Let's Talk Beer Styles: Octoberfest/Märzen Lagers

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Let's Talk Beer Styles: Octoberfest/Märzen Lagers

“Let’s Talk Beer Styles” is a monthly feature that accompanies Paste’s large-scale blind craft beer style tastings/rankings. The first month covered the history and modern role of American pale ale, and the next few subsequently tackled everything from classical pilsner to the true history of India pale ale. Now we’re examining the classic style of oktoberfest celebrations, märzen. For our just-published blind-tasting and ranking of 55 märzens, click here.

Oktoberfest beer. Märzen. What do you think of, when you hear those words? Regardless of whether you’re spelling it with a “C” or a “K,” the name of this style is likely to conjure up some very specific, seasonal imagery. Beer consumed from liter steins (or boots) by lederhosen-wearing Bavarians. Cooler weather, and leaves changing color. Football season. Pretzels. Märzen has a visual aesthetic that is well mapped out.

odell oktoberfest (Custom).jpg No labels say “autumn” like märzen labels.

But what is a märzen, really? When we think of the style, we picture copper-colored mugs of medium-strength lager, but märzen as a style can’t be pigeonholed quite so easily. Although it may often seem like a very well-defined beer style, there is certainly some variation present, both in Europe and in American examples. Likewise, there is a subtle difference in philosophies between the märzens brewed by classic German breweries today and the ones you tend to see on the American craft beer market. In short, there’s a bit more variety in märzen than initially meets the eye, and you might be surprised to learn quite where this style got its start.

In this piece, we’ll delve into the historical birth of märzen, how it became linked to Munich’s famed Oktoberfest celebrations, and how it made its way into being one of the iconic “seasonals” of American craft brewing. And of course, we’ll also leave you with a few suggestions of märzens you should really sample for yourself sometime soon. So let’s get into it.

The Origin of Märzen

It is well-understood that the so-called “original” märzens were a product of brewing technology and limitations of the time—in this case, the mid-16th century. “März” in German meaning March, it refers to a Bavarian brewing ordinance of 1553 decreeing that beer should be produced only between Sept. 29 and April 23 each year, as the hot summers and lack of refrigeration would lead to unacceptable spoilage. The first märzens were thus brewed in March and then socked away in the coolest available locations, be they cellars or the same temperature-consistent caves used to age bock beer. Slow-fermenting via the best lager yeast strains available at the time, märzens were also made a bit stronger than other beers, which helped with their preservation. The completed beer could then be brought up from the cellar in August or September, lasting into the autumn.

What is less understood, though, is that these particular lagers were quite a bit different from the brilliant amber beers we see labeled as märzen today. Because English malting technology had not yet developed the lighter-kilned base malts used to make pale ale and other comparatively lighter beer styles, the original märzens would have been uniformly brownish in color, and likely closer to the current conception of Munich dunkel or schwarzbier (two more great beer styles) in character. And this remained the mold for märzen for a really long time—from at least the end of the 16th century to the mid-1800s, according to The Oxford Companion to Beer. It is interesting to see how slowly the technology and widespread acceptance for paler malt spread to continental Europe before it arrived in a big way, in the 1840s.

As I’ve written about previously while tackling pilsner, the creation of Pilsner Urquell in 1842 was a landmark moment in the history of popular beer styles, as the golden-hued beer was an instant sensation. Less known, however, is that a comparatively light, amber-orange lager beer style was born in Austria one year earlier—Vienna lager. And this style is the real root of what we currently think of as modern märzen.

Vienna lager was first created by one of Vienna’s best-known brewers, Anton Dreher, who had been working closely with his friend and fellow brewer, Gabriel Sedlmayr of Munich—who himself worked for the famed Spaten-Franziskaner Brauerei, which will become important soon. Viennese brewers had to this point predominantly been brewing ales, but Dreher had taken an interest in the bottom-fermenting lager yeast being used by Sedlmayr and others in Munich. Using the lighter malts that were newly at his disposal, Dreher fermented the resulting beer with lager yeast, and boom—the first amber Vienna lager, in 1841. These beers were responsible for consolidating the hold of lagers in Vienna, and they began capturing attention in Munich as well.

