Oktoberfest beercation: confessions of a first-time beer taster
September 23rd, 2011
02:45 PM ET
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One of my biggest irrational worries right now is of somehow becoming incapacitated, forcing authorities to barge into my apartment all movie-style and come face-to-face with the large number of full and empty beer bottles that I currently have scattered around the place.

What was going on that brought so much beer into her apartment? Either serious problems, or serious partying.

But I assure you, it's all in the name of science. And there really is such a thing as too much beer. Really.

You see, I was conducting a beer tasting of several flavors of Oktoberfest beer, in effect embarking on a "beercation" in my own home. My beercation was a bit like a staycation, but with the beer of a specific quasi-destination.

Oktoberfest is a time-honored tradition in Munich, Germany, the latest location CNN iReport is featuring in the Destination Adventure travel series. You go, you drink from a giant mug, and you celebrate in the Bavarian way. I couldn't make it to the real event this year, so I decided to prepare for a hypothetical future trip by learning as much as I could about Oktoberfest beers. Plus, I just really like Oktoberfest beers. So it all worked out.

The first step in my adventure was to define which beers would qualify for my tests. I decided to focus on Märzen-style lagers. In Germany, Oktoberfest celebrates the harvest season. Not only the harvest of healthy things from the earth, but also the harvest of Märzen beers that were started in March (hence the name) and then stored.

The proper Oktoberfest beer is a lager, which means "storage" in German. While we typically associate lagers with questionable mass-produced beers that will not be named here, a well-made lager beer is fresh-tasting and delicious in its complexity. Back in the olden days, the climate and geography in Germany supported a slow-brewing technique with bottom-fermenting yeast that thrives while stored in chilly ice caves.

I read up as much as I could on the Oktoberfest tradition, including thumbing through an iReport submitted by Susan Terhune. She's a resident of Mainhausen, Germany, and had a lot to say about what to watch out for and do for those who attend the festival. She attended the festival and enjoyed her time in the Paulaner tent, but unfortunately lost track of her husband at some point during the festivities that night. (Yes, she did find him later.) After reading some of the many Oktoberfest stories out there, I researched the kinds of beers I should seek out for my tasting.

The second step was to obtain the specimens. I scoured my local grocery and liquor stores, often repeatedly, searching again and again for the best seasonal brews. Some I found, some I didn’t. I also stumbled on some unexpected other possibilities. When possible, I bought single assorted beers together. In the end, I had to get a few six-packs, and there is quite a bit of beer left over.

The third step was to actually taste the beers. The hardest part, mind you. I tracked down every beer-tasting glass in my unit and sampled several kinds of beers at once so I could immediately detect the similarities and differences. In order to avoid any tainting from inebriation, I kept samples small and grouped them over several days. I tried the beers both in the bottle and poured out into a glass, for comparison's sake. Having done this experiment, I plan on getting some new beer glasses.

Unfortunately, over the weekend when I planned to do most of the tasting, I fell ill and lost my sense of smell. Oh, irony, thou art cruel.

For several days, I sat on pins and needles, hoping my sinuses would take pity on me and allow some of that flavor to come through. Not to mention, hoping that my health would improve as well. But I regained this power, and the testing went on. The whole process was truly enlightening.

I discovered first that all Oktoberfest beers are not created equal, and I divided them into three categories: German Oktoberfest, American Oktoberfest and Oktoberfest-inspired. Since I'm not a total beer snob, I didn't know all the jargon and tried to observe as best as I could.

My overall conclusion was that the Germans do it best. Sipping one of their beers made me feel like I was already in Germany, toasting my good fortunes with other revelers in one of those tents they set up during Oktoberfest. Ayinger's Oktoberfest turned out to be the tastiest of my bunch by far with its complex grainy flavors and slight hint of sweet maltiness.

I also enjoyed Paulaner's straightforward celebratory brew. Also, everything I'd heard about Beck's turned out to be true. They make a surprisingly good Oktoberfest, with a slightly nutty aftertaste. My palate didn't take as kindly to Spaten's offering, which was slightly more bitter. The Warsteiner was quite nice, but nothing special.

I also enjoyed the American-style Oktoberfests, once I gave up on my dream of finding one that tasted like the genuine article. They have a different flavor, and that's okay. Sam Adams' Oktoberfest seemed to be the closest to authentic, and probably could pass save for the slight grainy funkiness that lingers after swallowing.

Victory and Brooklyn seemed to have a similar flavor to one another, almost vegetable-like in nature. That might sound strange, but the beers are very pleasant to drink. The Brooklyn is a little deeper and earthier, while Victory is lighter and more celebratory. Locally, I threw in the Red Brick Oktobeerfest and found it to be nice and malty.

