As the air gets crisper and the leaves burn brighter, beer lovers turn their thoughts from summer quenchers to richer fall offerings. And no brew more appropriately fits the autumnal season, in both palate and appearance, than the coppery Märzen/Oktoberfest. Oddly named after two calendar months (Märzen is German for March), or more specifically a month and a seasonal festival, each name is important to the evolution of these plush, chewy lagerbiers.
The term “Märzen” is a remnant from a time when the brewing season’s last beers were made in spring and stored until late summer or fall. “Oktoberfest” was attached in relatively recent times, as the release of the beer coincided with the famous fall festival in Munich. They are the offspring of groundbreaking Viennese beers of the 19th century, preceding the more famously revolutionary golden pilsners of Bohemia by one year.
As 19th century brewers took advantage of technology that allowed year-round brewing, Märzen/Oktoberfest biers became a vestige of the original unforgiving, seasonal timetable. In spite of its confusing duplicity, the marriage of Märzen and Oktoberfest as a descriptive name perfectly frames the authenticity, patience and festivity of German lagerbier.
The Beers of March
Märzen has been a rather common designation for particular brews in Germany and Austria for hundreds of years. The brewing season before refrigeration lasted from the onset of the brisk fall chill until the last cool days of winter or early spring, usually in March. The reason is rather obvious: lower fermentation temperatures resulted in cleaner, more stable beer, as microbiological spoilage was much less likely. Naturally, those brewed in fall and winter could be consumed relatively fresh, but those made in March had to be consumed either immediately or stored into the summer and fall, when brewing could resume.
Those destined for the lengthiest lagering period, and perhaps brewed to a slightly higher gravity, were designated Märzenbier. Of course, long-term cold storage was not an issue, as those areas employing this method were near the Alps, and had either cold cellars or caves at their disposal. Under these conditions, strains of cold-tolerant, slow-working yeast were also unknowingly being selected and cultivated well before any sort of microbiology was understood.
During the 18th century, both Munich and Vienna were well-established brewing centers, and both used the Märzen concept as it applied to provisional beer. They differed, however, in that Vienna was brewing ales and Munich, its renowned bottom-fermented lagerbiers.
At the beginning of the 19th century, brewing began to take its first steps toward modernization, and two of the more famous brewers, Anton Dreher of Vienna and Gabriel Sedlmayr of Munich (and the Spaten-Franziskaner Brauerei), were working together, with Sedlmayr mentoring Dreher on the finer points of lager brewing.
Sedlmayr died in 1839 and the brewery was put into the hands of his sons, Josef and Gabriel II. Dreher had by now taken over the family brewery in Vienna and was using recent malting innovations to make pale base malt, one that was much lighter than the dark malts used in Munich’s lagers. Dreher’s amber brews were novel, and rivaled the pale ales being made in England at that time.
In 1841, Dreher put the finishing touch on his remarkable new brew by switching to lager brewing exclusively, his years of studying under the Sedlmayrs coming to fruition. A year later, golden pilsner beer was introduced in Bohemia, and though it may have trumped the Vienna lager in its stunning lightness, Viennese beer remained quite highly-regarded, especially among the braumeisters of Munich.
A Perfect Marriage
The original Oktoberfest celebrated the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The event occurred on October 12, 1810 and all residents of Munich were invited to the countryside to join the gala. The festivities last for five days, and ended with a horse race.
The Oktoberfestbiers that were served at the festival were actually Märzenbier, and were the indigenous Munich dunkels, all of which were supplied by the established local breweries. This all changed in 1872 when Josef Sedlmayr of Franziskaner (today part of Spaten) introduced an amber lager to Oktoberfest.
He first made this beer in 1871, using the Viennese recipe as a template, deemed it a rousing success, and made it again in March 1872 for consumption in the autumn. He called it Ur-Märzen (original Märzen). When the beer supply ran low at the 1872 Oktoberfest, Sedlmayr made his Ur-Märzen available to the thirsty festers. He unknowingly introduced what has become the modern Märzen, and the staple at all Oktoberfest celebrations shortly thereafter, as the style was hastily adopted by many of the other Munich breweries.
