While Germans nurse their hangover from Oktoberfest, we Americans are just getting started. There's something about fall weather that begs for the hearty simplicity of German beers. It's a cozy brewing tradition to dive into. And you can usually drink these beers in great quantities, thanks to their relatively low alcohol content. You'll see a big push from American craft brewers this fall to take the German style and — dare they — tinker with beers that many consider the most balanced in the world. (German law prohibits their brewers from using any ingredients beyond barley, hops, water, and yeast.) The result? A sometimes wild, uniquely American, take on German brewing.
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Not all German beers are for Oktoberfest, though — far from it. This style is actually a seasonal beer, also commonly referred to as Märzen (March), which is brewed in the spring and ready in time for the Munich-based festival in late September and early October. One American take on this crisp, clean, and pale lager that we recommend comes from Two Brothers, which ages it in French Oak and ups the alcohol from the usual 5 percent to 8.8 percent. The Eisbock (ice beer), like the Märzen, is often a lager, but one that is richer and higher in alcohol thanks to a complex freezing-and-filtering process. California's Gordon Biersch chooses to try to one-up German brewers rather than give an American twist, by strictly adhering to German brewing laws while coming up with a Weizen Eisbock that we challenge against any in Deutschland. Kolsch is one of the most popular German styles in the States and Captain Lawrence's Captain's Kolsch gives it a kiss of American flavor with Crystal hops that are grown in the United States. And then there's a beer like Schmaltz brewing company's Human Blockhead, which takes a number of German doppelbock styles, mixes them, adds more hops, throws it in a bourbon barrel, and cheerfully stomps all over the rules. Now, ain't that American? Click on the gallery below for more on each of these beers.
Captain Lawrence Captain's Kolsch
We can't think of a better way to hang on to the fading glory of summertime than with a Kolsch. We've long been champions of this light underappreciated type of ale that masquerades as a lager. The style originated in Cologne, Germany, but American craft brewers – like Captain Lawrence Brewing Company (out of Westchester, New York) – are taking some liberties with the classic brew. The Captain's Kolsch, one of the most popular beers from the company, is one example that shows the power of American hops while letting the best, easy-drinking aspects of the classic brew alone.
The aroma and flavor here is a study in subtlety and balance. Light graham cracker malt flavors are held in check by snappy hop spice notes. Thanks to a modest addition of Crystal hops (an American hop primarily grown in the Pacific Northwest), there is a touch more bite here than in a traditional German example – as well as a new dimension of spicy, herbal notes, but not so much as to distract from the basic, easy-drinking beer (it has just 5% alcohol). In all, it's refreshingly clean with slight hints of the fruity zing that great ale yeasts impart.
Like the rest of the Captain Lawrence beers, bottles of the Captain's Kolsch are emblazoned with the image of a beer barrel engulfed in flames and bearing the brewery's initials. Likewise, Captain Lawrence respects old world traditions without being shy about offering an exciting American take on the style. Still, we suggest you drink this one in the original glass, served in eights in a traditional kranz. [captainlawrencebrewing.com]