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Simple Ain’t Easy

It’s just past mid-September which can only mean one thing in the Wonderful World of Beer: Oktoberfest.  If that sounds a bit off and you’ve always wondered why Oktoberfest started in September the answer is simple but largely irrelevant to us Two Season (hot and rainy) Davisites.  The original festival in Munich was lengthened years ago and pushed forward into September to avoid the shorter and colder days of October.  Most of us in this climate might prefer to wait to drink fall beers when the temps actually dip below 90 degrees with some regularity.   But since right about now that starts to feel like it will never ever happen ever again ever, this time of year will have to do.

In Davis, that means that our own little slice of Bavaria is brewing up their seasonal Fest Marzen over at Sudwerk.  I’ll be the first to admit that I used to be more of an Oktoberfest fan than I currently am.  When the craft brew industry started getting funky and putting more hop forward beers on the market (think IPA’s), I was one of those that assumed my prayers for tasty beer had been heard and answered with gusto.  Old school Bavarian lagers, even if amber, were so…well, old school.

Interestingly enough, old school is just what the folks at Sudwerk are going for.  Lagers are simple beers, brewed with few ingredients.  But simple doesn’t translate into easy.  I learned this first hand in graduate school when I worked as a baker for an artisan bakery in the wee hours of the morning.  Without fail, the dough that varied the most from day to day and baker to baker was the French bread dough.  That could have been because groggy grad students occasionally attempted to study and mix dough at the same time resulting in some unusual concoctions.  On second thought, nah, that couldn’t have been a factor.  It’s the most simple recipe in any bakery’s book, but like the Marzen, that doesn’t translate into an easy or good bread.  If anything, for both the french bread and the Marzen those few ingredients apparently get persnickety about working together and prefer to bicker when not handled correctly.

And yet getting it just right with so few ingredients is part of the allure of baking good bread and for the folks at Sudwerk, brewing a good Marzen.  As one of the master brewers put it to me, “The art is not so much in the craziness or complexity of the beer, but in the mastery of simple ingredients which can easily go wrong and often do.”

You start to see why the brewers at Sudwerk prefer to use words like “delicate” or “elegant” to describe bitterness instead of the extreme bitterness of more trendy beers.   This is a beer that is subtle to be sure, but ultimately quite drinkable.

Best in Show - 2010 California State Fair

The Fest Marzen is brewed especially for this season and is designed in similar fashion as those you’d find if you headed to Munich this week: a malt forward beer with slightly higher levels of alchohol (7.5 abv) and more quaffable than other beer.  This year especially, making an easier drinking, more popular Fest Marzen for the season was a challenge for Sudwerk because their standard Marzen won Best in Show at the California State Fair.  I was hoping to sample my beer today out of the enormous trophy that goes with such a feat, but apparently it is still a “traveling trophy” and hasn’t found a home in the Sudwerk trophy case in Davis yet.  I expect an invitation to imbibe the winning beer out of the trophy when it does arrive.  You can be sure pictures will accompany that post.

The Fest Marzen is fairly light in color and has more caramel than nut notes.  It isn’t a beer that knocks you off your seat with creativity and explosiveness, but it wasn’t designed to.  It was meant to be drinkable, subtle, even academic.  Whereas other super hoppy or extravagant beers might mask problems in production, there is no place to hide with a Marzen.  You either know how to work with these few ingredients or you don’t.  If your water is horrible, the beer will be too and a bunch of hops can’t cover it up.  And again, therein lies the challenge and the art of brewing a good Marzen.  Like good French bread, it seems such a staple tasting beer that it is easily over looked for a sexier brew.  But also like good French bread, this stuff just tastes good when it is done right.  Sudwerk does the Marzen right – seasonal or otherwise.

If you are interested in trying it, you’d better hurry because it isn’t expected to last much longer.  German beers are best when they are freshest, and if drinking any lager, I prefer it from the tap.  If that describes you, you probably have a week to try the Fest Marzen from the brewpub in Davis as they expect to run out by the end of the month.  Ah, the wild irony of the fact that the beer brewed specifically for Oktoberest probably won’t last until the month it is named after.  It is however widely available in bottles for the first time this year in grocery stores in and around Davis, but if you go that route, you have no chance of drinking it out of that trophy with me.


Afterthought: I’ll be down at the Grad on Friday evening at 6 PM for the Anderson Valley Brewing Company tasting they are hosting.  Come find me, say hello, and we’ll talk beer.

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