The Shiner and Leinenkugel's Oktoberfests were decent offerings, but tasted a bit too much like the breweries' other beers. The Shiner was a bit too bland in the end, and the Leinenkugel's a bit too bitter and strong.

Finally, there was the most interesting category of all: the Oktoberfest-esque beers. These include ales and lagers that are inspired by autumn, but wouldn't necessarily be Oktoberfests. Terrapin's Pumpkinfest attempts to blend an Oktoberfest lager with pumpkin taste. It's actually quite nice, and the pumpkin beer hater in me would gladly continue drinking it.

The Magic Hat Hex Ourtoberfest and the New Belgium Hoptober are both fall-inspired ales. As such, they have a crisper and more-bitter flavor. Their malts and flavors hint at the Oktoberfest style. In keeping with Magic Hat's traditions, the Hex gave me the cloudiest pour of the bunch. Finally, I tried the Sierra Nevada Tumbler, a brown ale with excellent flavor that sadly doesn't fit the description of an Oktoberfest Märzen, but still evokes the feeling of autumn.

These samplings, and a look back at all the iReports we've seen (like the lovely photos sent by world-traveling iReporter Daniel Dreifuss) have inspired me to find out more about Oktoberfest.

There are plenty more Oktoberfest beers out there to try, and this sampling I took barely scratches the surface of this beer genre's wide selection.

Once the tasting was over, the hardest part was how to package the information that I had collected. I struggled to photograph the bottles (and glasses of tasted beer), and to come up with the right words to describe what I was tasting. To my surprise, many of the conclusions I drew were similar to things said by seasoned beer experts, and that was somewhat reassuring.

It was the most effort I've ever put into beer-drinking, ever, but it also gave me a huge taste of the possibilities. Now that I've done this, I feel well-prepared to venture out to Munich and drink Oktoberfest beers from giant mugs with ease. Let's all raise a glass to the great traditions of German brew.

Oh, and anyone want to help me finish off all these suds?

If you've been to Munich, we're curious what you would recommend and what you've enjoyed. Share what you think a traveler should eat, and any food-related adventures you've had in the comments area below.

CNN's Destination Adventure series takes a look at great places for eager explorers. Each week, we'll feature favorite regional foods, secrets from the locals and the best photos and stories from readers. Have you been to Munich, Germany? Share your story with CNN iReport. And next week, we'll journey to Argentina.

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Filed under: Beer • Destination Adventure • Holidays • iReport • Oktoberfest • Sip

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. ThatGuyFromBavaria

    Sorry, but the part about the Märzen is wrong. The reason why there are Oktoberfests all over the beer brewing nations in central Europe is because by September & October the left-overs of the beers from last March (=März) need to be finished to give storage room for the new brewing season. Yes, it is true that in fall with the harvest of hops (not Märzen - Märzen is a beer type not a plant!) the next brewing season begins. But it is not true that Oktoberfest (traditionally) celebrates new fresh beer. It's about getting rid of the left overs. And beer is only good (= tasty) for 6-7 months - March plus 7 = October. Thanks to nowadays cooling technology we can enjoy fresh Märzen throughout the year. And the Wiesnwirte and Munich Breweries make sure that all the Oktoberfest party people will not run out of beer at the end of September. ;-)

    October 11, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  2. JLWBrew

    I agree with some postings here and others not so much.

    My Take on OFest Bier:

    One will notice that the Oktoberfest Bier consumed in Germany is of lighter/pale color, however the Octoberfest Beer brewed and consumed in the USA is more of a dark Amber color, maltier taste and slightly more bitter. This is misleading and doesn't tast/look/smell anything like the real deal (shaking head in disappointment at US Brewery(s)). I digress...

    Get it straight or don't do it at all US Breweries.

    My Favorite Bier (some in order, some not):
    1. Andechs Spezials Helles
    2. Andech Helles
    3. Augustiener Oktoberfest
    Paulaner Oktoberfest
    Paulaner Salvador
    Hofbraugh Oktoberfest
    Spaten Oktoberfest Lager
    Erdinger Hefeweizen (trust me on this one for Hefe Lovers)

    and when there is nothing else...Warsteiner

    Now the Food:
    Whoever has been to Oktoberfest or lived in Germany long enough, nothing beats a Scheinhaxe'n (Pork Shank) or a Rollerbraten (from belly of pork) with a nice Maß of bier. Not that Weinerschnitzel and/or Wurst is a bad combination either. But if you haven't tried it, I really suggest that you do.

