Carolina Beer Guy: Celebrate Oktoberfest at home

PROST: Luke Holgate, head brewer at Hi-Wire Brewing, raises a stein of his company's Zirkusfest Oktoberfest. The beer won a gold medal at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival. Photo by Javier Bolea

Call off the oompah bands. Leave the lederhosen in the back of the closet.

Rollicking public Oktoberfest parties have mostly been scratched this year — the latest casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the biggest hits came when the Asheville Downtown Association slammed the brakes on its annual Oktoberfest, which Executive Director Meghan Rogers says would have happened the first weekend of October.

“There really wasn’t a way to go virtual with something like that,” she says. The celebration had traditionally featured live music, food, games and a big assortment of beers from local breweries.

“It’s a huge blow, as was the cancelation of almost all of our events,” Rogers says. “It’s been a difficult year.”

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has held big yearly Oktoberfest parties at its Mills River production site, but the taproom remains closed for at least the rest of 2020 due to the ongoing pandemic. Instead, the brewery held a virtual celebration on Sept. 19, featuring humorous pre-taped interludes by employees and a livestream performance by Asheville-based ensemble Empire Strikes Brass. Would-be attendees were encouraged to vicariously participate by purchasing party packs — including a shirt, mug, suspenders, a hat and bandanas.

Elsewhere, Catawba Brewing Co. held a Masked Oktoberfest celebration at its Charlotte location on Sept. 27, and offered a “Take-home Oktoberfest” in Asheville on Sept. 19, selling an Oktoberfest-in-a-box, consisting of its beer, glassware and traditional German food from The Chop Shop Butchery and Fermenti.

And Hi-Wire Brewing carried on with its in-person Oktoberfest celebration on Oct. 10 — albeit in a socially distanced format. Groups of up to six people per table competed against each other and other tables in such games as Keg Overhead, Bavarian Bingo, Donut on a String, Ice Tray Chug, Bang the Hammer and a yodeling contest. The event also included music from the Mountain Top Polka Band, plus brats, pretzels and other traditional food from Foothills Local Meats.

Professional advice

Despite the dearth of traditional celebrations, area breweries have pushed ahead with their malt-forward märzens and festbiers — and the usual assortment of imported German Oktoberfest brews are also available at area bottle shops. Among the local versions is Hi-Wire Brewing’s Zirkusfest Oktoberfest Lager, a 2016 Gold Medal winner at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival in Denver, and Sierra Nevada’s annual Oktoberfest beer, the first edition since 2014 not made in collaboration with a long-established German brewery.

Asheville Brewing Co.’s head brewer Pete Langheinrich is fond of both those beers, and his brewery currently has its own draft-only märzen, Drink the Bismark, on tap.

Luke Holgate, Hi-Wire head brewer, says he turns to Germany’s Hofbräuhaus Festbier, noting that it has “all of the beautiful malt character but in such a crushable way. [It] is what Oktoberfests are all about.” He also digs Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen, which he describes as “a bit more flavorful and hardy [and] a perfect balance all around.”

Brad Casanova‘s Archetype Brewing has turned out a draft festbier available at the brewery’s West Asheville taproom. Like Holgate, he also enjoys German import Ayinger.

Highland Brewing Co. brewing manager Trace Redmond says he’s a fan of Sierra Nevada’s Oktoberfest. “After apple pie, märzens are one of my favorite parts of fall,” he says. “I tend to enjoy more hops-forward interpretations. Above all, these beers must be clean, crisp and drinkable.”

Carl Melissas, head brewer at Wedge Brewing Co., is another Sierra Nevada fan. His märzen, which won a gold medal at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival, is unfortunately MIA this year due to the pandemic.

John Stuart, brewer at Nantahala Brewing Co. in Bryson City, likewise didn’t make a märzen this year, so he’s turning to Germany-based Spaten’s Oktoberfestbier Ur-Märzen. ­”It’s a classic,” he says. “I do like Sierra Nevada’s Oktoberfest quite a bit, too.”

At Brevard Brewing Co., owner and brewer Kyle Williams has released this year’s batch of märzen, available exclusively on draft but distributed around the region by Budweiser of Asheville. Outside of his creation, he’s big on versions by Ayinger and Paulaner. “The Germans, they make great beer,” he says.

Burning Blush Brewing in Mills River has released both a festbier and a märzen, available only at the brewery taproom. The festbier is “a lighter-colored beer that you might drink in Germany,” according to owner and brewer Whit Lanning. “The märzen is more of the American-style of Oktoberfest that you see.” As for other märzens and festbiers, he’s pro-Ayinger. “It’s one of my faves,” he says.

Former Asheville brewer Ben Pierson has been turning out a märzen for “years and years,” including during a stint at the now closed Lexington Avenue Brewery. He now keeps it on all year at Swamp Rabbit Brewery in nearby Travelers Rest, S.C. “Day in and day out, it’s taken the lead [in sales],” he says.

In addition to its modified celebrations, Catawba turned out a draft-only märzen and a festbier. As for co-owner Billy Pyatt‘s favorite seasonal export, he’ll vote for Spaten. “I absolutely love it,” he says. “For years, that been my go-to beer.”

Brad Hillman of Hillman Beer didn’t get an Oktoberfest brew out this year as the company focused on opening its new production operation in Old Fort. Instead, he’ll enjoy some Oktoberfest Märzens from German import Hacker-Pschorr.

And Asheville’s Wicked Weed Brewing has a strong lineup of German-style beers for the season, including Fest Bier, Dunkelweizen, Bump Camp Munich Helles and Uncle Rick’s Pilsner. Brewmaster Joe Pawelek says his fall seasonal favorites are Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest, Highland Clawhammer and Steinfest, a stone-boiled smoked autumnal lagerbier collaboration between Zillicoah Beer Co. and Fonta Flora Brewery.


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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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