O’ zapft ist!

Happy Autumn! And Happy Oktoberfest! O’ zapft ist!

I just happened to have five Bavarian Oktoberfests in my beer fridge, so I decided to post a little review and beer history. Tough job, I know, but someone has to do it, might as well be the Guru…

A quick review: Oktoberfest is a 16-day festival held annually in Munich, Bavaria, Germany, running from late September to the first weekend in October. It is one of the most famous events in Germany and is the world’s largest fair, with more than 5 million people attending every year. The Oktoberfest is an important part of Bavarian culture, having been held since 1810. The festival is held in an area named the Theresienwiese (field, or meadow, of Therese), often called Wies’n for short, located near Munich’s center. Large quantities of Oktoberfest Bier are consumed, with almost 7 million liters served during the 16 day festival. Only beer conforming to the Reinheitsgebot, at a minimum of 12.5% Stammwurze (approximately 6% alcohol) may be served at Oktoberfest. The beer must also be brewed within the city limits of Munich. Beers meeting these criteria may be designated Oktoberfest Bier.

The breweries that can produce Oktoberfest Beer under the criteria are: Augustiner-Bräu, Hacker-Pschorr Bräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner-Bräu, Spatenbräu and Stätlisches Hofbräu-Münich. Oktoberfest Beer is a registered Trademark by the Club of Munich Brewers.

Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I, was married to Princess Therese of Bavaria on October 12,1810. The citizens of Munich were invited to attend the festivities held on the fields in front of the city gates to celebrate the happy royal event. The fields have been named Theresienwiese (“Theresa’s meadow”) in honor of the Crown Princess ever since, although the locals have since abbreviated the name simply to the “Wies’n“.

Since 1950, there has been a traditional festival opening: A twelve gun salute and the tapping of the first keg of Oktoberfest beer at noon by the Mayor of Munich with the cry “O’ zapft ist!” (“It’s tapped!”) opens the Oktoberfest. The Mayor then gives the first beer to the Minister-President of the State of Bavaria.

History of the beer style: Also known as a Märzenbier (MARE-tzen-beer, “beer of March”) the style’s origin is credited to Gabriel Sedlmayr, based on an adaptation of the Vienna style developed by Anton Dreher around 1840, shortly after lager yeast was first isolated. It is typically brewed in the spring, signaling the end of the traditional brewing season and is stored in cold caves or cellars during the warm summer months, and served in autumn amidst traditional celebrations.

So – I tasted and formed opinions on the following five brews, not all of which are brewed in Munich (so they don’t qualify for the above list, necessarily), but all of which are German and therefore better representatives of the style (in my opinion) than most North American-brewed versions…

Weihenstephaner – 5.8% abv

  • color: clear straw, reminiscent of a pilsner; thin off-white head
  • nose: pretzels, graham crackers
  • flavor: thin, off-sweet, nice hop bitterness better suited to a Pilsner – not much of an O-fest…
  • overall: 3/5 – very tasty beer, but not well-suited for the category

Erdinger – 5.7% abv

  • color: slightly hazy straw to gold, thick white head
  • nose: pears/apricots, sweet – a little corn (diacteyl)
  • flavor: bread, malt, again diacetyl (caramel corn)
  • overall: 3.5/5 – not malty enough, too superficially sweet and affected by the diacetyl

Warsteiner – 5.9% abv

  • color: crystal clear deep gold, perfect off-white head
  • nose: malt, crackers, piney hops
  • flavor: rich, burnt sugar/caramel, malty
  • overall: 4/5 – from a brewery best known for an outstanding Pilsner, this is a very credible and well-made Märzen. Lovely to look at and eminently drinkable

Paulaner – 5.8% abv

  • color: reddish amber, thinnish white head
  • nose: floral hops, toasted malt, toffee
  • flavor: rich malty up front, dried fruit/raisins, some red wine-like tannins and tartness
  • overall: 4/5 – very much a classic example, well-rounded and complex

Spaten – 5.9% abv

  • color: amber, totally clear & bright, light off-white head
  • nose: malt, mild hops, pipe tobacco?
  • flavor: balanced – malt and hops take turns on the tongue, great sweetness and very pleasant bitterness
  • overall: 4.5/5

Ironically, the one of the five packaged in a green bottle came across as the freshest. There was not one I would dump down the sink, but clearly the beers brewed in Munich remain the best examples. Prost!

