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.
Coney Island Human Blockhead Imperial American Bock
A traditional dobbelbock is a strong malty German-style lager made from only barley, hops, and water. In fact, since 1516 Duke Wilhelm IV's Beer Purity Law of 1516 those were the only ingredients allowed in any German beer (they didn't realize that they were also using yeast until Louis Pasteur discovered its role in 1857). Shmaltz Brewing Company, out of Brooklyn, New York, cheerfully treads all over this tradition by aging a supercharged doppelbock in a bourbon barrel.
Like most doppelbocks, Human Blockhead is a deep, powerful malt bomb. There are caramel and raisin notes with just enough underlying bitterness to maintain a steady balance. That's where German tradition ends and American inspiration begins. The beer clocks in at a hefty 10 percent alcohol – huge even by doppelbock standards. The barrel aging softens the flavor, though, and lends a vanilla note, but the bigger contribution comes from the bourbon that was the barrel's prior resident. It integrates nicely, and while there's some warmth from the alcohol there's none of the whiskey burn that can haunt beers of this style.
While a beer this unencumbered by tradition might inspire an imitation of the sideshow performer on the label (who, true to the Coney Island Show, is driving a nail into his face), we recommend a more measured approach. Split a 22-ounce bomber bottle with a friend and enjoy it with some proscuitto, gruyere cheese, and a nice hunk of bread. [shmaltzbrewing.com]