Sept. 15 2010 12:00 AM

Old Chicago's Oktoberfest tour taps the real deal


With Christmas comes a mad license to max out your credit card. The Fourth of July sanctions loud explosions in your front yard. On Halloween, you can wield a bloody axe without raising an eyebrow. But when is it acceptable to let your red-nosed, beer-swilling inner Bavarian homunculus loose?

Old Chicago’s Oktoberfest celebration, through Oct. 3, is the right time to line up the steins.

Old Chicago, a national restaurant/ sports bar franchise with a handy local spigot in Okemos, boasts 110 beers from around the world. Major foamers sign up for world tours, with the goal of tasting them all. Themed mini-tours held throughout the year feature eight distinctive craft beers at one go, but there’s nothing quite like the Oktoberfest tour now under way.

Lansing is foaming at the mouth over craft beers. This month, bar manager Cameron Cosby is tapping into that zeal with a featured beer never before sold outside of Munich, Germany, home of the original Oktoberfest festival.

You can’t call sparkling wine Champagne if it’s been vinified outside the Champagne region of France. Likewise, beer is not Oktoberfest beer unless it’s brewed in Munich, Cosby explained.

Until this month, the only place you could have downed Oktoberfest Weisen, a blond lager, is under an Oktoberfest beer tent in Munich. The Munich brewer Paulaner brought this sweeter, less intensely malty brew to the United States this fall to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Oktoberfest. Like any true Oktoberfest beer, the Weisen is a Marzen, brewed in March according to tradition, and enjoyed through the final weeks of summer during the festival.

The Weisen is a honey of a beer, but another blond lager on Old Chicago’s eightbeer mini-tour, Ayinger, is Cosby’s favorite. “I enjoy the balance of the sweetness and maltiness to it,” he said. “It’s in between those styles, and I like the crisp finish. I can definitely drink more than one.”

A crisp finish describes most of the beers on the Oktoberfest mini-tour. All are lagers, or beers brewed at lower temperatures for a long time. Sweet, caramel tones characterize most of these brews on the first sip, unlike a strong, bitter, hoppy flavor encountered in many popular domestics. Most are barley based, too, save for one. The Franziskaner, a wheat grain beer, is unfiltered and therefore visually distinct with a cloudy complexion in its glass mug. A sniff and sip will reveal banana tones. Take a deeper swig and you’ll notice spicy notes of cloves. It has a lighter taste than some of the darker lagers on the Oktoberfest tour, but the finish is clean.

After Oktoberfest is just a hoppy memory, Old Chicago will keep rolling out the beer tours, including a Halloween tour in late October and a St Patrick’s Day tour in the spring. World Tour members are invited to a free buffet that complements the tour theme.

To sponge up all the suds, Old Chicago does bar food well. The pub’s signature trio ($9.79) consists of bready pepperoni rolls with ribbons of toasted cheese that have oozed out and crisped up; Italian nachos made with pasta (instead of tortilla) chips, cheese, pepperoncini, sausage and pepperoni; and garlic cheese bread.

The pizza is pretty good, too. The crust is thick and the generous toppings tumble over the edge. An individual Chicago-style deep dish with seven toppings ($9.99) can easily be split with a partner and still satiate.

But beer is why many come back to Old Chicago, and the challenge of completing
a world tour brings some back again and again and again. Patrons win
prizes at milestone beers along the tour — playing cards, a watch,
baseball cap, travel mug, etc. — culminating in a nameplate affixed to a
Wall of Foam at their home restaurant. Complete 10 tours (1,100 beers)
and Old Chicago
will personalize and engrave a pewter stein to keep on-hand for
discounted drinks, 40 tours and you get a leather jacket.

the mini-tours offer prizes. For Oktoberfest, a light blue T-shirt
comes with a completed tour. Cosby says people love the little gifts
along the way.

keep coming back to take the tour and get the T-shirts — someone said
she was making a quilt out of them,” Cosby said. “It’s just a way to
thank our guests.”

Old Chicago

1938 W Grand River Ave., Okemos; 11 a.m.-close (midnight or later) Monday- Sunday; (517) 347-1111; TO, D, FB, OM, P, $$.