As the leaves in the beer gardens begin to don their autumnal attire and the evenings hint of the harvest, my beer preferences turn to the kinds of beers whose colour reflects my surroundings. These gold, amber, and russet beers of autumn also have just enough added alcoholic warmth to stave off the evening chill –– the perfect transit point between the lighter beers of summer and the heftier beers of winter.
In Germany, autumn means amber Märzen and the deep gold Festbier served at Munich’s Oktoberfest. In North America, when it’s not a question of the ubiquitous love-it-or-loathe-it pumpkin beers, autumn beers conjure up images of pretzels, beer steins, lederhosen, bratwurst, beer tents, and oompah bands.
Back to the title for a moment: Aren’t Märzen and Oktoberfest beer the same thing? No. And yes. The difference between a Märzen and an Oktoberfest beer depends on where you are and when. Anyone familiar with the development of porter, stout, or IPA won’t be surprised to learn that Märzen and Oktoberfest beer, too, have undergone shifts not only in taste but in meaning over the decades.
The beer served on Munich’s Theresienwiese was, at one point, Märzen –– specifically, a kind of Märzen brewed in 1872 by Gabriel Sedlmayr of Spaten for Oktoberfest. The beer that Sedlmayr developed had much in common with the wildly popular Vienna Lager first brewed by Sedlmayr’s friend and colleague, Anton Dreher, in 1841. Sedlmayr’s new Oktoberfest beer –– a few shades lighter in hue than the brown beer hitherto served at the festival and less weighty –– swept the festival like a tsunami and soon became synonymous with Oktoberfest. But only until 1953, when Augustiner developed an even lighter Festbier, which every brewery soon offered alongside the more traditional Märzen all the way down through the late 1980s. From the early 1990s, Oktoberfest beer served on Munich’s Theresienwiese during Oktoberfest came to mean one thing: the burnished golden, malty Festbier first brewed by Augustiner.
But uncertainty in North America about what Oktoberfest beer is in Munich and other parts of Bavaria has not been aided by the Bavarian breweries themselves, many of whom export Märzen to our shores labeled as “Oktoberfest Märzen.” Beyond that, several North American breweries who brew a beer in honour of Oktoberfest brew a Märzen. (No complaints here –– I love the style!) As for the BJCP Style Guidelines, earlier versions were less than clear on the differences between the German beers of autumn. It wasn’t until they released their 2015 Style Guidelines that they introduced distinctions between Märzen and the Oktoberfestbier served during Oktoberfest. (The 2015 BJCP Guidelines label it simply “Festbier,” since the term Oktoberfest Bier has been trademarked. Curiously, this hasn’t stopped anyone in North America from calling their beers Kölsch, even though that, too, is a protected designation. But that’s another story.) On top of it all, Beeradvocate still has the following description on its site:
“The common Munich Oktoberfest beer served at Wies’n (the location at which Munich celebrates its Oktoberfest) contains roughly 5.0-6.0% alcohol by volume, is dark/copper in color, has a mild hop profile and is typically labeled as a Bavarian Märzenbier in style” (October 2016).
Confused? I was until relatively recently, too. Who’s to blame you if you haven’t been to Oktoberfest in Bavaria and have thought all along that today’s Oktoberfest beer is a Märzen? More to the point, why should you care? Well, if you’re really into the Oktoberfest Märzen beers that turn up in North America, I wouldn’t want you to be disappointed when you go to Munich for Oktoberfest and end up with a beer that isn’t a Märzen. But that’s not to say that Festbier isn’t any less worthy of your attention. It’s just a much different beast.
And so, to clear up any confusion for early twenty-first century fans of Germanic beer and folks judging these styles at homebrew competitions in North America, here’s a quick run-down of Germany’s beers of autumn, along with a few styles related either by taste and aroma profile (Vienna Lager), or by name (Austrian Märzen).
