What is Oktoberfest? There is Oktoberfest, the beer, and there is Oktoberfest, the annual Munich beer festival. To the uninitiated, one might assume that the latter was named after the well-known beer, but it’s really the other way around. Oktoberfest has been around since 1810, making it almost an ancient celebratory tradition that not only remains a popular event today, but has also made its way across the globe. It’s celebrated around this time of the year, either in September or October, so if you’re intending to drop by, it might be prudent to prepare yourself a little beforehand. A few general survival tips include pacing yourself as you knock back mugs of alcohol, drinking lots of water, and piling on the carbs. Of course, the best way to survive a festival like this is to actually know your stuff in terms of beer – at least, some of it. Here’s a little primer to help you with that.
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A Brief History of Beer
There’s no way of knowing for sure when the human species started making and drinking beer exactly, but the genesis of this practice has been traced back to the ancient eras. A possible point of origin, for instance, is when prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies evolved about 10,000 years ago into agricultural societies that produced more crops such as barley and wheat (key ingredients of beer), thus uncovering the process of brewing and fermentation along the way. More concrete evidence can be found in the discovery of a 5,000-year-old beer recipe in China, as well as beer residue in ancient ceramic pots dating back to 3,400 BC. In 1,800 BC, the addictive alcoholic beverage made its way into a hymn about Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer. The introduction of hops, the most common beer additive, was first recorded in 822 AD in France when an abbot wrote a set of rules for his monastery, which included the gathering of wild hops for the making of beer.
By 1086, England was home to no less than 43 commercial breweries, as documented in the Domesday Book. Over the years, the brewing process continued to develop. Lagers were invented in 15th century Germany, while beer pasteurisation and pure yeast cultivation were introduced in the 19th century. The start of the 20th century in America saw a massive boom in beer production, with a total of about 1,300 breweries in operation by 1916, before the Prohibition era placed a ban on alcohol from 1920 to 1933. Of course, it was but a tiny roadblock in the grand scheme of beer making, which has since become more ubiquitous and universally adored than ever.
What is Beer?
Made with four basic ingredients (grain, yeast, hops and water), beer can be split into two general categories, ale and lager. Simply put, ales are darker, cloudier, fruitier, and contain more hops and alcohol content, while lagers are lighter, smoother, and less alcoholic, but with a higher sugar content. Ales are fermented at warmer temperatures (between 15 to 25-degrees) with top-fermenting yeast that basically means that it gathers at the top of the fermentation tank at the end. On the flipside, lagers ferment at lower temperatures (between 5 to 9-degrees) with bottom-fermenting yeast that settle at the bottom of the fermentation tank.
Types of Lager
A pale lager with a classic golden hue that was named after Pilsen in Czechoslovakia, its city of origin, pilsners are generally defined by their crisp and clean taste, light maltiness, and slightly spicy hop flavour. Bohemian pilsners, or Czech pilsners, can have a hoppy, floral aroma, on top of its distinct bitterness. German pilsners, despite bearing many similarities to Czech pilsners, have a more bitter taste and a drier finish. As for American pilsners, they can carry a corn-like malt flavour with varying levels of bitterness, leaving a rich mouthfeel and a gentle aftertaste.
2. German Lager
Under the category of German lagers are quite a number of beer varieties. One of them is the Vienna lager. Known for its amber/copper hue, it is sweet and mildly malty. Although it originated in Austria, it has found widespread popularity in Mexico, especially from the 19th century. Another well-loved variety is the Oktoberfest. Also known as Marzen (meaning March in German), it is usually an autumn beverage with a deep red colour, strong malt taste, and sweet, toasted flavour.
Rauchbiers are a much older variety, dating back to the 16th century, that uses green malts and features a strong, smoky flavour. Both Dortmunder and Kolsch beers have a golden appearance, but while Dortmunders have a biscuit-like maltiness, Kolsch beers carry a subtle fruity flavour that the other lacks. On top of that, Kolsch is known for using the fermentation techniques of both ales and lagers.
There are three types of American lagers: American pale lager, American dark lager, and American adjunct lager. Because of the food shortage experienced in the second World War, many breweries in the United States started using adjuncts (typically meaning unmalted grains), which were also cheaper to purchase. American pale lager, an “all-malt” beer that excludes adjunct cereal grains in its brewing process, is a yellowish, light-bodied, biscuity beverage. It is more bitter than American adjunct lagers, which used cereal adjuncts and were all the rage post-Prohibition. American dark lagers, aside from the obvious colour difference from American pale lagers, use roasted malts and at times include caramel in the mix.
Types of Ale
As hinted in its name, pale ales are usually distinguished by their light golden colour. But as with every style of beer, its individual varieties may differ greatly. For one, English pale ales can actually display a darker copper colour. They feature a tinge of fruitiness, with a sweet malt flavour and an earthy hop aroma. The American pale ale, on the other hand, has a more floral character, a caramel-like malt taste, and a lighter yellowish hue. A wildly popular variety that cannot be missed is the India pale ale. These floral flavoured beers carry a much high alcohol content, as well as a more robust, bitter taste.
2. Belgian Ale
Among the multitude of Belgian ale varieties, we’ve spotlighted three with vastly unique characteristics. The first one is Witbier (meaning white beer), which looks incredibly pale, yet cloudy at the same time. Unmalted wheat forms a big part of its recipe, as well as spices like coriander and orange peels. It also has a subtle sweetness and a dry finish. Saison, a farmhouse ale, has a medium, unfiltered orangey look, an earthy flavour, and a subtle maltiness. The darkest, brownest one of all is the Belgian dark ale, which is more malty than Saison beers, and boasts quite a high alcohol content.
Even though stouts and porters are often used interchangeably, there is a technical difference between the two. For one, stouts are made from roasted barley, whereas porters are made from unroasted ones. One of the classic choices of libation is the English porter, a rare beer variety that runs a wider gamut in terms of appearance (from light to dark brown). Introduced at the beginning of the 18th century, it comes as either brown porter or robust porter, with the former using ingredients like chocolate or toffee, and the latter using black patent malt and producing a more intense taste. Another intense variety is the Russian imperial stout, which has an extremely high alcohol content and may be aged for a gentler taste. The Irish stout (or dry stout) is a rich and bitter beverage with a signature pitch-black hue, and a roasted quality. Also a darker coloured beer, American porters take inspiration from its English counterparts with its use of smoked malts. They also tend to have a high alcohol content, and an assertive hop flavour.