For more information about the Märzen/Oktoberfest style, or ideas on how to brew your own, I recommend (with a large grain of salt) George Fix’s Vienna/Märzen/Oktoberfest in the AHA Classic Style series. Whenever I am seeking information on a style, a brewery, a brewing region, I usually start with Michael Jackson’s “Beer Companion” or “New World Guide to Beer” When brewing or tasting the style, I always refer to the BJCP Style Guidelines, even if I don’t always follow them…

The Circle of Beer…

You may notice some cosmetic changes to the website happening, as we streamline and update the format and the look. We don’t plan to change much as far as the content and style go; that all seems to be working pretty well.

One piece I have been asked to do more frequently, though, is tasting notes and reviews. I guess there are some folks out there who respect my taste and opinions about beer and want to know what I’m drinking when I’m not drinking my own homebrew. So OK, I will try to take notes from time to time and post some reviews of recent interesting commercial beers I’ve tasted.

One person who has asked for these reviews is my friend Sarah, wife of webmaster Rick. And coincidentally, she dropped off a beer for me the other day that she had found in a store (not ours) while doing some errands. She and Rick shared 5/6 of a six-pack while waiting for me to get around to tasting my one bottle and giving my two cents. I’ve done one better and actually given them a clone recipe to brew it. Since today would have been Sarah’s late step-father Greg’s birthday, it seems especially appropriate to raise a glass to him, review the beer and publish a recipe to brew your own at home.

Coal Porter, brewed in Bar Harbor, Maine, by Atlantic Brewing Co.

This is a deep reddish-brown to almost black porter, with a thin but resilient tan head. It pours with the impression of thickness (which it really isn’t) and glows in the glass.

The nose reminds me of espresso beans (not necessarily brewed espresso, just the roasted beans), with hints of molasses and burnt sugar. There are some hop notes in the nose (a very English profile, to my senses) but the balance is towards roasted malt and sugars.

The first taste has traces of the same molasses, burnt sugar, perhaps toffee, and roasted malts. I detect a bitterness at the back of the tongue, but not much hop “flavor”. As the beer warms a little, there is more molasses and caramel, perhaps even a hint of praline/pecan. I like the balance between the roasted malt and the sweetness, it might well benefit by just a bit more mid-boil hop flavor.

This is not so much an American-style porter (like, say, Great Lakes Brewing’s Edmund Fitzgerald or the late-lamented Catamount Porter) but more of a mellow, sweet English-style brew, even approaching the sweetness and roastiness (if not the strength and full body) of the Taddy from Samuel Smith’s.

Overall impression: very drinkable sweet porter, not far from an English brown stout in terms of malt profile. If you like hoppy, aggressive American porters, this is probably not going to be your favorite. But if you like a more malt-oriented sweet porter, you will enjoy Coal Porter.


The Recipe:

5 gallons, all-grain


  • 8 lbs. 2-row pale malt
  • 1/2 lb. 60°L crystal
  • 1/4 lb. dark Munich malt
  • 1/4 lb. chocolate malt
  • 1/4 lb. black malt
  • 8 aau’s* Target (or Magnum) hop pellets
  • 5 aau’s Willamette (or Fuggles) hop pellets
  • English Ale yeast (Danstar Windsor dry yeast, White Labs London Ale yeast)
  • 1 cup amber DME (for priming)

OG: 1050

IBU’s: 37.5

Mash: 60 minutes in 13 quarts water at 152°F.

Sparge: 13 quarts water at 170°F.

Kettle: 60 minute boil, Target hops for 60, Willamette at knock-out.

Pitch yeast at 70°F.

Primary fermentation: 68 – 70°F for eight to ten days.

Secondary fermentation: cool (45 – 50°F) for three weeks.

Bottle condition cold for months (Atlantic claims to cellar theirs for six months before release).

What’s an “aau”? Hops used in a recipe are measure in basically three ways, depending on where you are in the process. The bitterness of a particular batch of hops is indicated as a “percent alpha acid”, or %aa. The higher the number, the more bitter the hop. The number of ounces of a hop used multiplied by its aa rating give the “alpha acid units” value, or aau. For example, 1/2 oz. of a 7% aa hop would give 3.5 aau’s. 2 oz. of a 4.5% aa hop would give 9 aau’s. When the hops are used in the boil, the aau’s are multipled by a utilization factor (ranging from .7 for dry-hops or hops added for less than 5 minutes of boiling; to 4.5 for hops in the boil 90 minutes or longer), a table of  which can be found in our Seven Barrel Brewery Brewers’ Handbook (p. 299). This gives you the approximate IBU (International Bitterness Units) rating. In this recipe, there are 8 aau’s for 60 minutes (factor of 4.25, or 34 ibu’s) plus 5 aau’s at KO (factor of .7, or 3.5 ibu’s), thus 37.5 IBU’s in total.

