The Amber Family Portrait
The lexicon of beerspeak is rich with descriptive names. Stylistic terms can denote any number of beer characteristics, including origin (pilsner, Dortmunder), appearance (pale ale, witbier), and strength (barley wine, tripel), among others.
How then did the amber lagers, variously known as Vienna, märzen and Oktoberfest, come to be named after a city, a month, and a festival, respectively? Each has its own history and designation. Simply to dismiss amber lagers as a singular classification of beer would be to disregard the brewing history and innovation contributed by some of beerdom’s more venerable characters.
The amber lagers share a lineage that is both ancient and progressive (if a little convoluted) and comes full circle in the end. Märzen begat Vienna, Vienna begat Oktoberfest. In general, they demonstrate both the antiquity and modernity of lager brewing history.
The desire for year-round beer in Europe many centuries ago necessitated some relatively sophisticated contemporary ingenuity. Even though the beers of the early part of this millennium were a bit, shall we say, unrefined by modern standards, the empiricists of the day noted that the brews were much better when made in the cooler seasons of autumn and winter. Beers brewed in late spring and summer were wholly inferior because of both the prevalence of contaminating organisms in the air and the hideous by-products of high fermentation temperatures.
It was also discovered that beers could be brewed in the warmer seasons of spring and summer, be stored in alpine caves until the weather cooled, and emerge unscathed to be consumed in the fall. This undoubtedly led to much ceremonious beer drinking following the summer. Beers following this protocol became known as “märzen” or March beers after the month in which most were brewed.
Simultaneously and rather serendipitously, lagering techniques and the selection of bottom-fermenting yeasts were also being developed. In certain parts of Europe, Munich included, bottom fermentation followed by cold storage was employed for all brews, as it imparted a clean and stable quality to the beer. Until the 19th century, however, these beers were dark and murky and did not resemble the märzen beers of today. Märzen, then, really came to describe a method rather than a particular style of beer.
The Dawn of Modern Lagers
Beer was a culturally important facet of life in most of central, eastern and northern Europe throughout recent history. Naturally, there was a constant desire to refine the product.
Many of the more significant improvements in the technology of brewing occurred in the first half of the 19th century. One of the greatest innovations was the development of gentler malt kilning techniques. Kilns that dried malt with indirect, hot-air heat rather than direct heat allowed for the production of very pale malts. The British by the early part of the 1800s were producing malt for their pale ales that were stunningly light in color compared to other malts found in Europe.
Luckily, around this time, a great friendship developed between two distinguished members of the brewing industry. The Viennese brewer, Anton Dreher, and Gabriel Sedlmayr II, son of the former royal braumeister and controller of the Spaten Brauerei in Munich, Gabriel I, studied and traveled together. They took keen interest in the innovations of the day and applied them to their own brewing skills.
Dreher was quite interested in developing a pale malt of his own. He eventually produced a malt from his continental barley that was light and toasty, and had a unique character. It became known as Vienna (Wiener) malt. This was the base for his distinct brews. His malt, coupled with the bottom-fermentation and lagering methodology that he learned from the Sedlmayrs, produced the first beer in what could be called the Vienna style in 1841. The general assumption, based on brewing records, is that it was a clear amber lagerbier. Sadly, few beers from Austria today resemble the original.
Completing the Circle
Much of the credit for perfecting the bottom-fermenting, cold-conditioning techniques that produce what are today called lagerbiers can be attributed to the braumeisters of Munich.
At the same time that Dreher was developing his Vienna beers, the Sedlmayrs were back at the Spaten Brauerei in Munich crafting and refining their stylistic contribution to the beer world. We know it today as Munich dunkel.
The Spaten brewery can trace its roots back to the 14th century and is thus one of the most established and traditional breweries in the world. But when Gabriel Sedlmayr I died in 1839, his sons, Josef and Gabriel II, took over, and their brewing eventually took a more progressive turn. Although they continued to produce their signature dunkels, they had always maintained a great interest in the brews of Vienna.
The golden and amber lagers of Bohemia and Austria were fast becoming very popular. Josef eventually became braumeister at Franziskaner (which today is part of the Spaten-Franziskaner merger) and in 1871 brewed a pilot batch of amber Viennese beer that was unlike anything else that could be sampled in the city. It received such acclaim that Josef decided to make a second batch the following spring. He named it Ur- Märzen (original märzen). It would be ready in the fall of 1872.