Click here for tasting notes
Oktoberfestbier (or, simply, Festbier): The golden-hued, malty, slightly honey-sweet, and dangerously quaffable beer served in Munich during the Oktoberfest. Other Bavarian breweries (Weihenstephaner, for example) may also brew a beer in the same style for sale in autumn, but since they aren’t part of the “Munich 6,” you won’t see their beers on the Theresienwiese during Oktoberfest.
Oktoberfest Märzen: Beer brewed by Bavarian breweries for export to North America during the autumn months. May also refer to any North American example of autumn amber lager brewed in the Märzen style that reigned supreme on the Theresienwiese between 1872 and 1953. The style is no longer served at Oktoberfest in Munich (though I wouldn’t complain if the Munich brewers were to bring the style back).
Märzen: Historically, a shape-shifter, ranging in colour from orange-hued amber to dark brown. In the days before refrigeration, various proclamations and decrees in the wake of the Reinheitsgebot (Beer Purity Laws) of 1516 prohibited brewing between the feasts of St. George on 23 April and St. Michael on 29 September as a means of preventing both fires and summer beer spoilage. So-called Sommerbier (summer beer, later rechristened Märzen) was brewed to a higher strength in March so that supplies of drinkable beer would last through the summer. Since the time of Sedlmayr’s release of a Märzen in 1872, the beer has become associated with autumn. (NB: I’m making the latter assumption in the absence of any evidence I have yet to turn up pointing to this semantic shift.)
Vienna Lager: Even though Märzen and Vienna Lager are fairly distinct at second glance, it’s easy enough to confuse the two styles, especially if the latter isn’t named Dos Equis Amber. Interestingly, the BJCP put the style on their watch list in 2015, suggesting that it might be time to rescue the classic style from its mass-produced pale reflection by moving it to the historical category. Those worries may have been somewhat premature, for a key anniversary has spurred the re-emergence of Vienna Lager in its native land: the 175th anniversary of Dreher’s first batch brewed at the Schwechat brewery just outside Vienna. Today, Gusswerk in Salzburg, Loncium in the mountains of Carinthia, Ottakringer and Brew Age in Vienna, and even the granddaddy of them all, Schwechater, have released excellent Vienna Lagers in the past few years. Vive la Vienna Lager!
The takeaway: Sedlmayr’s Märzen brewed for the 1872 Oktoberfest may well have been identical to the Vienna Lager being brewed in the Habsburg Empire at the time, but the two styles diverged over the next century. Nowadays, Märzen is a delectably malty beer that showcases toasty aromatics and melanoidin richness. Vienna Lager is also malty, but it has more pronounced hop aromas, flavours, and bitterness. In many ways, you could consider it the hoppy cousin of the slightly sweeter contemporary Märzen.
Austrian Märzen: I will touch only briefly on the Austrian version of a Märzen here, a year-round beer that has little in common with the autumnal Märzens of Bavaria and North America. If anything, an Austrian Märzen is more like a cross between what, in Germany, goes by the name of Export Bier and a helles lager. The beer is yellow-gold and crystal-clear, with a clean malt expression and slightly more of a hop presence than a helles lager, but not approaching Pilsner territory.
Now all you need to do is go out and grab a few of these fine beers for those afternoons when it’s still just barely warm enough to sit on the front porch or for those smoky evenings when the wind is rustling the leaves still holding out against winter.
Click here for tasting notes
Related Tempest Articles:
Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer, Brewing Classic Styles: 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew (Boulder: Brewers Publications, 2007).
Beeradvocate, “Märzen/Oktoberfest,” https://www.beeradvocate.com/beer/style/29/ (accessed 11 October 2016).
Ursula Eymold (ed.), Bier.Macht.München: 500 Jahre Münchner Reinheitsgebot in Bayern, exhibition catalogue, Münchener Stadtmuseum, 2016.
1516 Ingolstadt: http://www.1516-ingolstadt.de/geschichte/geschichte-bier/
Horst Dornbusch, Prost! The Story of German Beer (Boulder: Brewers Publications, 1997).
Images: F.D. Hofer
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