Now is when we need to talk about Oktoberfest, the event. It began in 1810 as a wedding party—who for? Why, the Crown Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen, of course … there’s a beer trivia question, if I ever heard one. Regardless, Oktoberfest became an annual event, soon lasting for weeks in late September. And the beer consumed at the event was predominantly “märzen”—which is to say, the darker, dunkel-like beers that bore the name märzen at that point in history.

Enter Gabriel Sedlmayr’s son, Josef Sedlmayr, who by 1872 had taken over his father’s brewery. Using Munich’s lager yeast and lighter kilned malts, he brewed his own beer in the Vienna lager style, lagered it over the summer and introduced it at the 1872 Oktoberfest, calling the result “Ur-Märzen,” or “the original märzen.” The name might not have been quite accurate, but what Sedlmayr created was the first truly “modern märzen,” and one that still exists in a version today—Spaten Oktoberfestbier, which still carries the phrase “Ur-Märzen,” 144 years later. The beer was an immediate sensation, and the rest of the Munich breweries scrambled to catch up. Soon, they were all brewing amber versions of märzen, and the older, darker lagers settled into new styles. The meaning of the term “märzen” had been permanently changed, even as modern refrigeration meant it no longer specifically needed to be brewed in March.

spaten oktoberfest inset (Custom).jpg The “Ur-Märzen”

Märzen has been the iconic beer of Oktoberfest ever since, although you may not realize that at the actual festival, only six breweries’ beers are allowed—the “big six” of local Munich brewers, composed of Spaten, Löwenbräu, Augustiner-Bräu, Hofbräu-München, Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr. At its heart, Oktoberfest has remained a “Munich event.”

That regionality has also led to another evolution in märzen as a style, in more recent years. From the 1970s onward, as the legend of Oktoberfest grew as a world event, and as thousands of tourists flocked to Munich every September, the Munich breweries began to change their flagship märzens to better suit changing tastes, and also the tastes of tourists, and their märzens began to get lighter. By the 1990s, all of the big six Munich brewers had created lighter märzens for the festival, beers that somewhat blur the lines between true “märzen” and a blonde Munich helles, or are helles-like but with just a tad more malty presence. Still other German breweries have separated the style down the middle and make multiple beers: A true “märzen” of the kind born in 1872, and a lighter “oktoberfestbier” that better reflects current tastes of the festival. But regardless, that brings us up to the modern day, as far as märzen in its home country is concerned.

The Role of Märzen in American Craft Beer

In the U.S.A., märzen, or more often simply “octoberfest,” has to be considered one of the O.G.’s of the concept of craft beer “seasonals,” alongside other styles such as “winter warmer” and “pumpkin ale.” There was a time period in the second great craft beer boom, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, that “seasonal” beers were the single biggest thing driving the expansion of the craft beer industry, and this is where märzen has really played a part.

Of course, the style has existed in America for quite a while, although it’s hard to find detailed information like you can easily obtain for the style’s history in Germany. It can be assumed that after the introduction of true Munich märzen at the 1872 Oktoberfest, the style probably emigrated to America alongside the many German immigrants who made their way to the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, like nearly every other classical European beer style (besides “pilsner” in name only), märzen nearly disappeared entirely from American craft brewing in the years following the enactment and repeal of Prohibition. As it did with pale ale and so many other styles, Prohibition caused entire generations to forget about other beer styles, until the beginning of the homebrewing revolution in the late 1970s and 1980s.

And on some level, märzen was very well suited to those early days of American craft brewing. A lighter, fairly sessionable, appreciably malty-sweet and approachable lager makes an excellent gateway beer for drinkers who are just being exposed to the concept of better beer for the first time, and “octoberfests” were unsurprisingly adopted by many of the regional breweries that have since become major players, from Samuel Adams to Sierra Nevada, Bells and many others. It feels like an especially common beer style to see at more humble brewpubs, the corner taverns that tend to service neighborhoods and place a priority on drinkability and approachability in their beers. A brewery like that might even disregard the notion of seasonality and feature a märzen on the menu all year round. They could easily be substituted for a year-round amber ale, filling much the same role as an intriguing, malty beer that is crisp and drinkable while still being a step up the flavor rung from “blonde ale” or “pale lager.”

Samuel-Adams-Octoberfest (Custom).jpg Hard to ignore that Sam Adams has done a ton to popularize märzen in the U.S.