Tour de Vermont 2011

And so began our Tour de Vermont. The premise: I turned 50 in May and Eve and I decided to take a special trip to celebrate. We thought about Belgium and the Trappist monastery breweries… We thought about Scotland and the whisky distilleries… Airfare was deemed to be too much, so we began to look at domestic destinations. California – San Francisco, Chico, Napa Valley… Again, too expensive. The other limit was time – how long could our kids house-sit for us? Turns out, only two nights. Where could we go for two nights? Poring over a map and websites from the Vermont Brewers’ Association, we devised an itinerary that would hit 9 breweries, a vineyard and a home brew supply shop. Two nights staying at nice hotels, scenic drives, and all on a single tank of gas. Yep, we stayed in Vermont.

Ryan at Local Potion, Plainfield. Photo by Eve Ermer

Day 1: Departed Tunbridge at a little before 11 am after going over last minute instructions to our daughter who had just arrived to guard the homestead. A little over an hour’s drive brought us into Plainfield where I had contacted Ryan, proprietor of Local Potion, a nice home brew store. We spent half an hour talking shop, swapping stories about brews, hops, recipes… Ryan recommended a pizza shop around the corner, Positive Pie, which turned out to have a nice little beer bar. So with my huge slice of pepperoni pizza, I got a draft Trapp Summer Hop lager, a nice crisp pilsner style golden brew. Very refreshing, a nice start to the day’s festivities.

From there, we followed convoluted Google Maps directions to find Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro Bend. We got there, but it was probably not the most direct route. I had emailed Shaun Hill, the brewer, to basically invite myself up on a day when the brewery was closed to the public. At first, one of the brewery’s employees, Dan, was explaining the beers and pouring tastes, as Shaun was in the office paying bills. When he finally emerged, Shaun couldn’t have been more gracious, pouring us samples of Edward (an American Pale Ale); Summit (a single-hop pale ale, basically the same beer as Edward but using only Summit hops); Double Galaxy (a big IPA generously hopped with Australian Galaxy hops – Yummy!); Everett, a gorgeous chocolaty porter; and an Imperial Stout brewed in Belgium by Danish brewers Mekkelen (who I guess had spent some time with Shaun brewing in Vermont…)…

Shaun Hill at the Hill Farmstead tasting room. Photo by Eve Ermer.

Talking beer and brewing with the brewer himself always gives you a good insight into the beer… We left with growlers of Everett and Double Galaxy, and are looking forward to catching up with Hill Farmstead at the VBF in a couple weeks.

Coming down from Greensboro we found ourselves in Hardwick. In search of ice to keep Shaun’s growlers cold, we walked through town. We eventually found bags of ice at a market, put it in the cooler and then decided to venture into the famous Claire’s for a drink. Eve had iced coffee and some kind of chocolate dessert, I had a root beer float made from Vermont Sweetwater Root Beer, which was amazing.

Next stop was Morrisville, and the brand new brewing home of Rock Art Brewing. As we walked into the very-easy-to-find-with-plentiful-convenient-parking brewery and tasting room, we were practically handed samples. For $4 we got sample tasting glasses and 3 oz. samples of their White Tail Golden Ale, Ridge Runner Barleywine, American Red Ale and an ESB brewed with Magnum and Tomahawk hops. The latter was my favorite. The young lady serving the samples was very friendly and seemed to know her beer. A few minutes later and off with we went with brewery co-owner Renée Nadeau for a quick overhead view of the brewery,

Rock Art's new brewing facility, from the viewing window. Photo by Eve Ermer.

with an explanation of all the parts and pieces (husband and co-owner Matt was in the back of the plant somewhere wrestling with something technical…).

Turns out that they are using some of the same Grundy tanks from a lot acquired by my old friend Greg Noonan for Seven Barrel Brewery almost 20 years ago… I knew they looked familiar! Anyway, it was a pleasure meeting Renée, and a pleasure to see the new digs. Lots of room for expansion, so lots of room for more beer!!! Bought a hat, a t-shirt for Eve and a glass.

From Morrisville we proceeded to our evening’s lodgings – The Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe. A view to rival the Austrian Alps, a large well-appointed room with a balcony overlooking said view, and the promise of a Trapp Lager or two later in the evening. Meanwhile, we had planned to go back out to the nearby Shed Restaurant for dinner. On the Mountain Rd. in Stowe, the Shed is a favorite during ski season – in fact, their six-glass sampler is called a “Ski of Beer” and comes served on a piece of old ski with glass-holders welded on… The ski itself, unfortunately, was the highlight of the evening.

