It’s spitting sleet. The sky is a sheet of lead. The wind, damp and raw, burns the flesh. But amidst the gloom of March, there are signs of the unstoppable change of the seasons. Birdsongs share the air with the heavy perfume of well-rested earth. Trees flush a ghostly green, preparing to burst forth with new life. For brewers, these signs announce that warmer weather is approaching, and it’s time to get the last batches of serious beer in the tanks, luxuriously pouring resources into a beer that will sleep all summer to be tapped as a celebration of the harvest, a reward for work well done and part of the grand cycle of seasons.
Modern climate control has pretty well stripped beer of its relevance to the cosmic cycles that used to utterly dominate our lives. Independence from the seasons has been hard-won and of undeniable benefit to large brewers, but the banishing of seasonality takes with it something profound in our nature.
Before refrigeration, most serious beers were brewed only in the cold half of the year. In warm weather, the heat generated by fermenting yeast spirals out of control, producing harsh and overly fruity beer as the yeast tries to cope with the heat. In the summer, the animals are all outdoors, so wild yeast and bacteria abound, impossible to keep out of the brewery. With a small beer meant for quick consumption, this can be overlooked, but for keeping beers, such uninvited guests can be disastrous. In terms of product quality, summer’s a washout.
In addition, work shifted with the seasons, and in rural or village settings, all hands were needed in the fields during the growing season. So, the town brewer (or at least his helpers) may have been pushing a plow in the summer.
Plenty of beer was needed to keep things lubricated, of course, but it was mainly the small, “single” beers that were brewed all summer long. This, according to the Belgian brewer Lacambre (1851), is the origin of the term saison, which is now applied to a specific Belgian style but once denoted any full-strength beer, those alone being brewed in the proper brewing “season,” or saison in French. He notes this season lasted from mid-October through March.
Similar seasonal limits had the force of law in Bavaria as early as 1533, and may have had more to do with the origins of lager than the legendary caves of the Bavarian Alps. We know the Bavarian March beers as Oktoberfests, the name given them in 1810, where they served in the party of the same name—a celebration of a royal marriage. As is so often the case in beer history, little is known of what such beers would have tasted like. Malty, amber-colored märzens seem to have come on the scene in mid-nineteenth century Vienna and Munich, championed by the two great brewers Anton Dreher and Gabriel Sedlmyer, Jr. It seems entirely likely that Bavarian March beers existed before that time, but we can only speculate at this point as to their nature.
March in France
Lacambre (1851) remarks on the beers of Strasbourg, which were a “young” (small) beer and a bière de mars. The latter was a mix of the first and second runnings, which often yields a beer in the neighborhood of 1055 to 1065 OG (°P). While he doesn’t give a specific recipe, he does note that 900 to 1,100 grams of top-quality German hops for every 52 to 53 kilograms of malt, a ratio I have used in the recipe below. The malt was kilned very slowly and he says it resembled London pale malt of the day, “light amber, and with a cooked aroma.” But here’s the kicker: this malt was kilned with “vegetable charcoal,” which added a smoky aroma.
Later, in nineteenth century France, German lager beer culture pushed into Alsace and Lorraine, and this area became France’s beer-basket, producing three-quarters or so of France’s beer. Judging by the old posters, bock and bière de mars seemed to have been well loved, and there certainly were blondes as well. In the Nord region up near Belgium, similar beers were produced under more primitive circumstances, usually via top fermentation. The French bière de mars corresponds pretty closely with Bavarian Märzen—luminous amber, aromatically malty, barely balanced by hops. As crystal malt didn’t show up until the 1870s, these would likely have been based on something akin to Vienna or Munich malt.
Bière de mars existed in Belgium as well, but it’s hardly deserving of the name. Made from the last runnings of the turbid lambic mash, it was sometimes fermented and sold as a small beer, but more often blended with lambic, sweetened with caramel and sold as Faro. This, by the way, was the most popular form of lambic in the nineteenth century.
A grander form of March beer existed across the channel. It was a somewhat less illustrious cousin of the famous estate-brewed October beers, the direct predecessors to English pale ale. These strong pale beers brewed in private country house breweries long had the reputation as the best beer in Britain, as their owners likely grew and malted the grain right on the property and paid no tax as well. As elsewhere, the idea of a March beer was to use up most of last year’s malt and hops, leaving just enough for summer small beer brewing. Because everything was several months old when the beer was made, it was considered to be just slightly inferior in flavor to October beer, but was still a prized luxury.
The recipe below is loosely based on Lacambre’s 1851 description of Strasbourg bière de mars. I am offering the option of making it either a smoked or non-smoked beer, as surely over time, both versions existed. The gravity is a bit of an educated guess, so don’t be afraid of making it stronger, but at 1062, it should weather the summer well and taste just merveilleux by the first chilly day of fall.