When last we left you, we were suffering from the inability to find a consistent single bottle selection here in Madison. Though recent discussion have pointed to Steve's on University as having the best selection, while Riley's is slightly different, and Woodman's can be more numerous. In any event, we had decided that we might be better off finding some of these beers on tap. So, we got ourselves to the bastion of German-ness in Madison, WI: Essen Haus.
This Friday, in fact any Friday, well, really, any day, get to the Essen Haus. If it's the last thing you do in your life, you will thank me for it. But here's the secret (and I risk my own happiness in telling you this) get there after 8:30pm. We showed up at Essen Haus at 7:45pm - the parking lot was packed. In fact, there were no available spots in the regular lot; we would have had to park across the street. The line was out the door and people were milling about in the parking lot waiting for tables. We had some beer to pick up at Riley's, so we went there for 45 minutes (they had sixes, but no singles, of the New Glarus Staghorn, which is first spotting of this fabled beast in the wild). Back to Essen Haus and we found parking without a problem. We were seated shortly (not more than a five minute wait, which was more from the hostess seating the people in front of us than because a table wasn't ready).
If you have never been to the Essen Haus, you are in for a treat. It is like walking back in time, or at least across the ocean and few sizeable countries, to a rustic Germanic pub. The bar has wooden steins hanging from the ceiling. The tap list is a peg board above the bar, and a few chalkboards with the current taps. The restaurant proper is a Bavarian märchenland. Animals hang from the walls. Signs advertising authentic Munich bier. The chandaliers are huge, the seats are big and sturdy. The tables foster rowdy discussion. Glass boots filled to the brim with beer are visible on a majority of tables. The waitresses (do they have waiters?!?) wear authentic bavarian stylings. The atmosphere is fun and boisterous, but not obnoxiously loud; the din lends a festive atmosphere.
First, I'll let you know that they had Spaten Oktoberfest on tap. (BA.RB.) From the sound of things, they may be getting others on tap or in bottle, but right now only the Spaten. This would not be a problem. The tasting notes for the Spaten Oktoberfest follow this post.
We had the fish fry. Forget what you've read in the Isthmus or Madison Magazine. The best fish fry in Madison is at the Essen Haus. The Avenue Bar's (the winner this year in both polls, I believe) fish fry can be somewhat greasy. The generous portion of fish at the Essen Haus is fried perfectly with no greasiness, and served with potato pancake (applesauce or sour cream) or beer-battered fries.
But, this is the secret. If you get there at 8:30pm not only will you avoid the crowds, but you are treated to the musical stylings of an authentic Bavarian Polka Band. They often rotate the bands that play there, so check their website (if they can get it updated) to see who's playing - or just head on over. The band we saw was fantastic. Patrons were singing and clapping along and, literally, dancing in the aisles. Don't feel bad if you don't know how to polka, someone will teach you (and if you're having trouble, just hop back and forth from foot to foot and you'll be close enough).
The Essen Haus is truly one of the not-so-hidden gems here in Madison. In one evening you can celebrate the Germanic history of much of Southern Wisconsin. Their food is authentic and unparalleled. And, most importantly, the beers are authentic and unparalleled. They offer five of the six Munich breweries, with only Augustiner not represented on the tap list.
Here are my tasting notes for the Spaten Oktoberfest.
Appearance: crystal clear, definition amber
Aroma: mild sweet, grassy and floral
Flavor: caramel and bitter; not alcoholic or sharp; muted bitterness; can taste depth of malt; a little "muddied"; not as "clean" of a taste as optimal
Body: firm medium body with good depth and lasting effects
Drinkability: I could drink too many of these and really enjoy it
Summary: An associate said "It tastes like the smell of falling leaves" and, I am quoting from a scribbled on corner of a placemat, "Somehow [this] beer just tastes right with a background of oompa music and a chorus of good, spontaneous polka whoops." This beer, to me, is what Oktoberfests should shoot for. It's not the best Oktober I've had (there are better out there) but if you were to look up "Oktoberfest" in the dictionary you'd find a picture of this beer (well, not really, you'd probably be treated to a 5 sentence description of the festival held in Munich, but you get my point).
My understanding from others is that since Spaten was purchased by InBev in 1999 the quality of this beer has diminished somewhat. I don't find that hard to believe. The yeast is a little one-note, and the hops could be more expressive; but the basic foundation is still there and it is very definitely a solid beer.