The presentation was better than the beer... Photo by Eve Ermer.

An ordinary golden ale, a mediocre amber ale, a brittle/dry IPA, a strong dry stout, their flagship Mountain Ale (sort of an English Strong Ale), and a cloudy, yeasty and fruity raspberry wheat were all disappointments. The service was slow and inattentive, the dining room was filled with some of the worst Muzak we had heard in a long time (imagine a string quartet arrangement of Sting followed by a cheesy synth-pop instrumental ABBA tune…). The food? Well, around us almost every other table was complaining to the waitstaff about something – wrong side dish, ingredients in the soup that weren’t listed, steak not done right, etc… Eve had a quesadilla which tasted basically like a cardboard box. I had southern-fried chicken that was quite good, at first, but as it cooled it got drier and blander. ( Hours later I would realize just how much grease I had actually eaten, spending a good 45 minutes sick to my stomach.)

Here's to you, Walter! Photo by Eve Ermer

Back at the Trapp Lodge, we tried (unsuccessfully) to access the internet from our room.

No luck, it seems their wireless router was down, at least in our wing of the Lodge. We were able to get online downstairs in the library, and so were able to catch up with the world. Dessert seemed in order, so into the Lounge we went. Eve actually had dessert (a beautiful Linzer Torte); I chose beer as my dessert. We raised our glasses of Amber Lager and Dunkel to our friend Walter, formerly of Vermont but now back home in his native Österreich.



My favorite breakfast. Photo by Eve Ermer.

Day 2 dawned over the Green Mountains and we started off with a big old-fashioned country breakfast. I had steak and eggs and homefries, Eve had salmon.

Our waiter, Dave, was very entertaining and I think we talked him into coming down for the Tunbridge Fair in September. He had never been, despite living an hour away for 20 years or so. We decided to go out for a “walk” before packing up and departing. The Trapp Lodge property has miles of hiking trails , and I think we covered about a third of them. A muggy, buggy morning, but we did burn off most of breakfast.

On the road then, planning on a pilgrimage to the popular and well-regarded Three Penny Taproom in downtown Montpelier. They had a great draft beer list, both local and imported. The food menu was fairly limited, and we had to negotiate a bit with the chef to get a sandwich that I could eat (I can’t eat anything with vinegar – allergy to acetic acid), but he was very accommodating and in the end it was quite a nice lunch. I had another of the Mekkelen Stout from Hill Farmstead, and a Southern Tier 2X IPA (not from Vermont, but an outstanding beer nonetheless). I bought a T-shirt.

Three Penny Taproom - Too many choices... Photo by Eve Ermer

From Montpelier we made a quick swing down to Warren, where Sean Lawson had promised me I could find bottles of his Acer Quercus at the Warren Store. Lawson’s Finest Liquids does no tours or tastings, as their facility is in Sean’s house, and the exclusive seller of his bottled beers is in fact the Warren Store. Some of his brews are available on draft around the state, if you’re lucky enough to find them. I did get a couple of bottles of the Acer, which is a maple-infused Strong Ale or Barleywine style beer, aged on oak, a collaboration with the Bruery in Placentia, CA. I have tasted the beer since, and I like it a lot. I also bought a pint glass and a bag of ice at the Warren Store.

Our next stop was South Burlington. We were headed for Bristol for the evening but had a lot of time to kill before we ended our day. We planned to hit Magic Hat and then the Shelburne Vineyard, both on Route 7 heading back towards Middlebury and Bristol. As we headed north on Route 17, around Hinesburg, ominous black clouds built up to the west and soon we were dodging small flying branches and hailstones. Visibility diminished to almost nothing so we pulled into a driveway to wait it out. A truck from one of the power companies was also parked there and we both asked each other if it was OK to park there. He too was just waiting out the storm. Then the owner of the house drove in and around us, laughing as she went by. The storm passed quickly, and we hit the road again. We later found out that our daughter had been on the ridge of Mt. Hunger when the storm hit, and had gotten thoroughly soaked before reaching shelter at the bottom. The same storm took down a cherry tree in our yard back home, landing half of it on top of the chicken coop. No chickens were harmed, fortunately.