    OFesters get a real kick out of seeing tourist wearing THEIR own countries/regional traditional clothing. If you (or your parents) are NOT from Germany, don't wear a Dirndl or Lederhosen. Also, seems like the girls tend to gravitate towards the men in skirts (uh-hum Kilts)...

    Do try to speak as much German as you possibly can. You will find many Germans will want to practice their English with you. That's ok... But respond to their questions as much as you can in German. They will correct you and they expect the same. Do learn common 'travel' phrases, cause if you travel throughout Germany, many people will not know English...

    Now for the budget Conscious person Room/Board:
    The Tent... (www the-tent dot de). If you are a younger bunch (or an older bunch that feels young all the time) this is this place simply called The Tent. Where you can stay for 7 Euros a night, meet people from all over the world, singing songs around a camp fire at night. AND...its just a tram-ride to the OFest Fairgrounds...Pets are allowed, but on leashed. You can even pitch up your own tent there...Showers and Bathrooms are very clean (at least the last time I was there). Book early, they fill up fast.

    There are the Hostels...but they are a bit more pricier.

    Brewing the Real Deal:
    However, I was able to come extremely close to a Helles Style Bier (the actual Oktoberfest Bier Style in Germany) by brewing it myself (all-grain). Recipe: 10# of Pilsner Base Malt, 1/2# of CaraHelles, 1/2# of CaraPils Malt, 2oz Tettnang Hops (1oz at beginning and 1oz at 30 minutes of boil). A sticking point that after 1 month of fermentation with an original gravity at 1.02, I decided to add a Kolsch Ale Yeast strain to finish it off to 1.012 (PERFECT!!!)...

    Cost of Bier:
    Each 1 Liter Mass will cost about 8,50 – 9,50 Euros. If you travel to the many Bier Festivals thoughout Southern Germany, you can get Mass Bier for a little as 5,60 Euros... Do your homework and a Trip to Ofest/Germany won't break the bank.

    Until Then...PROST!!!


    October 10, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  3. Jason

    Ayinger is the way to go.

    October 4, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  4. stumblingpiper

    Nicole, I will come help you finish your beer. Just let me know. Oh, and I recommend getting out a little further away from Munich to sample some brews too ... say in Irsee and visit the Irseer Klosterbrauerei ... or up to Kelheim and visit the Schneider Weisse brauerei ... a little further away means you want have the 100s of tourists/locals ... and both those locations serve fantastic beer.

    September 25, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  5. teamom

    For those of us who live in/around Munich, the Wies'n (Oktoberfest) is not all about drinking beer. We can drink good beer every day. It is about celebrating being Bavarian. Depending on your family situation (with children, without, etc.) the Wies'n has something entertaining for everyone. If you're traveling with a young family, take advantage of the "Family Days" where many rides are discounted for the kids. Remember, though, the Bier tents usually have a 16:00Hr. limit for young children, especially those in strollers.
    What to eat? Stecker'lfisch, bei der Fischer Vroni. Fish on a stick – literally – on dry days, cooked over an open campfire. Usually mackerel, but try the Renke (a local fish from the Chiemsee) when available.
    Also – for meat lovers, stop by the Ochsenbraterei. There's a giant ox above the tent, so you can't miss it. Simply mouthwatering.
    If you are really a foodie, a visit to the Viktualienmarkt is a must. The cheese stands alone are to die for. If you think that Murray's Cheese in Greenwich Village is epitome, prepare yourself.
    VERY IMPORTANT – know what NOT to do at the Wies'n:
    *DO NOT try to steal a Krug (the mug that the beer's served in). You can buy souveniers either there or at the local breweries, but if you try, you will most surely get caught. And fined, whether you speak German or not.
    *DO NOT attempt to dance on the tables. Yes, my daughter did this 20 years ago (she was 4), but those days are over.
    *DO NOT assume that everyone speaks English. ASK FIRST!! Your waitress/waiter (yes, they have them now) earn their money through turnover. They are not interested in making you feel "welcome", they're just busting to make as much money as they possibly can in a short amount of days. Totally understandable.
    *DO NOT attempt to dress like the locals. It's insulting. And really, where are you going to wear a Dirnd'l or Lederhosen in the US? Buy a few good shirts, some accessories, jewelry (beautiful stuff) that you can really use. INSIDER TIP: visit one of my absolutely favourite stores – Roeckl. The most beautiful leather gloves (some handbags & accesories) you'd ever imagine. Ask your concierge or the tourist bureau for addresses. Not far away from the Marienplatz.
    Lastly –
    please remember – you are a guest in a foreign country. Things, though fairly familiar, are different. McDonald's will charge you for packets of ketchup or mayonnaise (though you can buy beer there). Substitutions on menus often carry an extra charge. No public water fountains. You will be charged for water (even tap water). If it's important, bring your own straws. There will be a deposit on things like drinks glasses and bottles.
    REMEMBER – when visiting public toilets, it is cusomary to "tip" the attendant – 50C is fine. It's how they earn their money.
    Small tips, but hopefully they'll make a visit more enjoyable (and easier).

