Saturday, November 01, 2008

Oktoberfest beers: a Cheesehead cage match

So I don't usually blog tastings of other beers (since this is--technically--my brewing log), but I find myself at my parents' cottage in Wisconsin with time to kill before the Blackhawks-Blue Jackets game and cold bottles of both Capital Oktoberfest and New Glarus Staghorn Octoberfest in the fridge, so what choice do I have but to review them?

Before I get to the showdown, I'll preface it by noting that every fall I seem to find one Oktoberfest beer (or Märzen if you want to get technical) that catches my fancy. Last year it was Mendocino's Oktoberfest, which caught me off-guard because I generally don't think of California as a producer of German-style lagers. This year I've been enjoying Left Hand Oktoberfest Märzen, which has a nice malty quality while being toasty but not overly so. I also had the pleasure of enjoying a Mönschof Festbier (which I suspect was actually Kulmbacher Festbier) on tap at Jak's Tap. Unlike the other Oktoberfest beers discussed here, which are export-style Oktoberfest beers (basically a ramped up Vienna Lager), Mönschof's (or Kulmbacher's) is in the local German tradition where it's a stronger Munich Helles, sort of in between a Helles and a Maibock. I was really impressed with the beer but I suspect it wouldn't travel well so you'll have to hope you're lucky enough to score a mug on tap.

Anyway, on to the beers at issue... Capital vs. New Glarus, two breweries I really respect that can absolutely nail a good German lager. As far as appearance is concerned, the two poured a nearly identical deep amber color with ample off-white head. Upon closer inspection the New Glarus variety appeared just a hair darker, but it was pretty much a draw.

Taking a whiff of each, I noted the Capital offering had a strong grainy Pils malt aroma with a touch of herbal noble hops. New Glarus's was a little sweeter, suggesting some crystal or at the very least Munich malts, with little hop aroma to speak of.

Now for the taste... Capital's wasn't as malty as I would have expected from the brewers of the infamous Blonde Doppelbock. It's a very refreshing beer that certainly has a malt backbone but actually finishes a little dry. It's not particularly sweet; it has some toasted notes but no real brown sugar or cotton candy notes you get from liberal use of caramel malts. In my book that's a good thing (at least when it comes to German-style beers). The hops were just there enough to keep the beer from being cloying, but certainly they didn't get in the way.

As for the New Glarus, it had just a hint of residual sweetness I didn't find in Capital's. Like Capital's, it was slightly malty but not overly so, leaving it just as drinkable. It was clean, but finished with a bit more hop bite than Capital's, even leaving just a slight twang of grapefruit in the finish (not in a cascade hop sort of way, but more like what I've tasted in certain German Altbiers and my own Alt bitter-hopped with Northern Brewer hops).

So, in the end I'm going to steal a page from the world of soccer and call this one a draw. Both are smooth, drinkable and balanced. New Glarus's may be a tad more sweet, but it balances it out with a little more hop presence. Overall, I would say both are excellent examples of the export style and worth picking up (especially if you can find one on clearance now as liquor stores try to clear their shelves for winter offerings). Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit!


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