Give Thanks for Malty Beer

by Craig Pinhey

Haters gonna hate, someone so ineloquently said once. I’m one of those haters when it comes to pumpkin beer. That’s why I’m not recommending any for this weekend’s Thanksgiving Day celebrations. Why? Well, beer that is essentially liquid pumpkin pie doesn’t really go with food, with some really specific exceptions (pumpkin pie?).  That’s enough on the subject.

So, what do I like to do, beer wise, at this particular time of year? Well, thankfully, the Canadian version of this arguably racist (let’s celebrate the domination of indigenous peoples!) holiday occurs right around the wrap up of Germany’s Oktoberfest. Thus, there are typically some Oktoberfest style beers on the shelves of your local store, or on tap at your local beer savvy pub.

Germany’s Oktoberfest is over, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep celebrating here. As annoying beer nerds love to remind you, Oktoberfest started in 1810 in honour of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig’s marriage, but it continues to this day. Although it used to take place within the month of October, it was moved earlier for better weather. Now it takes place mainly in September, but still finishes in October.

Now, I’m not a purist who believes that every brewery has to brew a Festbier (Oktoberfest lager) or Märzen that meets the BJCP guidelines in an anal retentive manner, or that tastes exactly like what they served from September 16-October 3 in Munich this year. But I do think October is a good time to really think about malt forward beers, and how good malty beer smells and tastes.  Malted barley is the base of good beer, which seems to be completely forgotten by many in this age of heavily bitter, fruity and/or dopey hop bombs. Sometimes I wonder why they bother using 100% barley malt in IPAs and DIPAs when they could save money by incorporating cheaper corn and rice.

I love the smell and taste of a good, malty beer, and that’s where Festbier/Märzen fit the bill. Märzen is more what I think of as Oktoberfest beer, as it is a bit darker than Festbier.  They employ a good amount of Munich malt and often caramel Munich malt, and thus have a reddish hue and pleasant caramel malty flavour, as well as a nice toasty, bready malt background possibly from Pilsner malt. They should be moderate in bitterness (~20 IBU) and around 5.5-6% alcohol, a little warmer than an everyday lager.

Classic Oktoberfest beers are lagers, but I have no problem with an Oktoberfest ale. Big Spruce in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia brews an ale each year for the very popular Oktoberfest in support of the Mira Centre in Marion Bridge. Big Spruce brewer/owner Jeremy White imports special German malt every year for this brew, so that makes it pretty authentic. This year it is October 7th. This fest hits a personal spot for me, since my mom grew up in nearby Mira Gut, and I spent part of all my summers there as a kid. My grandfather was the guy who put in the markers to chart the Mira River every year, and my cousin did it after him.

Many other Oktoberfest events are happening across Canada this year, and that’s as good a way as any to celebrate Thanksgiving.

The next question naturally, is: Does this malty, amber lager go well with Thanksgiving turkey? This is making a gross assumption that everyone eats turkey, which of course isn’t true, but let’s face it, most North Americans equate the holiday with the bird.  

In short, sure, it works pretty well. There is a richness and sweetness in turkey with gravy, especially when the sides include squash or sweet potato, that matches really nicely with an Oktoberfest-style beer.  

So at this time of year, I’m giving thanks to the most important beer ingredient: barley malt.  Happy Thanksgiving Day!