I just can’t help myself. Every year I say I’m done with massive blind tastings and every year I manage to make an exception. I can assure you there will be no pumpkin beer blind tasting this year as I’m pretty sure I have tasted every distributed Midwestern example in the area and the style has seemed to flatline.
Oktoberfests, on the other hand, are alive and well. As more and more breweries are finding that increased competition is slowing growth, tank space is opening up for more time-intensive lagers. This year I gathered eleven together for a Sunday afternoon tasting with my father-in-law.
As in years past, I once again determined that as a whole I’m not a huge fan of the style (further evidenced by the winner.) The exceptional ones are amazing but the majority are either overly sweet or lack any discernible character at all. And far too many exhibit acetaldehyde, the off flavor that tastes like green apple. (Side note – I do wonder if my stance on the style is skewed because I try every available beer with no filtering for quality, whereas I avoid beers that I feel may be of dubious quality when I’m not blind tasting.)
All eleven beers were ranked using an average of their Untappd, RateBeer and Beer Advocate scores. The beers were then separated into two flights, with the three favorites from each flight moving on to another flight where the top three beers were determined. The least favorite beers were tasted against each other then, with the two worst ranked at the bottom and the other three moving to a final flight with the three least favorite beers from the top flight. That final flight was ranked, giving what we felt was a solid ranking of all eleven beers. Here we go, from worst to best.
11. Big Muddy Oktoberfest
The bottom two beers ended up where they did by default because they were so flawed. Each had a heavy dose of acetaldehyde, which wasn’t particularly off-putting, but was certainly a flaw. The biggest problem with Big Muddy was not only was it flawed, the flaw and the rest of the beer were just so average. It couldn’t even create an exceptional flaw.
10. Dragonmead Oktoberfest Marzen
There was nothing average about the amount of acetaldehyde in this beer. Immediately we were overwhelmed with green apple. And we both kind of liked it, almost turning the beer into a fall-appropriate caramel apple. We would both probably have reached for it over half the other beers here but we couldn’t in good conscience rank it any higher with such a massive flaw.
9. Burnt City Märzen Oktoberfest
We differed slightly on the next five, but they were all so interchangeable and average that it didn’t really matter where we ranked them. Have us drink them again and we’d probably end up ranking them differently. I did feel pretty strongly though that this one lacked much of any character.
8. Goose Island Fest Bier
My notes for this literally state that it was close to another beer in color. That’s all I had.
7. Leinenkugel Oktoberfest
I at least noted that this was lightly bready and that I had little character.
6. Pigeon Hill Oktoberfest
This one was bready, balanced and had a nice malt flavor.
5. Sun King Oktoberfest
I did pick up a touch of Noble hops but not much else.
4. Fat Head’s G’Suffa
We both agreed this was the best of the middle tier, although my notes mention there wasn’t much to it. In this case that was enough.
3. Ale Asylum Oktillion
Now we’ve reached the beers we might actively seek out again. We did pick up maybe the slightest hint of apple but also a really nice Noble hop aroma. There wasn’t anything particularly outstanding about it but we did find ourselves continuing to want another sip. And that’s always a great trait for a beer to have.
2. Capital Oktoberfest
There was a long argument over whether this beer should have won because it actually stayed true to style. I certainly stood out from most of the others, being more robust and darker with the toastiest flavor.
1. Surly Fest
In a nod to how little we like the style, we picked the beer that was not anywhere close to style as our favorite. From the start Surly Fest stood apart with its robust American hopping. It was certainly our favorite beer because of that, but did it deserve to be named the best Oktoberfest when it almost seemed like it was cheating? Technically that hopping is a flaw in the style. But it was an intentional one, unlike the acetaldehyde. It’s an obviously American take that certainly has its place and was our favorite.
So that’s it, no more Oktoberfest blind tastings. Until I inevitably gather the two or three best beers from each of the three I’ve done and have an all-star tasting next year. Because of course I will.