Naturally though, American brewers have also tinkered with the fabric of what defines märzen. Hoppy versions of the style have unsurprisingly become more common, reflecting the American tendency to make hoppy versions of every classic beer style. But on a fundamental level, American märzens also tend to be a bit different from their German forebears, even when talking about the amber, malty märzen developed in 1872. Many American versions look similar, but are different in their approach. Where German variants get most of their color and malt character exclusively from Vienna and Munich malt, American variants are more likely to use a substantial charge of crystal malt in the grist, which yields more prominent caramel and residual sugar character in the final product. If the classic German märzen is more “toasty/bready/drier,” then the American counterpart is more “caramelized/fruity/sweet.” But once again, these are only general trends—märzens of every style do exist in both Europe and America.

In terms of how craft beer drinkers view märzen as a style these days, it often feels like something of a mixed bag. It’s hard to overlook that festbiers definitely have some vocal detractors, who often cite a lack of nuance in the foundations of the style, or simply assert that too many märzens are cloyingly sweet and unbalanced. I won’t dispute that point, because there are definitely some bad märzens on the market every year. But I’m not among the camp of people who don’t like the style. Märzens do require some impeccable balance to really stand out and achieve the platonic ideal of the style, but when you have a really great one, they’re beers that will stick with you. It’s simultaneously a style that I rarely order on draft, but still look forward to sampling every autumn when they reappear.

Three Essential Märzens You Need to Try

Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen

Look, if you really want to define, down to a science, what “märzen” means, then just go out and get some Ayinger and be done with it. A German classic that hews closer to the 1872 original version of Ur-Märzen, Ayinger’s hotly anticipated yearly release is darker than most of its brethren, with a distinctly creamy mouthfeel that is also pretty unique in this style. Smooth, toasty malt is dominant, with a small but noticeable level of balancing bitterness. An unexpected note of lightly citric hops is even identifiable, which one doesn’t usually see in the German takes on the style. Between the mouthfeel and mild residual sweetness, though, the biggest impression one takes away from the Ayinger is the unquantifiable idea of “smoothness” and rounded flavors—there are no rough edges here. It’s quite drinkable, but in a slightly richer, fuller way than in the lighter “festbiers” that may or may not be true märzen. But no matter what, you can’t go wrong picking up this one, our #1 märzen out of 55 that we just blind-tasted.

Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest

We never would have expected one of the best examples of classical German malt complexity in our recent tasting to come out of Sierra Nevada of all places, but when you collaborate with a venerable German brewery for each year’s märzen release, that’s apparently what happens. In terms of profile, their collaboration with Mahrs Bräu is actually more like one of the above-described “oktoberfestbiers” than classic amber märzen, but it’s one of the most delicious examples of the style that you can find in the U.S. Layer after layer of grainy, bready, doughy malt complexity are your reward, in a beer that drinks extremely easily and smoothly. This is not the caramelized, sweet “octoberfest” from your local corner brewpub, but it’s a spectacular German lager that illustrates how differently certain breweries look at the style.

Firestone Walker Oaktoberfest

firestone-walker-oaktoberfest (Custom).jpg

We had a handful of “hoppy märzens” on the table in the course of tasting 55 of them, and it wasn’t surprising that Firestone Walker’s offering was among the boldest and the best. With a slightly lighter corresponding malt body, Oaktoberfest comes off slightly pilsner-like, with very pleasant green, grassy and spicy noble hop presence that mingles with grainy and bready malt. Very refreshing and a bit lighter of body than some of the other examples, it’s ultra-quaffable and makes a great alternative to the heavier and richer versions of the style. It is perhaps an illustration of how German brewers would expect their American craft brewing counterparts to tackle the style of märzen, considering that our go-to method of making a style our own is usually to up the hop rate and switch to American hop varietals. Firestone Walker doesn’t totally commit to that kind of reinvention, though—they’re simply making an approachable, drinkable German-style lager that happens to feature noble hoppiness that goes beyond what’s typical in the style guidelines. And that disregard for the guidelines is American enough, in this case.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident craft beer guru, and he’s glad this tasting was a piece of cake compared to 247 IPAs. You can follow him on Twitter for more craft beer coverage.