Thursday, September 18, 2014

Märzen/Oktoberfest

The Bavarian Crest and flag colors adorn this
Oktoberfest banner.


"O'zapft is!"

And with that loud cry, the ceremonial first keg is tapped; the world’s biggest party is underway ('O'zapft is!' means It’s tapped! in German, Bavarian dialect).

The Oktoberfest celebration in Munich is quite attractive to many Americans because of the giant mugs of beers and mass consumption of the golden liquid contained within them. That’s not saying the proud Bavarians won’t indulge and intake their fair share of beer, there is more to this festival than beer drinking. How did this celebration become a tradition in the first place? And, more importantly, why is there a beer named after the festival? Why is it held on grounds which used to be a meadow and is named after a princess? Let’s dive into the past as I explain the interesting (and sometimes convoluted) beginnings of not only the festival, but also the beer that bares its name.

The best place to start is, well, the beginning. Technology, brewing ingenuity, and key events have an important role in the following timeline. It's quite a ride.

Ready? Here we go...

In the 1550’s, the Bavarian government outlawed brewing in the summer months due to the inconsistent beers being produced during this time of year. They didn't understand why, yet they knew fermentation and cold storage (lager) done in the colder months of the year resulted in higher quality beers.

Brewers stepped up production during March (give or take) and brewed plenty of beer to be stored away. These beers were quite strong, dark, and well hopped. Kept in cool caves, they eventually mellowed out. They eventually became known as Märzenbier (March beer).

In congruent with the new harvest, brewing would begin again in late September or early October. Evidence shows that the remaining Märzenbiers were consumed in mass quantities to free-up the casks for the upcoming brewing season. Not exactly a party or celebration, yet still a good time as you could imagine.

Fast-forward to 1807. Gabriel Sedlmayr, Master Brewer to the royal court of Bavaria, obtains a small brewery in Munich... Spaten. Sedlmayr would spend the rest of his life perfecting the bottom-fermenting (lager) practice and teaching his sons (Gabriel -the younger- and Joseph) the trade. 

Before we get further into the Sedlmayr’s timeline, one key event took place on October 12, 1810. The Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. A grand wedding party was held just outside of the city gates on a meadow. Over 40,000 Bavarians came to party and they stayed for several days. Of all things, the main attraction to the commoners was a horse race during the last day of festivities. The celebration continued year after year, eventually evolving and merging with the celebration of agriculture, harvest, and clearing out the casks for the new brewing season (and as mentioned before, these older casked beers were in their prime condition with the extended aging). Horse racing eventually was dropped from the celebrations. To honor the princess, the grounds that continue to hold this party is named Theresienwiese, Therese’s Meadow in German, Bavarian dialect.

The first Oktoberfest was a wedding celebration that lasted more than a few days... and there was no focus beer, mainly because there might not have been any available. By 1814, there is literature mentioning generous amounts of beer. Now, we have the world’s biggest party where about 30% of all Munich brewery production is accounted for!

Let us rejoin our brewers in their timeline and find out how we arrived with a beer style named after the festival.

In 1833, brewers Gabriel Sedlmayr (the younger) of the Spaten Brewery his good friend, Anton Dreher of the Dreher Brewery in Vienna made a research trip to England. Their goal was to witness and study a revolutionary hot air kiln, which kilned green malt to a relatively pale consistency. They returned and immediately got to work creating paler malts and incorporating them at their respective breweries.

Sedlmayr released an amber lager during the 1841 Oktoberfest known simply as a Märzen made with his pale grain dubbed Munich malt (although this Märzen was paler in comparison to Märzenbiers prior). Likewise, a few months later Dreher released an even paler amber lager made with his own pale grain dubbed Vienna malt. These two beers were the precursors to what we know as the Oktoberfest/Märzen and Vienna Lagers today.

Following Sedlmayr’s death in 1839, his two sons -Gabriel and Joseph- assume the ownership responsibilities.

Joseph would later (in 1842) withdraw from Spaten to pursue his own brewing venture and would acquire the Leist Brewery. Joseph after a while attains the Franziskaner and shuts down the Leist Brewry. By 1865, Joseph’s only focus is brewing operations at Franziskaner.

While all this is happening, a brewer by the name Josef Groll released his pale golden lager to the unsuspecting public of Pilsen, Bohemia (modern-day Czech) on November 11, 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. No market was unaffected, not even the traditional Märzenbiers.

Joseph was quite aware of the growing popularity of pale-colored beers and he applied it to a modified Vienna Lager formula and released it during the 1872 Oktoberfest. This beer was Franziskaner’s Ur- Märzen. The copper colored, toasty, crisp Oktoberfest beer we know and love was finally born!

The development of refrigeration by Carl von Linde in 1873 encouraged breweries to slowly move into year round production (ironically enough, the first refrigeration system was developed for the Spaten Brewery). The Märzen style beers evolved into specialty products specially made for the festival. Märzen as a “March” beer slowly became a style designation associated with the festival. Naturally, they are now known as one and the same, Märzen/Oktoberfest. With this mash-up, the need to create a special, darker, stronger beer in March eventually dissipated. There was simply no need for it any longer.

Spaten and Franziskaner would join in 1922 bringing the Sedlmayr’s back under one umbrella of influential brewers.

In recent times, since 1990 to be exact, the Oktoberfest style has split into two distinct versions: Bright gold to deep gold Festbier and the traditional densely gold to coppery-orange Märzen.

Deep-Golden Festbier
(Photo Credit: Paulaner.com)
The traditional Märzen/Oktoberfest beers are copper colored and very bright with a dense cap of creamy foam. Rich malty aromas with toasty notes. Sweet yet pleasantly bitter on the palate with complex malt backbone, medium bodied, and clean, dry finish. These are the versions we commonly see here in the United States as they are now produced mainly for export. As mentioned above, the need to create this version as a necessity is no longer valid due to the development of refrigeration. That’s not to say traditional Märzen/Oktoberfest beers are not available in Bavaria because they are (just not as common as before).

In Munich, the Oktoberfest style beer is golden in color. As other lessons in beer anthropology has taught us, the popularity of the Pilsner forced brewers to get with the program to keep their thirsty customers happy. Spaten introduced a Helles Lager to the Munich locals in 1895 in response to the growing demand for the golden beer. This slowly carried over to Oktoberfest by the 1990's. The most popular beer served in the modern Oktoberfest is either a Helles or a supercharged version of Helles (slightly stronger in ABV and a deeper shade of gold, resembling a Dortmunder Export/German Helles Export) and is what is served as Oktoberfest-bier.

The official golden beer (Oktoberfest-bier) described above also goes by the following style names: Festbier, Wiesn, or Wiesnbier. These beers are gold in color, brilliant clarity with a creamy white head. Pilsner malt dominates the aroma with notes of grain-like sweetness. Not as much toasty flavors or aroma. Low bitterness in flavor and finish, with a well-rounded and soft malt character.

Whew!

That was intense. The Oktoberfest beer style history is quite expansive. Short of simply saying, “Oktoberfest is the celebration of beers, harvest, and agriculture that began with a royal wedding,” which is fairly accurate, understanding the significant historical events and timeline brings even more depth to this already amazing beer style.

Regardless of the version you are drinking, serve in a traditional dimpled 'masskrug' and enjoy with a Bratwursts or other local eats for the best experience. It’s even better if you are ‘mit Freunden, bei Oktoberfest.'

Ich liebe dieses Bier. One of my favorite styles, indeed.

Prost!

-Gilbert "Charlie" Perez, Certified Cicerone®