Tasting the Harvest’s Bounty

Oktoberfest is a great time to sample fresh Michigan brews — paired with seasonal foods

Oktoberfest is an annual celebration of the harvest. As the seasons change, so do seasonal beer styles. The fall season offers specific flavor profiles and styles as the lighter beers of summer get replaced with something a little heartier — before jumping into the rich, bold flavors of winter.

Traditionally (in Europe), Oktoberfest begins in mid-September and concludes in early October. Here in America, we do things a little differently, so the celebration lasts throughout October.

The original Oktoberfest beers were Märzens, so named because they were brewed in March. The amber-colored (dark gold to deep orange-red) brews were lagered (cool/cold-fermented) over the summer, and were ready to drink in the fall. This also resulted in a slightly higher alcohol content, which helped preserve them over the hot summer months. The malt-to-hops ratio of this style results in a sweeter beer than a standard lager.

More breweries have recently expanded their Oktoberfest rosters to include more standard lagers and ales (Bocks, Vienna, Helles), Weizens, and even malt liquor. With the expanding availability and the increasing number of fall festivals, you should be able to find a few brands and styles to enjoy.

Michigan-made Oktoberfests

Keep an eye out for Michigan-made Oktoberfests in stores, restaurants, and bars: Atwater Bloktoberfest, Bastone Rocktoberfest (draft only), Cheboygan Brewing Co. Oktoberfest (2012 Frankenmuth World Expo of Beer gold medal winner), Dragonmead Oktoberfest Märzen (draft only), Frankenmuth Oktoberfest, Kuhnhenn Oktoberfest, Rochester Mills Oktoberfest, Royal Oak Brewery Oktoberfest (draft only), and Schmohz Oktoberfest.

Great Pumpkin Ales

With the fall harvest nearly complete, pumpkin ales will also show up at retailers and tap rooms … but they won’t be around for long. You’ll have to go to a local brewery or quality beer bar/restaurant to find many of the draft-only selections.

Pumpkin ales can vary dramatically, although the spice profile remains pretty consistent, with nutmeg and cinnamon leading the flavor experience.

Michigan-made choices include: Dragonmead Lil’s Grumpkin Pumpkin (draft only), the Great Baraboo‘s the Great Boo (draft only), Griffin Claw Screaming Pumpkin, New Holland Ichabod, North Peak Hooligan Hoppy Pumpkin Ale, Royal Oak Brewery Jack-O-Licious Pumpkin Ale (draft only), Short’s Brewing Funkin’ Punkin (draft only), and Woodward Avenue Brewers‘ Pumpkin Ale (draft only).

Pairing Seasonal Beers With Food

Several metro Detroit restaurants have begun to host regular events that highlight the art of pairing food with beer. But you can try your hand at home, too.

Ron Runestad, a certified cicerone (beer expert) with Powers Distribution, says that with the general sweetness of Oktoberfest beers, contrasting the palate provides the most enjoyment.

“Spicy or comfort foods often provide a very favorable experience,” he says. “Pairing your Oktoberfest beer with Mexican food is quite enjoyable. The sweetness cuts through the spicy food.”

Oktoberfest-style beer served with bratwurst is also a well-known combination. But Runestad suggests other German pairings. “Savory roast chicken or a large soft pretzel with big pieces of salt are excellent without overpowering one another,” he says.

You might also want to think ahead. “One of my favorite things to enjoy with an Oktoberfest is Thanksgiving dinner,” Runestad says, adding that the style complements almost everything that goes with turkey day. “The squash, turkey, and cranberries work extremely well with the sweeter beer,” he says. But by November, he warns, most Oktoberfests beers are out of stock, “so I save a few for the occasion.”

Pairings with a pumpkin ale fall into a different category. Because of the cinnamon and nutmeg flavors inherent in a pumpkin ale, the better choice may be to contrast it with desserts and glazes.

“I really enjoy pumpkin ale with brownies and vanilla ice cream,” Runestad says. “The chocolate and vanilla mellow out the nutmeg.”

Another dessert combination idea is to pair a pumpkin ale with some apple pie and cinnamon ice cream from Ray’s in Royal Oak. It provides a rich balance of cinnamon and sweetness, which enhances the spices in the beer.

One recent trend popping up with pumpkin ales is rimming the glass “margarita-style” — but with a cinnamon and sugar mixture instead of salt.

Michigan Brewers Guild Detroit Fall Festival

You can sample a wide variety of Oktoberfest and pumpkin ales at the Michigan Brewers Guild Detroit Fall Festival — if you can get a ticket. The event takes place in Detroit’s historic Eastern Market Oct. 25-26.

More than 50 Michigan craft breweries will be on hand, and there will be well over 400 beers available. This is the best chance local beer lovers will have to sample many of the draft-only seasonal selections from across the state.

Tickets have been on sale since early in August, which means the event might already be sold out by the time you’re reading this. Tickets are only available online at the Michigan Brewers Guild website (mibeer.com) until the day of the event. If any unsold tickets remain, they’ll be available for purchase at the gate — but don’t count on it.