Summer is winding to a close, and despite what the thermometer may say, the cold winds of autumn will be here in no time. As Oktoberfest style beers begin to make their way to the bars and store shelves, our kitchen workstation moves slowly from the outdoor grill to the warmth of the oven. Fall is my favorite time to cook, and a perfect time to explore some fall beer and food pairings!
The Amber Malt
In 1841, new advances in technology allowed maltsters to create an amber malt. Amber malt is stewed right after the barley is sprouted. This converts some of the malt starches into sugars, which become caramelized in the roasting process. This was a brand new way to produce malt, and changed the way beer was made in the Vienna area in Germany. Most malt in Germany before this advancement had been kilned over an open flame. Smokey, dark lagers were the norm. Beer brewed with this new malt (now often referred to as Vienna malt) led to a reddish, copper colored beer, with a slightly sweet and deep malty flavor. This "Vienna Lager" became very popular, and spread to many parts of the world. Many pre-prohibition American beer recipes were based on the Vienna lager, including Sam Adam's flagship, Boston Lager. The same malt was later used to brew a Märzen (German for March). Märzen would be brewed in spring and lagered in cold caves until harvest time in September and October where it could be enjoyed with fall festivals. It later became synonymous with the Munich Oktoberfest, so much so that many people refer to the beer simply as "Oktoberfest."
Pairing Oktoberfest Beers With Food
One shortcut to beer and food pairing is to look at what a beer would typically be paired with in the place where it was brewed. There are exceptions for this rule, but it sometimes can give a hint as to what types of food would be great to pair with a beer. At German Oktoberfest festivals, grilled pork, chicken and fish are prepared en masse and enjoyed alongside Märzen beers. September is a perfect time to huddle over a warm grill on the deck, as the night chill settles in. The caramel, bread and toffee like malt flavors of the beer combine well with grilled proteins. The bigger bodied Märzen, with its slightly assertive hop bitterness, can even stand up to a broiled steak. The bitter hops and carbonation help cut through the fat, and the malty backbone combines well with the juices. Märzen pairs well with grilled vegetables, which often develop sweet flavors when roasted over an open flame. Peppers, zucchini, onions all match well. Spicy foods often pair well with Märzen style beers. The spicy noble hop character pairs well with spicy sausage, while the sweetness offers some refuge from the heat of the food. Acidic foods, like grilled tomatoes or overly acidic sauces should be avoided, they can overpower the beer. Likewise, overly delicate food, like light fish or seafood can be easily overpowered by the beer. However, battered fish, like crab cakes, especially with a creamy sauce, can pair nicely. The fat of a creamy sauce is balanced by the spicy bitterness of the Märzen, baked mac and cheese is a great example of this.
If you're cooking the meal, you can also use beer as an ingredient. One of my favorite things to do with Märzen style beers is to make a sweet beer-sugar that can be used to coat grilled proteins. Mix a bottle of your favorite Oktoberfest beer, 1/2 cup of sugar, and 1 TBS of salt on a baking dish. Preheat the oven to 180* F and heat for 1-1.5 hours until the mixture is completely dehydrated. You can rub this Märzen sugar on traditional wurst or your protein of choice, and grill over an open flame. The best way I've found to mourn the loss of summer, is to embrace fall beers, cook delicious food, and mentally prepare for the ever-winter of the Northeast.
Ben enjoys good beer, strong coffee and loud music. This Certified Cicerone continues expanding his knowledge of beer, hands-on. He’s the guy on the brewery tour asking too many questions. Famously open-minded, you can find him drinking a 3-year-old imported sour beer one night, and an American light lager the next. When he’s not writing for gotbeer.com, Ben can be found cooking, home-brewing, rock climbing, or playing the drums.