Oktoberfest began on Saturday, Sept. 17, which means tourist hordes have begun staggering through Munich hoisting 9-euro beers to wash down pretzels the size of infants, weisswurst, and a menagerie of roasted meats. They'll be served by locals diligently playing along in dirndls and lederhosen. Elsewhere in the world, bartenders will try to cash in by offering up Oktoberfest-themed food and beer, or poor facsimiles of the like. Corporate brewers will lend a hand, supplying crates of decorations, gamely attempting to link their flavorless macrobrews with hundreds of years of German beer craftsmanship.
Oktoberfest is a bad thing for good beer.
Don't get me wrong, there will be some world-class beer served in the overstuffed Oktoberfest tents (though most of the tipsy tourists will be too wasted to notice). But every drop of it will be Munich-style beer. The enduring prominence of Oktoberfest in the global imagination means many outside Germany tend to think what happens for a few weeks on a field in southern Bavaria represents the nation's finest brewing accomplishments. It's as if everyone in Germany thought American culture and cuisine begins and ends with the Iowa State Fair.
You can see this pernicious misimpression at work in German-themed bars around the world. My colleagues in Slate's New York offices need only walk a few blocks to a West Village bar called Lederhosen, which is stuffed from floor to ceiling with Bavarian kitsch. Many "German" bars abroad are really Bavarian, with taps that rarely venture beyond the six major Munich brewers. This tendency to equate Germany with Bavaria is a shame, because Germany is a diverse country with 81 million people spread across distinct regions with distinct cuisines, cultures, and brewing traditions.
Many Germans proudly declare that they have never been and will never go to Oktoberfest. (Though it should be noted that for all the grief some Germans give Oktoberfest, they don't discourage foreigners from checking it out. Fierce regional rivalries can be set aside in the common interest of a tourism-revenue bonanza.) Being equated with Oktoberfest drives the rest of Germany nuts. It doesn't help that Oktoberfest is just one of a long list of grievances Germans have with Munich, from the region's strict social conservatism to Bayern Muenchen, the local soccer powerhouse with a reputation for using its deep pockets to steal the best players from other teams.
So unless you're actually celebrating Oktoberfest in Bavaria this year, why not make a point of enjoying everything else Germany has to offer by drinking the products of breweries far from the festival's beer tents? There will be plenty of time later to sample the great wheat beers and lagers coming from Munich.
Below are five great German beers to get you started. The list is absolutely not intended to crown these individual beers as champions of their particular style. Some may very well be best in class, but I chose these beers because they are high quality and accessible outside Germany.
This is an Altbier from a legendary master of that style, which is getting a lot of attention as of late among craft brewers and beer experts outside Germany, who think this complex, full-flavored beer should be better known abroad. It's dark in color and made with ale yeast but stored and conditioned for longer than is typical of an ale. Alt is German for old. Some believe the style's name originally referred not to its aging process, but to the age of the style, which preceded lager. In any case, the result is a beer of unusual smoothness and superb balance. The crisp hop finish provides a perfect counterweight to the rich caramel and dark fruit flavors from the malt.
Altbier is the home style of Duesseldorf, in Germany's Rhineland region. If you're fortunate enough to visit Uerige's beer garden there, you can taste it straight from the tap. Only beer and apple juice are on offer there, so beverage decisions don't take long. If you are really lucky, you'll visit on a day when their Sticke is available. That's a more robust yet still elegant version of Altbier, by tradition brewed only a couple of times a year as a special treat for loyal customers.
Aecht Schlenkerla's Rauchbier Maerzen
Rauchbier, or smoked beer, is a singular German style with a centuries-long heritage. It's brewed in the Bavarian town of Bamberg. Though it is in the same state as Munich, Bamberg lies well to the north, in the Franconia region. People there think of themselves as quite different from their neighbors to the south, pointing to their different history, accent, and cuisine. And they are rightly proud of their beer, which tastes like nothing from Munich.
The beer has a savory flavor that calls to mind smoked fish, sausage, and roasted meat. This unique smokiness is created early in the production process, when the malt is dried over a wood fire. It pours nearly pitch black, and it's like no other style of beer. Schlenkerla makes several different smoked beer varieties, but the Maerzen is available year round and is a great introduction to this unusual style.
I almost didn't include a Koelsch, mainly because the style has already gotten a lot of recent attention. But a colleague in Cologne scolded me that this piece would be wildly unbalanced if I mentioned Duesseldorf's Altbier without a nod to Cologne's signature style. The cities are fierce rivals and flatly dismissive of each other's brewing. You will get a scowl, at best, if you order the wrong beer in the wrong city.
Koelsch is a bit of a strange bird. It's brewed like ale, but then stored cold for a period like lager. This hybrid process yields a golden-hued, easy-drinking beer. Koelsch is sometimes dismissed as lightweight summer beer. It's certainly a fine choice on a hot day, but the bright, fruity malt flavor and subtle hop finish are welcome any day of the year.
The style is very lightly carbonated. As such, it's traditionally served in 0.2-liter tubular glasses meant to encourage swift drinking while the mild effervescence lasts. In Cologne taverns, beer servers prowl the floor armed with circular trays that have 10 round slots. They're loaded like revolvers with glasses of Koelsch, and you'll get a new one every time you empty your glass, unless you signal you're full by placing a coaster atop it.
Gose is an obscure style of beer with an unusual set of ingredients, including coriander and salt, which may sound bizarre to some drinkers. Rooted now in the charming, former East German city of Leipzig, the cloudy, unfiltered wheat beer has a 1,000-year history that almost ended in the Cold War. Communist functionaries saw no place for the odd beer in their conformist society, and the style all but disappeared in the aftermath of World War II.
Luckily, there's been a revival in recent years and a small amount of it is bottled and exported. The beer laughs in the face of the Reinheitsgebot, Germany's famed beer-purity law, which allows only water, barley, and hops in beer. The Reinheitsgebot is no longer technically the law of the land, which is good in this case, because Gose's offending ingredients are the very things that make it special.
Gose's sour taste will appeal to fans of Belgium's Gueze style. And the bready, citrusy flavor could draw fans of farmhouse beers. It's not for everyone, but it's a must-try for any serious beer drinker. Its revival is good news for beer lovers; hopefully it sticks around this time.
This last beer comes from just about as far as one can get from Munich before splashing into the North Sea. The Lower Saxony town of Jever lies more than 500 miles to the north of the Oktoberfest revelry. And it is home to an exceptionally good pilsner.
Like many beers of Germany's north, this is an especially herbal pilsner with a sharp, refreshingly bitter finish. The golden beer with its dense head is the epitome of a great pils and exposes the poverty of macrobrew pretenders like Miller Lite, which once laughably slapped "true pilsner" on its label.
These beers or any number of other great German brews are a delicious reminder that Germany's brewing culture is vast and varied, a far bigger tent than any of those pitched on Munich's Oktoberfest grounds. Those who dive into the world beyond Munich's Brobdingnagian glassware and half-dozen Oktoberfest breweries will be well rewarded for their beer-soaked exploration of Germany's regional diversity.
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