March of Lagers: Experience the Influence of Oktoberfest Style at Several Local Breweries

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Photo credit: Charlie Perez

With a loud and enthusiastic proclamation to the crowd, “O’zapft is!” the ceremonial first keg is tapped. The world’s biggest party is underway. In the Bavarian dialect O’zapft is translates to “It’s tapped!”

Oktoberfest in Munich is typified by the mouthwatering giant mugs of beer and mass consumption of the golden liquid contained within them. But there is more to this fest than beer. There’s history! A meadow (now a huge concrete slab) named after a princess, a wedding, and a beer named after the festival. Let’s dive into it!

In the 1550s, brewing in the summer months was outlawed the Bavarian government due to inconsistencies in the product. At that time, it was not understood why, but they knew fermentation and cold storage in the colder months resulted in higher-quality beers. Brewers stepped up production around March and brewed plenty of beer to be stored or “lager” away. These beers were quite strong, dark, and well hopped. Kept in cold caves, these old casked beers eventually smoothed out and were in prime condition with the extended aging. Eventually, these beers became known as Märzenbier (March beer). Fitting beer to end our March of Lagers.

Simultaneously with the new harvest, brewing would fire back up again in late September or early October. The remaining Märzenbiers were consumed in mass quantities to free up the casks for the coming brewing season. Not quite a celebration yet, but one could still imagine this was a fun time.

The first Oktoberfest is then linked to Oct. 12, 1810. Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. A grand wedding party was held outside the city gates. Thousands of Bavarians partied on a meadow and continued for several days. Ironically, documentation shows there might not have been any available, but there was a horse race on the last day of partying. The wedding anniversary eventually merged with agricultural festivities, harvest, and clearing out the casks for the new brewing season. By 1814, evidence shows substantial beer consumption at the anniversary celebrations continuously increasing to the 16-day party we are familiar with. The Oktoberfest grounds have since been named “Therese’s Meadow” to honor the princess.

That’s the party. Now let’s talk about beer. As mentioned in the March of Lagers: Helles post, in 1833, brewer Gabriel Sedlmayr of the Spaten Brewery and fellow brewer and friend Anton Dreher took a research trip to England. Applying what they learned, Sedlmayr released an amber lager during the 1841 Oktoberfest known simply as a Märzen made with his pale grain, Munich malt. A few months later, Dreher released an even paler amber lager made with his own pale grain, Vienna malt. These two beers are the precursors to modern-day Oktoberfest/Märzen and Vienna lagers.

Meanwhile, a brewer named Josef Groll released his pale golden lager to the public of Pilsen, Bohemia (modern-day Czechia) in 1842. It did not take long for this beer to gain footing with beer drinkers. Virtually all other breweries in the world, including Germany, would follow suit in creating paler beers.

Joseph Sedlmayr, Gabrial’s brother who split-off to purchase his own brewery, was aware of the growing popularity of pale-colored beers. He modified the Vienna recipe and released Franziskaner’s Ur-Märzen at the 1872 Oktoberfest. The copper-colored, toasty, crisp Oktoberfest beer we are familiar with was finally born! Spaten and Franziskaner would unify in 1922, bringing the Sedlmayrs back under one umbrella.

The development of refrigeration by Carl von Linde in 1873 (for Spaten) moved breweries to eventual year-round production. The Märzen evolved into a specialty product for the festival and slowly became a new style. As a result, the words Märzen and Oktoberfest are now interchangeable thanks to the synergy between the festival and history as “March Beer.”

Since 1990, the Oktoberfest style has divided into two versions: the traditional Oktoberfest/Märzen and Festbier. The traditional Oktoberfest/Märzen beers are copper-colored, very bright with a dense, creamy foam and rich, toasty aromas. Sweet and pleasantly bitter on the palate with a complex malt backbone, medium-bodied, and clean, dry finish. These versions are now produced mainly for export in Germany. Festbier (sometimes called Wiesn or Wiesnbier) are deep gold, brilliant clarity with a creamy white head. Pilsner malt dominates the aroma with grainy sweetness with a pleasant toasty flavor or aroma. Low bitterness with a well-rounded malt character.

As other lessons in beer anthropology has taught us, the popularity of the Pilsner forced brewers to adapt to keep their thirsty customers happy. Spaten introduced a Helles lager in 1894, and by 1990, it influenced Oktoberfest. The beers currently served at Oktoberfest in Munich, the Festbier, are essentially a supercharged Helles.

Here in Orange County, the Oktoberfest/Märzen or Festbier available for your enjoyment start popping up as we approach autumn. Chapman Crafted, Unsung, Backstreet, Barley Forge, Green Check, and Tustin Brewing Company are only a handful of locations that usually have an Oktoberfest/Märzen, Festbier, or similar variation. Currently, Chapman Crafted has a toasty and crisp Festbier, Old Towne Fest (not to be confused with Old Town IPA from Tustin). Speaking of, Tustin’s version is very nice; copper tin appearance, bread crust aromas with plenty of Munich malt sweetness that finishes quick and dry. Pair it with the available sausage platter with all the fixings. Fingers crossed that Tustin gets a chance to brew it this year. Be on the lookout for these and other breweries to release an Oktoberfest/Märzen or Festbier later this year.

Oktoberfest celebrates the anniversary of a royal wedding, beer, harvest, and agriculture. Although this is correct, understanding the rich historical context brings depth to this remarkable style. The history of Oktoberfest is impressive and personally one of my favorites to talk about. Serve in a traditional dimpled mug and enjoy with some bratwurst, schnitzel, or other Bavarian dishes for the best experience. This applies to both versions, Oktoberfest/Märzen or Festbier.

Prost!

Editor’s note: Charlie Perez is an Advanced Cicerone® who covers the Orange County beer scene for the Booze Blog.

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