Oktoberfest 1999


Work this year has not been exactly what one might call "phat". When Avery decided to go back to his old stomping grounds back East, I thought to expand my horizons and bank balance and try my hand at his vacated Marketing job. What I didn't realize then (and it isn't Avery's fault, they'd reorganized shortly before he left) was that this has become the kind of job you have to grab by the balls and make of it what you will.

Problem is, I haven't yet figured out where the balls are. My dad says maybe there are no balls in Marketing, and he makes a compelling point.

In any case, I've basically kept my head down all year, trying to figure out what's expected of me. The months have just flown by. All of a sudden it was October 13, and Avery reminded me it was the Toronado's annual Oktoberfest party. No way I was going to miss that! As Ferris said, life goes by pretty fast, and if you don't stop once in a while and take a look around, you'll miss it.

My editor gave me two tasks: Secure a commemorative Spaten mug, and inquire as to this year's Belgian Beer Festival. Who am I to say no to such an intriguing proposition? I quickly shut down the pc and locked away the boombox (it's dutifully been supporting my work ethic all year by regaling me with NPR and Cubanismo! CDs--I even bought it as a hedge to get this job--what a joke), and ran downstairs to catch the bus out to the Haight.

It was already rush hour, and at the second stop on the line, the bus was already just about packed. I didn't mind too much, though, because I got a seat, which meant I could jot down my thoughts (since lost, with my tasting notes, in a Nino crash--don't ask). At the very next stop, the bus had to heel over and lower itself, with much rider-shuffling, because a wheelchair-bound passenger was boarding. Do I begrudge anyone the right to use public transportation? No, just obnoxious people--I feel they should have no rights at all. But the fact remains that at the worst time of day, on the busiest street in town, when it would make sense to have only buses on that street, we hold up pretty much all traffic for a good five minutes, so this citizen can go two stops (about five long blocks) and repeat the process to disembark. I wouldn't even care, if it wasn't for my waning hopes of getting a seat near the end of the bar, where the oompah band would set up.

Enough ranting. I made it to the Toronado, and not a second too soon, as there were only two stools left open. I planted myself in one, and greeted Kirsten, who ran down the short list of Oktoberfest beers (and leaving out a crucial entry, as I would later discover). I figured I'd wait until seven to try the Spaten, as it was only then they could start selling the aforementioned mugs.

A quick note on Oktoberfest beers. Spaten invented the style back in about 1870. It's a relatively strong beer, dark amber in color, with a good sour aroma, and a spreading warmth and malty sweetness. When it's done well, it's very good, and easy to drink in large amounts. The commemorative Spaten mug, for example, is a one-liter size.

First I decided to try the Sierra Nevada. Anyone who's tried their Pale knows it's a much better than average, if a little unambitious, strongly hopped ale. Their Oktoberfest was a decent try, although I can't really recommend it as an example of the style. It wasn't sour enough, and any sweetness there may have been quickly disappeared--they should have called it Oktoberfest dry. At best, the Sierra Nevada was a workmanlike effort. Two smoke rings.

I struck up a conversation with my neighbor at the bar, a smart fellow with whom I agreed on most points. We talked politics, beer, and nightmare roommate stories. It's a very attractive thing about the Toronado that you can just talk casually with people you don't even know, and even disagreement is handled civilly and cordially. We watched the Yankees kick butt and take names over Boston, and as the pro-Red Socks (or was it anti-New York?) attitude was palpable, I judiciously kept my pleasure to myself. As a rule, I don't involve myself in sports, except to watch an occasional soccer game, the World Cup (2002 in Tokyo? What's that about?), and when the Yankees are doing well. Hometown affiliations die hard, I guess.

Next up was the Lagunitas Oktober. I know Lagunitas has occasional consistency problems, but I've had very good luck this year with them, especially their Fred, Dogtown Pale, and Pils have been excellent. Oktober was no exception. Not the classic taste you'd expect, but like any good craft brewer, Lagunitas added a touch of hop to the flavor that went a long way. Nice and strong, too, just in time for the fine sausages and potato salad supplied by Jeff at Rosamunde. Three smoke rings for Lagunitas, and the usual four for Jeff.

It was about this time I noticed a familiarly-shaped tap handle, oval, with white letters on a black background--The classic Speakeasy tap. This one, however, had the Oktoberfest flag (blue and white checks) on it. Could it be? Speakeasy's already had two terrific new styles this year, Big Daddy Pale (when they start bottling next March, Sierra Nevada'll have something to worry about), which always brings a smile to my face, and the 2nd Anniversary Pale, so good it works equally well on tap and on hand-pump. Scowl readers are already familiar with Avery's glowing reviews of Speakeasy. I have to say I, a fellow Speakeasy shareholder, am not without my special interest in the brewery, but let me state for the record, I only bought into the company because of my devotion to the product. They put so much soul into the beers there, you can taste it. Speakeasy's beers have a breadth of flavor seldom equaled by brewers who've been at it a lot longer.

Sure enough, it was Speakeasy's Oktoberfest 1999. But what a disappointment! Kirsten even said, when I asked why she'd left it off her list, that it was "weird-tasting". It was the most sour thing I'd ever smelled! I thought somebody'd mixed it with bachelor milk (any of you who've lived alone as a bachelor, or visited one, will understand the expression). The Speakeasy breadth of palate was definitely there, and the malt sweetness combined with a candy-sugar taste worthy of the best Belgian [Avery, what's that sweet stuff again? Rodenbach? -- Note From Avery: No, it was Kasteel Brown]. But the sour-milk smell was just too much. It was all I could do to finish a pint of it.

I've since discovered the almost unforgivable error of the Toronado's in not properly cleaning their lines when they put up this keg--apparently, after the first twenty-or-so pints, the extra sourness dissipated. I wonder if Speakeasy is a little cursed at the Toronado. A similar thing happened last year with Wit Lightning, which has now become one of Avery's and my favorites. I'd gladly take a Wit Lightning now, even over Hoegaarden, the benchmark of Wit beers. I can say the same now about Oktoberfest '99, having brought home a growler (1/2 gallon) of it last weekend and polished off most of it myself).

So, then, my belated review of Speakeasy Oktoberfest. The sour aroma is there, and powerful, but not overpowering. The warmth and sweetness start to grow almost immediately, spreading to fill the mouth with flavor. They didn't blend hops with this one, they only used one Bavarian strain, and it gives the perfect counterpoint to the sweetness. Did you ever bite into a fresh chocolate-chip cookie and find that one undissolved crystal of salt that makes the cookie sing to you?--That's what I'm talking about. The flavor then fades slowly away to nothing, so you can taste it again and again, right to the bottom of the glass. Four smoke rings.

Now, the Granddaddy -- A liter of Spaten. Even after all I'd already drunk (three pints, if you've been paying attention), I could have finished this liter and kept right on going (and at three dollars a liter after buying the mug, there was little reason to stop, other than getting home on our miserable excuse for Rapid Transit). Spaten have had over a century to get it right, and right they have gotten it. Very smooth, with a soft sour aroma, and a warmth that doesn't even start until after you've swallowed. How'd they do that? By now, the oompah band was in full swing, playing Bavarian songs and a rousing round of "Take me out to the ballgame" when the Yanks took it in ten. Spaten gets three-and-a-half smoke rings.

Avery's since received his mug, and the Belgian Beer Festival update (sad to say, there may not be one), and I certainly have no complaints about this year's Oktoberfest.

Anyone planning to be in San Francisco next year, let me know, and I'll save you a stool.