
— C. C. Hansen
One thought on “Octoberfest, Ahh…”
My favorite phrase from the post, made about Ayinger’s Oktober Fest-Marzen, was “pinballing around on your palate.” Well done, Chauncey!
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