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.
Two Brothers Atom Smasher
On October 12th, 1810, Bavaria's Prince Ludwig was married to Therese of Saxe-Hildberghausen and the citizens of Munich were invited to celebrate the occasion at a massive festival on the fields in front of the city gates. This being Germany, beer was served. The event was such a hit that it has been repeated annually ever since, with only the occasional break due to cholera epidemics and war. Both the festival and the beers that were served there became known as Oktoberfest, and we can all thank Ludwig and Therese for the complex (yet easy-drinking) lager and the great parties.
The Oktoberfest beers are smooth quaffers with a nuanced malt backbone. Only Munich-based breweries are allowed to sell their beers at the official festival, but the style has spread globally. Two Brothers Brewing Company, located outside of Chicago, brews one of our favorite American examples. Its Atom Smasher respects the traditional Oktoberfest flavor profile, but also puts a unique spin on the concept.
Atom Smasher pours a pale copper with a light tan head and it has a delicate bready aroma. At 7 percent alcohol, it's a stronger beer than most German examples, but if you didn't read the label you'd never know it. It drinks dangerously easily and has a beguilingly subtle malt character with a gentle toastiness. The beer is lagered, or aged cold, in oak foudres – large upright wooden barrels that are more commonly found in wineries than in breweries. The foudres soften the flavors a bit while adding a trace amount of vanilla flavor. This isn't a flavor that we normally associate with an Oktoberfest beer, but like the higher alcohol, it's not at all unwelcome.
Atom Smasher is packaged in bottles adorned with an illustration of the oak foudres that they're aged in – a nice touch. Unfortunately, there's a catch: Two Brothers have limited space in those foudres. Consequently, Atom Smasher is a limited release beer. Drink it while you have the chance because we're buying it whenever we see it. [twobrosbrew.com]
Credit: Photograph by Michael Pirrocco