Today’s festival biers are ceremoniously tapped as they have always been, but it should be noted that some are decidedly golden in color. Since the 1970s, as Oktoberfest has become more popular and drawn more attendees from around the world, the brews were reformulated to appease the shifting clientele. Those burnished gold versions are more similar to Munich helles, with a tad more heft. Still malty, they lack the succulent toasty character of darker Vienna and Munich style malts found in the bright copper examples. The latter are the originals: they are most likely to be exported and accessible, and are more associated with the evolution of the style. German breweries often make both interpretations: the golden for domestic consumption, and the copper for export.
Märzen/Oktoberfest beer symbolically captures the autumnal shift of seasons. The bright copper-orange color comes from the use of toasted Vienna and Munich varieties of malted barley. Kilned at a slightly higher temperature than golden pilsner malt, Vienna and Munich varieties lend not only amber color to the wort, but a toasty, melanoidin-rich flavor and aroma, soft malt sweetness, palpable mouthfeel and slight spiciness.
Vienna malt is less robust in this respect than Munich. The effect of this kilning is dramatic when compared to a helles for example, a brew made with almost entirely with pilsner malt. Superb wort can be made with nearly any combination of these malts, including pilsner, but it is essential to include a measure of Vienna, Munich, or both. A recipe heavy on Munich malt would create a more juicy malt character, with one leaning on Vienna malt a bouncier, spicy version.
Recall that Dreher’s pioneering contribution to the beer world was his newly-fashioned amber malt that he coupled with his conversion to bottom-fermentation. He demonstrated that skilled maltsters could make a precisely-kilned house malt for a specific type of beer. That innovation was and still is the basic formulation in an exceptional Märzen/Oktoberfest.
Hop rates are subdued, but there is no mistaking the noble German aroma and flavor. The emergent brew is an elegant display of clean maltiness that comes in at 5.5 to 6.0 percent ABV. New World interpretations seldom stray far from their Germanic ancestors, and are generally seasonal brews. Imported or domestic, they may carry any one or a combination of the designations on the label.
Many find solace from the doldrums of winter in a strong brew, or relief from the summer heat in a more lilting thirst-quencher. Fall is yet another time to savor an appropriate brew, one that provides something in between. For many, autumn is the best time of the year, serving up impeccable weather, reflection and ambiance, and to those, it also offers a most flawless seasonal beer in Märzen/Oktoberfest.
Ayinger Oktober Fest-MärzenABV: 5.6
Tasting Notes: This well-decorated Märzen from the Ayinger Brauerei in Bavaria is among the finest in the world. The glimmering orange-gold hue and rocky, tenacious head release a delicious aroma of fresh toasted malt and noble hops. The medium body and creaminess wash a hint of caramel, lots of crisp, clean maltiness and an herbal hop finish across the palate. Hearty without being heavy, fresh and brisk in the finish. It is produced as a true Märzenbier and ushers in the fall in excellent fashion.
Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest-MärzenABV: 5.8
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Munich, this festbier pours full amber with an impressively clingy froth. It offers fresh hops and warm, toasty malt in the bouquet. The velvety mouthfeel and medium body give way to a full malty, sweet flavor and reserved, but firm, hop bitterness. It finishes with a well-rounded and tidy sweet/bitter finish.
Victory FestbierABV: 5.6
Tasting Notes: Victory Brewing in Downingtown, PA offers a virtually unmatched portfolio of ales and lagers, and its festbier is among its best. The grist is a seamless blend of German pilsner, Vienna and Munich malts, and hops are German whole flowers. None in America is more authentic. It pours copper-red with a stiff off-white head. The nose is full of malt, grain, caramel and fresh, floral hop character. The finish has very soft contours, perfectly satisfying and drinkable. It is available from September through November in bottles.
Samuel Adams OctoberfestABV: 5.7
Tasting Notes: The Boston Beer Co. needs neither introduction nor further acclaim for both its outstanding lineup of brews or impact on the craft brewing industry. The Octoberfest is a welcome seasonal that stands up to the finest that Germany has to offer. Rusty-amber in color; rich malt, toasted bread and caramel with a hint of German hops in the aroma. The palate is silky, firm and chewy, with a full malty frame and noble hop bitterness and flavor. The finish is plumper than most, leaving a sweetish, long-lasting impression.