Annnnnd we’re back! For the next two weeks, we will be celebrating the 16-day Oktoberfest alongside the Germans and fortunate foreigners drinking copious litres of beer and snacking on brezn at Oktoberfest 2012 in Munich. Oktoberfest, now in its 202nd year, evolved from a royal festival celebrating the marriage of Konig Ludwig I and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen (trying pronouncing that after a few beers).
The festival was such a hit in Bavaria that the party never actually stopped. Oktoberfest has been held on the field in front of the historic city gate since 1810 (with some exceptions, such as years during cholera outbreaks and those wars). Over two centuries later, Oktoberfest is now the world’s largest festival, with over 6.4 million attendees in 2010. There have been some minor changes to the fest over the last two hundred years. What were once beer stalls to spend time between horse races are now beer tents that can accommodate thousands of thirsty celebrators. Swings have been replaced by multiple-looped roller coasters (I still don’t know whose good idea that was). Nevertheless, what was once a celebration of love, is now a celebration of the love of beer.
BUT! It’s not just a celebration of any beer. No, at Oktoberfest, you drink Oktoberfestbier. Maß und Maß of Oktoberfestbier. While your local liquor store will have a number of Oktoberfestbier-style six-packs on the shelves, there are only six beers in the world that hold the title of Official Oktoberfestbier. In order to qualify as a true Oktoberfest, the beer must be brewed in Munich by a Munich brewery and meet a number of other technical criteria, from ABV to gravity levels. This pretty much leaves six breweries with the permission to serve their Oktoberfest brews at Oktoberfest: Augustiner-Bräu, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu-München, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten.
So what IS an Oktoberfestbier, exactly? Is it called as such for its association to the event? Or is there a unique style only produced this time of year? The answers are ‘absolutely’ and ‘it’s not that simple.’ Since the dawn of Oktoberfest, the Märzen has been the only style served. Märzen, which comes from the German word “März” for March, was a dark amber lager brewed in March and left to ferment all the summer long in dark caves. Thus, Märzens were available for enjoyment just in time for Oktoberfest. Over the years, the Oktoberfestbier has slightly deviated from the historic Märzen recipe. Now, you’ll find Oktoberfesters drinking a lighter Märzen (Helles Märzen), for example. But we’re avoiding the stein-sized question in the proverbial room: WHAT IS A MARZEN?
DAS MARZEN, or Märzen-Oktoberfest-Wiener
As can be inferred by its provenance, the Märzen is a Bavarian beer. Like many other Bavarian beers, the Märzen appeared on the scene sometime in late 15th century. Brewing occurred in March, as it was prohibited to brew beer in the summer to prevent spoilage. In order to maintain fermentation through the summer, more hops and sugars were introduced to the wort. Lo and behold, this made for a more alcoholic and fuller beer than other German lagers. Unsurprisingly, it was a hit.
A major moment in Märzen history occurred in 1840. Two brewers, one from Spaten Brewery and one from Austrian Dreher, decided to add a new malt to the Märzen recipe. This malt, the Vienna malt, rendered the beer sweeter and lighter than the Bavarian counterpart. This new brew was known as Märzen “brewed the Vienna way” in Germany and as a Vienna Lager in Austria.
Before long, Spaten retooled their recipe and added a Munich malt. This new recipe was marketed as THE “Oktoberfestbier” and is the one we drink today. It is almost unrecognizable from the original full-bodied, dark amber Märzens that were first consumed on Oktoberfest grounds. However, these lighter Märzens (Helles Märzen, or Wiesens) go down with a certain ease, enabling the attendees to sit in the beer tents for hours on end until they fully transform into Bierleichen. This is German for beer corpses. I think this term needs to be introduced into everyday English.
So, what to expect from a Märzen/Oktoberfestbier?
While there are a number of variations, the major characteristic is that these beers are freaking balanced. A slightly more alcoholic lager, the average Märzen is between 5.8-6.3%.
Sight: The color will vary greatly from Märzen to Märzen. If you find yourself at Oktoberfest, you’ll be looking at a golden body with a springy white head. Most American Märzens hark back to historic recipes and will be a dark amber or copper.
Smell: Depending on the brewery, a strong Vienna or Munich malt will be the predominant aroma. Hops will be undetectable.
Flavor: This beer is all about the malts. There will be flavors of toasted malts, sweet malts, biscuity malts. The Bavarian Märzen will have little to no hop presence. However, American breweries do as they do, and an inappropriate amount of hops will sneak through.
Feel: Expect a medium body with moderate carbonation and an overall creaminess. It will also be quite dry and crisp, a result of a longer fermentation.
So, then, it would seem that all Oktoberfestbiers are Märzens, but not all Märzens are Oktoberfestbiers. From this discourse, it ought not be surprising that the definition of a Märzen-Oktoberfest-Vienna is somewhat ambiguous. The best way to wrap your head around the many variations of this style? Drink as many as possible! So, go forth and join us on the two week Oktoberfest challenge! May we all be Bierleichen for weeks to come.
Tip: there are many Oktoberfest celebrations happening in the tri-state area. Clearly going to one of these is the best way to get into the Oktoberfest spirit, short of booking a very expensive ticket to Munich. I highly recommend checking out Zum Schneider (try the Paulaner Original Wies’n), Radegast Hall (try the Hofbrau Oktoberfest), Pilsner Haus (try the Ramstein Oktoberfest), and Zeppelin Hall (try the Spaten Oktoberfest).