Much was learned at The Growler and Northern Brewer’s first blind tasting of a formidable field of 53 Minnesota-made American IPAs.
Our first blind tasting earlier this year gave us a snapshot of the state of brewing in Minnesota through the lens of a ubiquitous style. We sampled IPAs that fell short of expectations and some that rose far above, without the power of suggestion from preconceived brand biases weighting the scale. Some results surprised us, reminding us of the importance of reevaluating beers we may have written off in the past. The experience demonstrated that top-notch beers are being made in this state. It also confirmed that some breweries still have a ways to go to shore up quality concerns.
With those takeaways in mind, The Growler and Northern Brewer Homebrew Supply once again set out to conduct a blind tasting to assess the Minnesota brewing scene. With autumn—the season of seasonals—in full-swing, we decided to focus on a seasonal style that a good number of the state’s now 115-plus breweries produce: Oktoberfest.
Oktoberfest is a style that is typically only brewed once each a year, giving us a glimpse at the ability of brewers with a recipe they aren’t perfecting and replicating week in and week out. It plays the perfect foil to American IPA. As a malt-forward lager in which hops, the golden child of today’s craft beer scene, are subjugated to a supporting role, Oktoberfest can show the ability of Minnesota brewers to brew on the other end of the spectrum.
These days the term “Oktoberfest” encompasses both traditional, amber-hued märzens served at the early Oktoberfest celebrations and the modern, golden-hued festbiers that are more commonly brewed today. Festbiers and märzens are both medium-bodied, somewhat creamy lagers that showcase elegant German malt flavors, but finish clean. Märzen has more malt depth and richness than a festbier, with a heavier body and slightly less hop profile. Festbier is less intense and less toasty than a märzen, though it still exhibits strong malt aromas and flavors.
Like our first tasting, our survey of Oktoberfest was a double-blind tasting run following the BJCP competition format. All Minnesota breweries were invited to submit their Oktoberfests. Twenty-six entries were submitted and scored against whichever category between the 2015 BJCP guidelines for festbier or märzen the beer was best suited.
Four teams composed of experienced BJCP judges and The Growler’s editorial staff analyzed flights of six to seven Oktoberfests, scored each beer on the objective criteria of aroma, appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel, as well as a more subjective overall impression of each beer. The top beers from each flight were then advanced to a “Best of Show” round in which beers were compared not only to the BJCP guidelines but also to one another. Our BJCP judges then reevaluated the final 10 beers and narrowed the field to the top three finishers, and ultimately one best of show.
As noted by Michael Agnew in our first blind tasting, the method has its benefits and its shortfalls. Judging each beer against BJCP guidelines helps minimize subjectivity by applying a set of objective criteria to each entry, but each judge’s palate is different and subjectivity can never fully be eliminated. The method also puts a premium on being “true to style.” While an entry may be a well-made and delicious beer, it can ultimately receive a low score for deviating from the style guidelines.
In spite of these shortfalls, our blind tasting process is effective in identifying brewers who are making technically sound beers, spotting beers with production or quality control issues, and highlighting the best local representations of the Oktoberfest style per the BJCP guidelines.
Some of the common flaws our judges observed in the field of 26 Oktoberfests were pronounced imbalances of malt and hops, under-attenuation, and off-flavors, such as diacetyl and vegetal notes, that suggest the lager was either rushed or there were sanitation issues. A handful of the märzens also exhibited strong caramel aromas and sweetness uncharacteristic of the style—a signal that a brewer relied too heavily on darker crystal malts to achieve the proper color at the expense of flavor.
While some beers were lacking, the blind tasting yielded many top-notch examples of Oktoberfest being made in Minnesota. So many that even a lauded label like Schell’s Oktoberfest (despite scoring relatively well) failed to advance to the final round.
Before getting to the top 10 Oktoberfests, below is the complete list of the beers that were submitted for tasting after we put out a request for submissions to all Minnesota breweries and brewpubs:
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