It’s nearly that time again, for local Oktoberfest celebrations and packed store shelves showcasing Oktoberfestbiers and Märzens! Most Americans are familiar with the festival as a fantastic excuse to drink German-style beer, but the origins and beer style itself are slightly separate from the huge occasion around the globe today.
But first, let’s talk about the beer. A Märzen beer was historically brewed in the spring (ie., March). Before refrigeration, glycol-jacketed tanks, or even ice, obviously brewing facilities did not have the ability to control temperature, which resulted in poor beer quality and often sour or extra-funky results. Thus, the last brewing was done in the spring and stored in caves, cellars or mountain areas. The very last of the summer beer would be consumed in September and October, as new hops were harvested and temperatures fell. Barrels would have to be emptied for a new season of brewing, after all. These days in Munich there are just six breweries that are allowed to sell official Oktoberfestbier: Augustiner, Hacker Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu (ABI), Paulaner and Spaten (ABI). American or global versions make some great renditions of Oktoberfest-style beer, however, though without the strictness of German beer regulation, there’s little standardization within the style, so versions vary greatly. Typically a Märzen is an amber lager brewed with Vienna malt and continental landrace hops. The balance is toward malty and caramel flavors with a dry, clean finish. However, the Oktoberfestbier that has become the major product of the festival is generally lighter in color, body, and gravity. Notably, the majority of American “festbiers” are closer in style to Märzens. The rules bend, but there are some fantastic examples out there today (or will soon be!). Sierra Nevada explores traditional approaches with yearly German brewery partnerships and new (old) ideas. This year they will release a product brewed with the nearly-forgotten Record hop. Snoqualmie Falls Brewery uses spicy Spalt hops in their Harvest Moon ale. And Worthy Brewing in Bend brews a yearly Oktoberfest including both noble and Pacific Northwest hops. My personal favorite would have to be Victory Brewing Co.’s Festbier which is made by the ambitious traditional decoction brewing process.
So now that we have the beer worked out, what about the event? The festival as we know it today began with a version in 1810 for Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen’s wedding celebration. There was actually no beer served until fifteen or so years later, though, and the main events at early festivals were instead mainly horse racing, although tree-climbing became an institution as well. Yes, tree-climbing competitions. Once beer and food vendors began attending the event, the festival grew in popularity and except for 24 war-related years of absence, has continued to this day in the same location where it started, in a meadow in Munich. Now it’s a huge extravaganza with amusement park rides, live music, elaborate tents, parades and more than 6 million attendees.
Purportedly 7.3 million litres of beer were served at Oktoberfest 2015, which sounds like a lot, but with 6 million drinkers…could certainly be more. Or maybe that’s my American ambition talking. Whether or not you join in a local Oktoberfest party this season, I suggest you try a few beers, alongside a sausage perhaps, and give a toast to the harvest season and a new year of beer. Prost!
Categories: Style Spotlight