Fans of the Oktoberfest style love its smooth, caramel, malty tones. These lagers have been appearing on local shelves for nearly two months now, but Karben4 has just released its version -- Oaktober Ale -- with a unique twist on tradition. Brewmaster Ryan Koga makes his as an ale and ferments it with oak chips. The result is a wonderfully complex brew, full of woody, leafy, and bready maltiness.
What is it? Oaktober Ale from Karben4 Brewing of Madison, Wisconsin.
Style: The Oktoberfest, or Märzen, is usually a medium-bodied golden- to light-copper lager. The flavor emphasis is on a firm but medium-sweet maltiness with a light bready or biscuity nose. The hoppiness is light, offering balance to the flavor. Traditionally it's a style brewed in the springtime and stored (lagered) during warmer summer months before it's released for autumn celebrations. Oktoberfests usually range from 5.3% to 5.9% ABV. Because it's an ale, Karben4 Oaktober Ale took about three weeks to make. Koga uses ale yeast, similar malts to those found in an Oktoberfest recipe, and then ferments the beer at near lager temperatures.
Background: One inspiration for making Oaktoberfest came from Koga's wife. "One of my professional goals has always been to brew a beer that Samantha would request. She's not so much of a beer drinker," he says. When the beer was officially released in the taproom, Samantha was given one of the first glasses and she was a fan.
Oaktober Ale gets its flavor from two different types of oak. Koga uses about 20 pounds of American and French oak chips (combined) suspended in mesh bags in the fermenter to add layers of flavor. American oak offers vanilla and coconut tones, while the French oak lends more roasted and charcoal flavors. "I was looking for a conversation between the beer and the oak," says Koga.
Oaktober Ale gets some of its Oktoberfest-like qualities from specialty grains that include Vienna and Bohemian Pilsner malts that offer soft biscuit and bread-like sweetness. To that, Koga also uses English Cara Malt for light toffee tones. The beer is lightly hopped with Sterling and Golding hops.
As he has also done for other Karben4 beers, the brewery's resident artist Tom Kowalke created a painting to accompany Oaktober Ale. It was unveiled the night of the beer's release, on Friday, September 20. "If I had seen it before I made the beer, it would have inspirted me to make the beer just as it is," says Koga. "It's an amazing painting."
Karben4 is releasing just 15 barrels of Oaktober Ale, so it won't be around long. The beer ends up at 5.5% ABV and in the brewery's taproom it sells for $6/glass or $16/growler (refill).
Karben4 just purchased two new 40-barrel fermenters to help keep up with growing demand for its beers. The additional tanks will double the fermentation capacity of the brewery. Its beers are currently found in the brewery's taproom and on draught in several Madison area bars and restaurants. While Karben4 did purchase a bottling machine that was previously used by Ale Asylum, the equipment is in need of a rehab and isn't expected to be used until next year.
- Aroma: Malty with a firm background oaky-woodiness.
- Appearance: Clear copper-bronze color, with a medium soft tan head.
- Texture: Medium-bodied, bubbly and round mouthfeel.
- Taste: Smooth caramel and biscuit bread-like flavor early. The woody-oakiness comes in the background and builds.
- Finish/Aftertaste: A really nice oaky finish. A wonderful example of what barrel aging can be without the bourbon found in common bourbon barrel aging.
Glassware: Karben4 serves Oaktober Ale in a large snifter, which focuses the aroma of oak.
Pairs well with: From the Karben4 menu, try it with the Summer Sausage Sandwich. The beer's caramel maltiness lends just enough sweetness to complement and cut the rich sausage. With cheeses, both Cocoa Cardona and Creama Kasa from Carr Valley have a light sweetness that blends well with the caramel of the beer.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Oaktober Ale is a memorable beer, and one that's become my favorite among Karben4's offerings. Ryan Koga's creativity as brewmaster shines in this special fall treat. While it comes close to the caramel and toffee flavors you find in a seasonal Oktoberfest, it's the oak that separates it from those traditional lagers. The woodiness with hints of vanilla, coconut and a light essence of barrel charring blend with the bready-maltiness of the beer. It's an oak flavor more like that of a fine Chardonnay, and much different from the spirit-sweetness found in beers that are aged in former bourbon barrels -- where the bourbon tends to compete with the beer qualities. While I'm a big fan of Oktoberfest lagers this time of year, Oaktober Ale is an inviting alternative, one that distinguishes Karben4.