Everything You Need to Know About Oktoberfest
Beer guru Greg Engert offers a little history lesson.
As beer-centric celebrations go, Northern Virginia is not Bavaria. But finding great fall brews doesn’t require a trans-Atlantic flight if you know what to look for. We checked in with suds savant Greg Engert, the beer director for Rustico in Ballston (as well as its many sister restaurants under the Neighborhood Restaurant Group umbrella) to discuss the history of Oktoberfest, the current state of German brewing and what you’re likely to find on tap this time of year.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s talk history. Where does Oktoberfest come from?
It started out as a wedding celebration in 1810 in Bavaria, which was not affiliated with other German states at that time. Crown Prince Ludwig married Princess Theresa. As was the custom, they invited the commoners to come and share in the celebration. They had such a great time that they continued to honor the marriage in the same place every year.
Oddly enough, they’re not even sure there was beer at the original Oktoberfest—but in the broader context, many traditional agricultural societies had these harvest parties, celebrating the arrival of the new crops. So this ends up being an exalted harvest party.
What styles of beer tend to dominate Oktoberfest and why?
Back then, brewing was 100 percent seasonal. There was no refrigeration, so this was rustic brewing. Beer was only brewed in the cooler months [and then cellared in caves]. Typically, by the time you got to the fall and these harvest parties, you’d be downing the last of the previous spring’s brews. They were drinking Märzen, which means March. All of the beers at this time would have been richer, stronger-hopped and darker in color.
It wasn’t until the 1870s that [Oktoberfest] became the fest we know today. Lagers became far more important, and brewers started using lighter malts. In 1871, the Spaten brewery began brewing fresh beer that wasn’t quite as dark, more like amber. That became what we know as Oktoberfest lager.
Since the 1950s and ’60s, a lot of the Munich breweries started to experiment with something called “fest beer.” Weihenstephaner is probably the best example. It’s still a little richer and maltier and stronger, but it’s pale gold, rather than copper to red in color. They did this because people had been falling in love with these golden-colored beers. Nowadays if you go to Oktoberfest, breweries will have two different beer styles.
I assume a beer designed for anyone who’s going to be sitting at a long table and drinking for hours will be lower in alcohol?
No, that’s what frightening about it. They’re actually not. They’re always under 6 percent, but drinking liter after liter of 5.5 or 5.6 percent alcohol is intense. That’s the traditional festbier strength for Germans.
Let’s talk about the Reinheitsgebot (aka the “German Beer Purity Law”), which has traditionally restricted German brewers to using only malted barley, yeast and hops to make their beers. How limiting is that, and how creative can they get within that framework?
This was one of many state regulations put upon the beer industry. The more beer that was sold, the more taxes collected. In the old days, the regulations ensured that the beer would taste the way it was supposed to taste. It also conserved ingredients like wheat, which were needed more for bread making and the food supply. It wasn’t until the end of the late-19th and early-20th centuries that wheat beer in Bavaria became permissible.
In the meantime, Bavarians found a lot of creativity within those restrictions. There were different versions of alcohol level, different kinds of malt and hops that guaranteed a kind of subtle nuance and complexity. It’s fascinating that American brewers are starting to go back in that direction and get interested in some of those nuances.
What kinds of interesting beers are coming out of Germany now?
I’m still interested in the classics. Americans are making better lagers and wheat beers, but for me they just don’t hold a candle to the classics coming out of Germany. I was in Franconia about a month and a half ago, visiting these small, rustic breweries. Every little village has one or two of them. They all just make the most incredible kellerbier: unfiltered, unpasteurized, with the character of fresh bread.
What are some of your favorites at Rustico right now?
Ayinger makes a fantastic fest Marzen lager. It’s in that Oktoberfest style, but a bit lighter, like a dark copper. There’s another great beer that we’re pouring called Andechs Spezial Helles, which comes from a monastic brewery in Bavaria. It’s the color of a weissen beer, like golden, but it clocks in closer to 5.9 percent.
We’re also getting [Virginia-based] Ocelot’s Oktoberfest; it’s called Witching Hour. We’ll have a bit of the D.C. Brau Oktoberfest, too.
Will Rustico carry on the Oktoberfest tradition?
We are doing our annual Novemberfest the first weekend in November at Rustico Alexandria. It’s kind of a co-production. We’ll have 80 different Virginia craft beers on draft, some of which will be autumnal in style.