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Oktoberfest in New England

by Matt O'Connor

I’ve extolled the virtues of supporting local breweries and today’s column is no different, though there is a bit of a twist (stay tuned!). First, some history. Today’s beer is an Oktoberfest by style, though from nowhere near Germany. Oktoberfest is the world’s largest fair, held since 1810, in the German city of Munich from mid-September through the first weekend in October. The festival is held in an open park called Theresienwiese, literally, “Therese’s meadow.” Over seventeen days last year, it drew approximately six million visitors and served over seven million liters of beer.

Back in 1810, Ludwig, the Crown Prince of Bavaria, was married to Princess Therese and invited the city to come out and celebrate. The party has continued each year since, with the beer being the main star, though horse races and agricultural shows have been featured from time to time. As for the beer, in order to be served at Oktoberfest it must conform to Reinheitsgebot, the law of beer purity dating to 1516 that said beer could only be made of barley, hops, and water (they hadn’t yet figured out that the yeast from the air made the beer alcoholic) and the beer must be brewed within the city limits of Munich. This leaves only a select few breweries: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, Spaten, and Hofbräu. These six brewers are allowed to set up tents and serve the millions of visitors. Just don’t drink too much, or you’ll find yourself passed out on the lawn with the rest of the bierleichen (“beer corpses”).

The beers of Oktoberfest are lagers called Märzen, malty beers with alcohol contents of 5.8% to 6.5% ABV. Think amber, orange, and brown, with a rich sweetness. This beer appeals to many outside of Germany on a cold autumn day, so we see many breweries offering their take on an Oktoberfest. This includes today’s beer, Narragansett Fest lager.

Narragansett is probably best known for their original Lager, the east coast’s rival to the Midwest’s Pabst Blue Ribbon. Both are frequently available in bars — sometimes not openly advertised — for cheap. Now, I have no problem with ‘Gansett Lager, but this Fest is in a whole other league. Winner of a silver medal at the 2011 World Beer Championship, Fest is a high-quality take on the German style. Brewed with German malts and hops at their brewery in Rochester, N.Y., this pint can packs a delicious American interpretation.

Another reason I often reach for Narragansett, besides taste and affordability, is that they are a resurrected New England classic. First founded in 1890, the beer became a staple in the area, the official beer of the Red Sox, and the best selling beer in New England by 1955. The tagline then and now is the friendly, “Hi Neighbor, Have a ‘Gansett.” However, the ensuing twenty-five years were a slow decline. Competition ramped up; burgeoning giant Budweiser built a plant in nearby New Hampshire. Corporate structure changed, Narragansett was sold to Falstaff Brewery in 1965. The original intent of the sale was to tap into the larger company’s distribution network to spread Narragansett outside New England, but eventually the relationship soured. By 1981, the Rhode Island brewery was running in the red and production of Narragansett was moved to Falstaff’s brewery in Indiana before disappearing all together.

Flash forward to 2005. Mark Hellendrung, native Rhode Islander and former president of beverage company Nantucket Nectars, purchased the rights to Narragansett and brewed up the traditional recipe from their heyday. For now, their beers are brewed in facilities in New York and Pennsylvania, but the company’s ultimate goal is to reopen a brewery in Rhode Island. With every six-pack I purchase, I like to think I’m helping a once-local company return to its roots.

Their Fest beer is certainly worth buying, with or without the nostalgic sales pitch. On first pour, it is a clear copper color with a substantial tan head of foam. I get a nice whiff of hop aroma, toasted malt, some fresh fruit. This beer smells great. Taking a sip, the beer has a great mouthfeel, a bit creamy with a nice level of carbonation and a pleasant sweetness. It definitely is a malt-forward beer, like any good Oktoberfest. The finish has a touch of hop bitterness to really balance out the brew. Very well done. This stuff is a steal at a six-pack of pint cans for $9. I highly recommend you give it a try. Grade: B+


Narragansett Brewing Company – Fest Lager

Style: Marzen/Vienna Lager

ABV: 5.5%


Also Try:

Post Road Pumpkin Ale, Brooklyn Brewery (Brooklyn, N.Y.). I didn’t try this guy until after last week’s pumpkin beer column ran, but I’m glad I did. Great orange color, with tons of pumpkin, and a simple addition of nutmeg, so it’s not over-spiced. The earthiness of the malt and pumpkin hold it together, with a nice crisp finish. Grade: A-

Oktoberfest-Marzen, Paulaner Brewery (Munich, Germany). This became popular enough that Paulaner now brews it year-round. A solid true German choice. Grade: B+

Original Oktoberfest, Hacker-Pschorr Brewery (Munich, Germany). Okay, this one’s more of a homework assignment for you and me. I’m breaking the rules a bit, since I have not tried this myself, but was recently told by a reputable friend that this was the best Oktoberfest they’ve ever had. I shall see; you should too. Grade: TBD

Image courtesy of the author

 

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Matt O’Connor lives in Boston and is a proud graduate of Boston University. Explore beer with him as he quits his job in the sciences and starts law school. Send any requests, beer, or job offers to him at: matt.oconnor[at]theinclusive.net