When, at the Oktoberfest celebration of 1872, the supply of the regular beer ran out, Sedlmayr came to the rescue with his märzenbier. It again was so popular that it became a regular beer of the Oktoberfest celebration. Not surprisingly, other breweries in Munich followed suit. Eventually, many märzen beers added the designation, “Oktoberfest,” to the sobriquet.
Though these beers are invariably bound stylistically, they do exhibit some noticeable subtle differences. There are three different names for these similar beers, but they are really just two distinct styles, with märzen and Oktoberfest being interchangeable or set together as in märzen/Oktoberfest.
In general, Viennas are slightly lower in gravity, a little drier, and have a noticeable hop character that leaves the beer well-balanced with a slightly spicy character. Märzen/Oktoberfest beers have a lusty, rich character that is definitely balanced toward the malt. Gentle hop rates allow the Munich-style malts to shine through in the M/O.
Though collectively referred to as “amber lagers,” the truth is that these beers extend the color parameters on either end. Some festbiers are a deep gold, bordering on amber, and both Vienna and märzen/Oktoberfest can be as dark as reddish amber.
Of course, this is a result of the malt that is employed. In order of kilning intensity (and concomitant flavor and color intensity), pilsner, Vienna and Munich malts will make up the majority, if not the entirety, of the grist. Pilsner produces a golden wort; Munich, an amber wort; and Vienna, somewhere in between. Vienna and Munich malts carry with them the chewy, toasted malt complexity and continental character to these beers. Color and flavoring malts are often used to add a bit more depth. They are medium to substantial in strength, coming in at 5 to 6 percent alcohol by volume.
Fall is the time of the year to scour the package stores and taprooms for festbiers. Many fine German varieties are available and in some markets, there may be as many as a dozen or so brands. The German brands tend to be seasonal, so savor them while you can. Spaten, Ayinger, Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner, Wurzburger, Beck and others are likely to be found.
American breweries also produce an excellent range of Vienna and märzen/Oktoberfest beers, some of which are available year round. These might have any of the designations or simply be called “amber” or “amber lager.” They may be more common in the Midwest, but they can be found from coast to coast.
The influence of Austria and Germany can still be found in many Mexican beers. Most of the brews on the menu at Mexican restaurants that aren’t pale, golden and sporting a citrus wedge are in the Vienna or märzen/Oktoberfest style. Their flavor can’t be beat for washing down the spicy food.
Some people love the color and briskness of the fall season; others dislike the season for what it portends. However you view the coming of the winter, the beers of fall, with their autumnal colors and warm, comforting maltiness can be reason enough to look forward to the season.
Ayinger Oktober Fest-MaerzenABV: 5.8
Tasting Notes: Year in and year out, the Ayinger Brauerei of Aying, Germany, is rated among the top breweries in the world. Founded in 1878, in the shadow of the Alps, the brewery produces beers that are world renowned. Its Fest-Maerzen is brewed in spring to serve at the autumnal festivals and it has won numerous medals at the World Beer Championships in the 1990s. Light amber in color, soft and malty on the palate, with the noble German aroma, this beer is somewhat crisper than some other festbiers and goes down smoothly.
Dos Equis LagerABV: 4.5
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Mexico and found throughout North America. More in the Vienna style because of its lighter body. It is slightly sweet with a noticeable hop character and is a delightfully drinkable beer. Like most Vienna/marzen beers, it goes well with spicy foods and is especially nice with Mexican food. The Austrian influence is alive and well in this brew.
Spaten Ur-MaerzenABV: 5.9
Tasting Notes: Billed as the original (Ur) marzen, this particular beer was introduced in 1871. The brewery itself can boast roots dating to the 14th century. One of the largest and best Bavarian breweries, its many products are uniformly held in high esteem. Its Ur-Maerzen is a true gem. The toasty Munich malts and lightly balancing noble hops combine to produce a classic beer. The squeaky clean, assertive malt character dominates both the aroma and flavor and delivers a full-bodied brew. Bavarian brewing at its best.
Sprecher Special AmberABV: 5
Tasting Notes: Since 1985, the Milwaukee brewery, Sprecher, has been making a wonderful array of beers. It specializes in German-style lagers but has added some ales to its portfolio. The Special Amber uses Munich and Caravienne malts and American hops to make a medium-bodied, aromatic version of amber lager. The flavor is toasty and malty; the aroma is that of fresh hops. If you’re in Milwaukee, look for it in one of the many taverns specializing in craftbrews. Sprecher also makes a hefe-weiss, pale lager, black lager and a pub ale, among others.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is a research analyst at Duke University in Durham, NC, and an award-winning homebrewer.