We had toured the Magic Hat plant many years ago, and our son had worked on the bottling line when he first got out of college, so we had a sort of vague expectation of weirdness

Flash and Hype. Oh and a little beer too... Photo by Eve Ermer.

as we pulled into the parking lot. Our expectations were exceeded – neon and black lights and loud music and a lot of young people in tie-dye… we found the bar and were given the complete sample set – Single Chair Golden Ale, Circus Boy Hefe-Weizen, Hex (a smokier version of a Scottish ale than I remembered…), Wacko (colored and sweetened with beet juice) and the Blind Faith IPA. We skipped the #9 apricot-flavored pale ale, because neither of us likes it. OK, it’s Magic Hat’s most popular beer, but that just gives you an idea about who actually drinks Magic Hat, right? No t-shirt, no pint glass, already have ‘em, thanks. Let’s get out of here.

As we headed south into Shelburne, we passed the still-under-construction future home of Fiddlehead Brewing. Guess we’ll have to make another trip over this way later in the summer, Matty!

In the end we decided to skip the vineyard, we were getting a little tired and felt like we were going to be late and miss seeing the Bobcat’s brewmaster, Mark Magiera, who was planning to wait a little while for us after his day’s chores were done. We got into Bristol, found our B&B, changed our clothes and walked over to the Bobcat. The café is a “community supported” business, meaning that people in the town of Bristol and nearby bought shares and invested in it to make it work, and work it does. Very cool atmosphere, interesting menu, and above all, excellent beers. Mark was still there, at the bar, and came over to the table once we got seated. We got his recommendations on both the food and the beer, and arranged to get a quick tour of the brewery after we ate. Seems like Mark was not in a hurry to get out of there…

Mark Magiera, Brewmaster, Dana Johnston, Bartender, Bobcat Café. Photo by Eve Ermer.

Much to my surprise, another friendly face was behind the bar – Dana, once a bartender at the Seven Barrel Brewery and later the Vermont Pub & Brewery, was now ensconced and seemed very much a part of the Bobcat scene. A quick photo opp with Mark & Dana and we settled into a corner table with a view on the street, and perused the menu. I had a couple pints of Dennis Hopper’d, a Goldings and Citra Triple-hopped Belgian IPA; Eve had its milder cousin Easy Rider. I had a nice steak, Eve had a venison meatloaf… then I had one more beer, an IPA bittered with Millennium and Falcon’s Flight hops, appropriately named “Chewy” – think about it, Star Wars fans…

We then got The Tour. I think we saw every corner of the brewery, the storage rooms, the keg area… Mark makes do with half the space of many of his colleagues around the state, and it’s very impressive. The last stop was the back alley where Mark has 4 hop vines planted against the back of the building, 4 different varieties, from which he brews his annual Brick Wall Ale. At that point we needed a breather, so we walked around town a bit, went back to the B&B to check the cell phones, and eventually went back to the café – we had neglected to get a stamp in our VBA passport! Well, of course we had to have another round so up to the bar we went, where I had a smooth pilsner called Lincoln Lager. Eve opted for coffee. Spent some time reminiscing about the old days at the Barrel with Dana, and eventually called it a night.

The next morning was of course the last of the trip. Breakfast and packing at the B&B, a quick walk around Bristol with the shops open, and on to Middlebury. We got to the Otter Creek/Wolaver’s brewery just as they were opening up the tasting room and gift shop.

Otter Creek, the view from the tasting room. Photo by Eve Ermer.

We got a 6-beer sampler and a bowl of popcorn. Although I had tasted everything they had to offer before, some of them were new to Eve. The tasting room shares a glass wall with the brewing facility, so we were able to watch the proceedings in there, including a cool bottling line. Naturally, I bought a T-shirt.

Leaving Otter Creek, we passed the Vermont Organic Soap factory and outlet store, where we filled a box with small bars of variously scented soaps, making the car smell of lavender, lemongrass, sage, and I don’t know what else… We headed into the town of Middlebury itself, and were able to find our way around the Middlebury College campus where I spent most of the summer of 1984. It was lunch time, so we hit the Two Brothers Tavern, which features local foods, local beers, and a pretty cool atmosphere.

Alas, it was homeward bound then, driving over the Middlebury Gap and back through Rochester, Bethel and home to Tunbridge. We had spoken with our daughter in the morning which was when we learned that the thunderstorm we had driven through in Hinesburg had hit Tunbridge and taken out our Montmorency Cherry tree, so we were a little nervous about seeing the damage. It was much as we expected, a confusing pile of branches but nothing tragic. We were even able to pick, over the next few days, nearly 10 lbs. of ripe cherries, with which I brewed an Imperial Cherry Stout. All in all a great trip – highlights for me were definitely the beers at Hill Farmstead and the Bobcat Café, overnight and breakfast at the Trapp Lodge, discovering the town of Warren, and the scenery in the mountains at the Lincoln and Middlebury gaps.

For more photos, see the album on Facebook at www.facebook.com/VTHomebrewguru.