Dear Mr. Wizard,
On a trip to Germany, I recently tried a Kilkenny red ale and really liked it (I know it’s an Irish beer). Since then, I have been trying different Irish style red ales. Recently, I was in a brewpub and ordered one, but they didn’t have any red ales. Instead, the bartender recommended an Oktoberfest. I thought that was odd, but tried one anyway and it reminded me of the Irish red. Today I purchased a Sam Adams Oktoberfest and it too reminded me of the red ale. Are my taste buds wrong or are there similarities between these two styles?
The Wiz Responds:
I wish I could travel to a different place in time when beer styles were truly tied to geographical regions, a time before globalization of brewing techniques and brewing ingredients. Based on what I know and what I have read about brewing, the concept of beer style often has much more to do with differentiating beers within a given region rather than between regions. Your sensory experience goes along with this notion. When the entire range of beer flavor is viewed graphically, like on a spider web plot used to display quantitative data collected from sensory panels, commonalities are found among most beers. Brewers use universal descriptors like malty, hoppy, bitter, roasted, fruity, acidic, sour, phenolic and the likes to describe beer flavor. Throw in color and we have a spectrum ranging from pale straw to deep burgundy, the latter appearance usually described as black when viewed in a typical beer glass.
It goes to reason that within a region brewers used the local ingredients and brewing practices to offer a range of beers to their customers. Bavarian brewers formulated beers including helles, Pils, weizen, dunkels, Märzen, doppelbock and schwarzbier to cover a wide range of colors and flavors. Beers emerged in the British Isles somewhat independently of what was happening in Bavaria — I say somewhat because the history of regional brewing centers did not develop in total isolation — and these styles included brown ale, porter, stout, amber ale, barleywine and old ale. Meanwhile, the Belgian brewers were off doing their own thing and developed beers that tend to fall outside the norm. The number of traditional beer styles is quite large, as is the palate of colors and flavors.
Within this huge assortment of styles is considerable overlap and the key flavor notes found in a Bavarian dunkels brewed in the 1800’s, for example, may have also been found in a brown ale brewed somewhere in England. There were certainly differences due to yeast strain, fermentation temperature, malt type, mash technique and so on, but both of these beers occupy a slot in the regional beer menu of the day. After all, there is a limit to the range of color and flavor brewers can obtain from our chosen raw materials.
In today’s world, brewers all over the globe typically have a pretty good idea of what goes on in other breweries — and if they don’t, the information is readily available. This fact has certainly led to a melting pot of beer style. I have no idea what Irish red ales tasted like 150 years ago. If I apply historical stereotypes, I would assume these beers to be low in hop bitterness, full in malt flavor and perhaps contain detectable levels of diacetyl. Since these beers were fermented cool for ales (it gets pretty chilly in Ireland) I would also guess the Irish Ales of yesteryear were low in esters, similar to the cool-fermented lager family. Who knows, but it really doesn’t matter because Kilkenny Irish Ale did not exist until 1990 when it was developed by the Smithwick Brewery (part of Guinness since the 1980’s) to be exported for the global market. According to Michael Jackson, most Irish Ales, including Kilkenny, use a portion of caramel malt and roasted barley to provide a toffee-like malt backbone with roasted overtones.
The bartender at your local brewpub did a good job matching their selection with the general flavor profile of your request. Oktoberfest/Märzen, a relative of Vienna lager, is a style known for its full malty flavor, amber color and judicious use of hops. German brewers rely on Munich malts for flavor and color and do not use crystal malt or roasted barley. I describe the malt character in these beers as nutty, toasty and rich. The Oktoberfest style has become a mainstay for many domestic craft breweries and is one of the more common lager styles found in brewpubs.
When it comes to brewing technique, we craft brewers in the U.S. pick and choose our ingredients in an attempt to replicate beer flavors. We sometimes take liberties when it comes to adhering to the traditions of certain styles. Many craft brewers use crystal malt in addition to Munich malt when brewing Oktoberfest beers. This is certainly not traditional, but the result is pretty darn tasty. A quick search for Oktoberfest recipes on the net yields a boatload of recipes and almost all contain crystal malt.
Likewise, Munich malt has become a staple specialty malt that is perfect when you want that special maltiness that isn’t so pronounced in many other malts. It doesn’t matter to today’s brewer if we are brewing brown ale, amber ale or traditional lagers like dunkels or Oktoberfest. If the beer imagined in the mind’s eye has a nutty, malt flavor, then Munich malt is the go-to malt! In closure, your palate is working just fine. Even though there are dozens of stylistic descriptors, there is considerable overlap in beer flavor and the ingredients among the styles.