Oktoberfest started with a wedding -- and grew into something much more.
In 1810, the citizens of Munich were invited to attend the wedding of the crown prince of Bavaria. The citywide celebration turned into a tradition that spread from Germany throughout the world. Running for 16 days from late September through early October, Oktoberfest marks the start of fall with parades, music, traditional food and, most importantly, Oktoberfest beer.
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Local breweries are just starting to tap their versions of the traditional beer, and they all have different views on what makes the drink great.
"A good Oktoberfest beer has to be heavy and keep you warm on a brisk fall day," said Ryan Gathman, service manager of Emmett's Brewing Company in West Dundee. He described Emmett's version as malty with a toasted bread flavor, hints of caramel and a balancing bitterness topped by a dense, cream-colored head.
Brewers at The Lucky Monk in South Barrington stress the connection to Germany by brewing theirs with malt imported from Munich, creating a sweet brew with minimal hop flavor. The brewery is also serving bottles of Spaten, Leinenkugel and Stevens Point's Oktoberfest beers.
"All Oktoberfest beers are a lager," said Jori Geanconteri, marketing and events coordinator. "They're clean and crisp, yet you get the fall feeling with it."
Justin Kipp, assistant manager of Rock Bottom Brewery in Lombard, said Oktoberfest beers should be well-balanced and that the Rocktoberfest is a traditional version that blends a toasted malt flavor with a subtle hop finish.
At Ram Restaurant & Brewery in Rosemont, you'll find an amber-colored Oktoberfest that's a bit more on the malty side, with enough hops to keep that flavor from being overpowering.
"Every Oktoberfest beer follows a base recipe, but it's all about the one or two differences that you put in that makes a beer different," said bar manager Mike Zajac. "We just do a little bit more on the sweeter side."
At Emmett's the head chef and head brewmaster got together to plan a menu of classic German fare that brings out the taste of the Oktoberfest beer. Throughout October, they're running specials including Wiener schnitzel, a lightly breaded veal cutlet topped with lemon butter and served with beer-braised sauerkraut, and Oktoberfest-poached salmon fillet served with maple-pecan butter.
"(Oktoberfest beer has) got to pair well with some nice German food," Gathman said. "It's got to be able to wash down sauerkraut and Wiener schnitzel."
Geanconteri agreed that "what's really important about Oktoberfest beer is how it pairs with food." Through Sept. 29, The Lucky Monk is serving a special menu including potato pancakes, jagerschnitzel and German pizza made with rosemary potatoes and sausage.
"You've got certain German spices that are used, and the beer doesn't overwhelm them," she said. "With the Oktoberfest beer, you sip that, you get all that sweet malt flavor, and it just complements it really well and gets you ready for the next bite."
Rock Bottom is also serving an Oktoberfest menu including baby bratwurst, a sausage platter with braised red cabbage and apple cinnamon strudel. Along with being traditional, Kipp said German food is also great for fall.
"It's comfort food," he said.
If you're not a fan of sausage or schnitzel, you still have plenty of pairing options. Zajac recommends having a glass with jambalaya, baby back ribs or a barbecue meatloaf sandwich, and Geanconteri said Oktoberfest also pairs with burgers and pizzas. Whatever you're eating, Geanconterri said the tapping of Oktoberfest beers gives friends a chance to gather together after their busy summers.
"It gets you ready for fall," she said. "It gets you ready for the cooler weather."