The Brew Crew gathered at Franz Solo’s house this Sunday for our first Oktoberfest challenge. Like our previous challenges, it was a blind taste test (thanks to our wonderful beer maiden, Taylor). This was the first time we felt there were enough marzen-style beers on tap at the same time to hold this sort of challenge. And yet, we still ended up short of our projected seven due to La Cumbre having run out of theirs on Saturday (in their defense, the brewing staff was a bit busy up in Denver with GABF and all). Instead of a lucky seven we had a pick six.
The contenders were from Back Alley, Boxing Bear, Broken Bottle, Ponderosa, Tractor, and Turtle Mountain. We obtained our growlers and half-growlers and, following a feast of turkey, mashed potatoes, and green chile mac-n-cheese (Porter Pounder brought that delicious dish), we sat down to try all six Oktoberfests via a blind taste test format, similar to what the rest of you experience at the IPA Challenge every year.
Each Oktoberfest brought something a little different to the table. One even had a hoppy bite of sorts, a truly different take on the style. Another used a copious amount of wheat malt, which is not unheard of at some traditional German breweries. Our respective rankings will be listed below the overall rankings, which are a compilation of our individual scores. We graded the beer in four categories — aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, and finish — with scores from zero to five, with half-points allowed.
Without further adieu, from sixth to first, here are the Crew’s picks for the top Oktoberfest beers currently on tap in the ABQ metro area.
6. Ponderosa (61 points): We were all a little thrown by this beer, which goes off an old German recipe for a marzen that calls for the use of wheat malt. I had a German Oktoberfest that did this (Erdinger) and it seemed a little off the style we’re all more generally used to. The wheat malt gave it a bitter finish, which is pretty much where it scored the lowest for each of us. We know Matt can’t tinker too much with some of the recipes he’s given from the brewmaster in Portland, but a little less wheat would be a good thing. Individual scores: Brandon 10, E-Rock 15, Franz Solo 9, Mrs. Solo 10, Porter Pounder 7, Stoutmeister 10.
5. Back Alley (61.5 points): Addison later told Brandon that this was from the bottom of a keg, and it seemed to show in our scores. We all liked it better when we tried it at Hopfest. The carbonation, in particular, seemed to have flattened out. It led to an “uneven” flavor profile, as Franz Solo wrote. When it pours right, this one has a good amount of sweetness without being overly sugary. We’ll all have to trek downtown and try this one again from a fresher keg. Individual scores: Brandon 11, E-Rock 12, Franz Solo 10.5, Mrs. Solo 10, Porter Pounder 8, Stoutmeister 10.
4. Tractor (70.5 points): This one surprised the heck out of me. I’d had Tractoberfest down at Wells Park and it tasted great. Something was off with this batch that I got from Nob Hill. Maybe it was the growler, maybe it was a recently cleaned line, but I picked up something almost soapy here (one other person agreed, the rest did not, so maybe my tastebuds were just off). This was the last beer we tried, so perhaps our palates were tired. It certainly produced a very wide range of scores. Individual scores: Brandon 16, E-Rock 12, Franz Solo 8, Mrs. Solo 13, Porter Pounder 14, Stoutmeister 7.5.
3. Broken Bottle (81 points): Most of us haven’t been to Broken Bottle in a while as it’s far from our homes and we’ve been too busy trying to keep up with all the new places. Perhaps it’s time we went back, if this beer is any indication. One of the best aromas of the bunch invited us in. It was a unique beer in that the malts produced both a sweetness and a bitterness that hit you at once. It was quite smooth as well. Individual scores: Brandon 12, E-Rock 13, Franz Solo 14, Mrs. Solo 12, Porter Pounder 15, Stoutmeister 15.
2. Boxing Bear (84.5 points): What’s an Oktoberfest that’s not an Oktoberfest? It’s an Oktobearfest, Boxing Bear’s inaugural variation on the style. Right from the aroma you could tell this beer is different. The nose is greeted by a mix of Northwestern hops, with that pine scent so familiar to many pale ales and beers of that sort. The flavor carried through the hops as well, as they were stronger than the malts, save for on the finish, when the malty sweetness came through. As someone put it best, “This isn’t an Oktoberfest, but it’s a damn fine beer.” Trek over to Boxing Bear and decide for yourselves. We expect a wide range of responses to this brew. Individual scores: Brandon 15.5, E-Rock 14, Franz Solo 17.5, Mrs. Solo 13, Porter Pounder 13, Stoutmeister 11.5.
1. Turtle Mountain (86.5 points): Congrats to brewer Tim Woodward, who claimed this title with a sweet little malt monster of a beer. The malt sweetness is the biggest defining factor of this beer. Those who scored it highest obviously love that, those who scored lowest thought it was too much. Overall it scored strongly in mouthfeel and finish as well as flavor. Compared to Oktobearfest this beer was pretty much the opposite. Right now it scores as the best in the ABQ metro area, though Bosque and Chama River still have Oktos to come, La Cumbre could always bring theirs back, and I got to try Blue Corn’s up in Santa Fe on Monday and it was excellent as well. For now, though, Turtle Mountain gets to wear the crown. Individual scores: Brandon 13.5, E-Rock 14, Franz Solo 18.5, Mrs. Solo 11, Porter Pounder 14, Stoutmeister 15.5.
We’ll have a pumpkin beer challenge coming up in the weeks ahead. That one should be interesting considering the wide variety of pumpkin beers this year, from the more traditional (La Cumbre’s Witch’s Tit) to the darker (Ponderosa’s Chocolate Pumpkin Porter) to the funky (Canteen’s Pumpkin Saison).
Until then, we encourage everyone to head out and try all of these grand Oktoberfest beers for yourselves. Let us know what you think is the best in town. And then head up to Santa Fe to see which one up there between Blue Corn, SFBC, and Second Street, is the best.