    September 23, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
  6. Joanne

    I lived in Munich for three yrs and Augustiner Helles was the preferred beer. I miss it. The imported stuff really does not come close.

    September 23, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • vw

      I totally agree, Augustiner Helles is the best! I also lived in Munich and, well, will be back there for the last weekend of Oktoberfest next weekend. YES! Real German beer!

      September 23, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
    • alex

      True! I live in Munich and the best Munich beer (which automatically means best beer in the world) is Augustiner Helles!!!

      September 27, 2011 at 12:21 am |
  7. ChelseyI

    I absolutely love the Augustiner Helles and Augustiner Edelstoff (which, incidentally, is in my fridge at the moment).

    September 23, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
  8. driveby

    Attended Oktoberfest in '08. Drank no beer, had a good time anyway. The brats and babes alone are worth the trip.

    September 23, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
  9. Stephen

    I have brewed several batches of ale and lager from kits I've purchased. There's nothng like the smell of wert boiling outdoors in the springtime. Then, cooling it with a copper chiller and poring it into a five galion bucket, it with an airlock, until the fermentation stops. Bottle it with a bit more sugar for carbonation. Refridgerate it to age, (thirty days to six months) allowing the yeast particles to settle to the bottom. Yum – yum!

    September 23, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  10. paul

    Visit the Kloister Andechs just outside of Munich. The monks brew the best beer in Bavaria and people come from all over in tour busses just to taste the heavenly stuff. Carl Orff of Carmina Burana fame is buried in one of the chaples and there is a pretty lake to fall into as you suddenly notice that you are much more tipsy than you thought.

    September 23, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
  11. Beer Lover

    I agree wholeheartedly with the first poster. Having lived in Germany for 3 1/2 years during my stint in the Army, I learned one thing for sure. Paulaner, Spaten, and the like served from a German tap is worlds better than anything you find stateside in a bottle. They're similar, but the smells and sensations of being there makes everything simply taste better.

    September 23, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  12. MG

    Having just gotten back from Munich and sampled copious amounts of beer, Augustiner became my favorite, which is rather strange because prior to going to Germany I was a die hard Paulaner fan. One thing I can say with certainty though, is that Oktoberfest beer is best enjoyed in Munich in a tightly packed tent of traditionally dressed fellow patrons; there's something about the atmosphere that exudes camaraderie and gives you confidence that you too can finish another liter of beer, even though you've run out of money and your bladder has extended well beyond capacity. Prost!

    September 23, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • Jess

      Ditto 100%, just got back and couldn't get enough Augusteiner.

      September 23, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  13. Rod C. Venger

    Chugging a half gallon of beer is not a "taste test"...it's a IQ test.

    September 23, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • chegringo17@gmail.com

      Don't you mean "an IQ test"?

      September 23, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
      • ThatGuyFromBavaria

        He wrote this comment after the test ;-)

        October 11, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  14. CWhite

    Sampling German Oktoberfest beer purchased in a US outlet is not that same beer that is served at the Oktoberfest event.

    The export version is pasteurized and dosed with preservatives so it can sustain the transport.

    The only way to judge Oktoberfest beer is to sample the real thing being served in Munich.

    Having lived in Munich and having been to multiple days at Oktoberfest, I support the above mentioned favorite: Augustiner Helles. Helles mean light which refers to the beer's color and not the calories of the brew. Those large glass beer kruges (or Mass) hold a liter of beer IF filled properly. As the fest goes on, the kruges tend towards about 2/3 full and some come only half full. You can ask for a 'correction' but only a few 'drops' are added and it is mostly foam. Most of the Fest tents are two story structures at the ends.

    September 23, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  15. André

    Bah, nothing like a good Coors Light.... hahahahaha !
    [/ joke]

    September 23, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  16. Homer

    mmmm. beeeerr

    September 23, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • Rod C. Venger

      Provincial Heathen! Beer farts are far and away better than the beer.

      September 23, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  17. Dominic

    My friends and I do a blind taste test each year in preparation for my Oktoberfest party and the winner 2 years in a row was Widmer Brothers Okto. Very good!

    September 23, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  18. arodela

    Augustiner, all of their beers are pretty tasty. Preferred is the Augustiner Helles.

    September 23, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  19. nutley

    I love beer. Thank you.

    September 23, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
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