Friday, September 10, 2010

Märzen chronicles

When you flipped the calendar page from August to September, you probably reset your palate from summer beers to something chewy and malty.

Never mind that there are pumpkin ales on the shelf right now. Märzens – Oktoberfests – are the beers that remind you that fall is the best season of the year.

And with this style, New Jersey interpretations aren't to be ignored. In fact, you'll find some exceptional ones made in the Garden State, in North and South Jersey. Over the next couple weeks, you'll see them highlighted here.

First up is High Point's draft-only Ramstein Oktoberfest. The Butler brewery's oldest lager brand has developed a substantial following over the past decade and earned a top rating on BeerAdvocate. The 2010 version debuts this Saturday at the brewery's September open house (from 2 p.m.-4 p.m.)

Like all but one (Revelation Golden Lager) of High Point's 11 beers, its Oktoberfest is the product of decoction mashing, an Old World brewing method whose origins predate thermometers and its goal aims to maximize efficiency in the conversion of grain starches to sugars. But the process also creates malty flavors that are rich and memorable.

"It's the difference between sauté and quick blanch," says High Point founder Greg Zaccardi.

The brewing process, in which a portion of the grain is pulled aside, boiled it, then returned to rest of the mash, takes longer than the infusion-mash methods other Jersey brewers use to make great beers of their own. Decoction also costs more in crew time and utilities.

"The finished product is worth it. We hope people get it, and I think they do," Greg says.

As a business, High Point was born a wheat beer company, and the decoction process was more suited to producing those styles. "Our brewhouse was custom designed for wheat beers," Greg says.

Over time, the brewery shifted its emphasis from wheat beers to embrace other styles, including pilsners and Vienna lagers. The brewery's Oktoberfest was originally tailor-made for a now-closed German restaurant in Atlantic Highlands in Monmouth County.

The Ramstein märzen quickly outgrew those beginnings, and the 140 barrels brewed this season – with an early start in June instead of July like past years – reflect a 30-plus percent increase in production from last year.

"It's draft-only, and it sells out draft-only," Greg says. "The way our brewery is set up, packaging draft beer is better for everybody, for the brewers, for the brewery, for the beer drinkers, for the distributors, for the retailers. We don’t at this point have a need to bottle it. It’s a short season … Fresh beer from a keg is great for Oktoberfest."

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