Friday, September 30, 2011

Notes from Happy Harry's 2011 Oktoberfest Beer Tasting

Jane and I thoroughly enjoyed the Oktoberfest beer tasting, yesterday at Happy Harry's. Some surprising newcomers impressed me greatly, and I found fault with one of my ol' standby favorites this year.


Empyrean, Grand Teton, Crow Peak, Spaten

I am on a drug. It's called Charlie Sheen (a/k/a not winning).

North Coast, Lucky Bucket

I never met an Oktoberfest marzen I didn't like--until this year. I encountered a few breweries that tried mixing styles: marzen + IPA. Eww. Why the hell? Par exemple:

Widmer Okto Festival
New Belgium Hoptoberfest

I just don't understand why you'd wreck a good marzen by making it excessively hop-y and bitter like an IPA. I can get IPAs anytime, but Oktoberfest marzen is almost always seasonal.

Notably absent from the tasting and the stockroom was celebrated German brewer Hacker-Pschorr, whose Oktoberfest has been my personal favorite, par excellence, since I first tried it some years ago. I think this makes it the third season in a row where Hacker-Pschorr was absent as a taste-able or even stocked offering up here in the north. A shame.

To my chagrin, my go-to trusted 2nd to Hacker's Okto, Spaten Oktoberfest, shocked me with disappointment. My instant reaction was, "hey, something's missing here, something's off."

Spaten has always been available at all the tastings I've attended, and have produced a most excellent Oktoberfest in past years (just behind Hacker). But not this time. I'm so surprised by this that I'm going to assume that the case out of which we were served got excessively hot or something. It was not bad, but well, lacking. Thankfully, Spaten redeemed themselves in fine style with their classic Munich Lager, just delicious!

In the middle I tasted serviceable Oktoberfest offerings from Shiner and Schell. I consider them reasonable seconds when your first choices in an Oktoberfest are unavailable.

In the high-tier, I tasted very good offerings from Sam Adams and Boulevard. I haven't exactly cared for Boulevard's other beers. I tend to avoid them like I do Sierra Nevada. They do good work, it's just my taste preference. However, Boulevard Bob's Oktoberfest was excellent. I would personally put it above Sam Adam's offering, which itself has always been "a Good Decision" (sm).

This year's pinnacle for me was an offering from a label new to the Red River Valley: Empyrean Aries Marzen - Oktoberfest. Empyrean Brewing hails from Lincoln, NE, and has never had distribution into my area before. I'd never heard of them. At this tasting, they were prospecting the market.

Aries Marzen was smooth, golden, and very well balanced. It also had a unique sensation I'd never experienced in an Oktoberfest before: a gentle field-ripe wheat flavor. In farm country, then the sun's low in August and the temperature's coming down, you can stand beside the ripened ready-to-harvest wheat fields and almost taste a certain wholesomeness in the air. To me, growing up close-by to such places, this is memorable. The essence of farm country at harvest time has been masterfully brewed into this product, it's just amazing! Well done Empyrean!

Also served were a number of Empyrean's other brews, all great, including their Burning Skye Scottish Ale. I didn't expect to enjoy this one, as my only other experience with a scotch-style ale was McEwan's, and I found the syrupy taste of the unfermented sugars objectionable. This was much better, still sweet, but not sickly-so. I could get into it, whereas I don't think I can normally with this style.

At another table I was introduced to Pilsner Urquell, the famous Czech lager whose claim to fame is to have invented the pilsner style. I am not a beer expert, but I love learning, and so I was pleased to learn that this beer has much in common with Oktoberfest marzen, a cousin style in the bottom-fermenting lager family. I've always seen this stuff around at the better stores, but never tried any. I'm glad I did this time! I found much similarity between the flavors in Pilsner Urquell and Empyrean's Aries Oktoberfest. What's better for me, who wishes Oktoberfest seasonals were available year-round, is that Pilsner Urquell is available year-round. Jane commented she found something slightly off-putting about the aroma of this beer, but hastened to add that the flavor was very nice. I didn't notice an off aroma myself, but this beer had a the same or stronger character of field-fresh wheat as the Aries, which might cause a strange nose in a warm glass at anything warmer than refrigerator temp.

Talking to the table servers, I guess the company distributing Empyrean also handle some other labels I've not seen before in the RRV. Crow Peak Brewing hails from close-by in Spearfish, SD. _Why haven't I see your stuff up here?_ Their IPA was on offer, in a can, and I must say it was my favorite IPA of the tasting, and there were many to choose from. It's exceptionally balanced with no single flavor lording it over the others. It's hop-y, it's bitter as any IPA will be, but also refreshing, easy to drink, not thin and watery, but full bodied, but not harsh. A fine brew. I hope I see more.

The biggest looser, however, was another of this new distributor's tables featuring the Lucky Bucket and North Coast labels. I surely hope something went wrong, horribly horribly wrong, with the transportation of these beers, because they were all skunky and sour. Wall of shame:

North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (gosh I had high hopes for this, dashed)
North Coast Red Seal Ale
North Coast Acme IPA
Lucky Bucket Lager
Lucky Bucket IPA
Lucky Bucket Certified Evil Ale (and it was...dagnabbit)

If you can't cheaply get a taste to see if it was just our stock that was wrecked, then I'd say move on, nothing to feel good about here. A shame, as absolutely everything else this distributor brought to the tasting, Empyrean, Grand Teton, and Crow Peak, were wonderful!

I recommend:
  • Tallgrass IPA
  • Tallgrass Buffalo Sweat
  • Redhook Wit
  • Spaten Munich Lager (the Oktoberfest is still good, but on probation)
  • Guinness Foreign Extra
  • Empyrean Chaco Canyon Honey Gold
  • Empyrean Burning Skye Scottish Ale
  • Empyrean Third Stone Brown
  • Empyrean Dark Side Vanilla Porter
  • Empyrean Aries Marzen Oktoberfest (Andrew's all-show winner!)
  • Crow Peak IPA
  • Grand Teton Sweetgrass Pale Ale
  • Grand Teton Bitch Creek ESB
  • Grand Teton Black Cauldron Imperial Stout
  • Boulevard Bob's 47 Oktoberfest
  • Sam Adams Octoberfest
  • Pilsner Urquell (do try if you liked Empyrean Aries Marzen)

I recommend against:
  • Molson Canadian
  • New Belgium Belgo
  • New Belgium Hoptoberfest
  • Lucky Bucket Certified Evil Ale
  • Lucky Bucket IPA
  • Lucky Bucket Lager
  • North Coast Acme IPA
  • North Coast Red Seal Ale
  • North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout
  • Manger's Irish Cider
  • Manger's Pear Cider
  • Widmer Okto Festival
  • Boulder Kinda Blue
  • Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat (if this is your thing, try Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin instead)
  • Shock Top Raspberry Wheat