This recipe appears in Michael Dawson’s book, “Mashmaker: A Citizen-Brewer’s Guide to Making Great Beer at Home.” Learn more at mashmakerbook.com.
If you’ll indulge me in a bit of autobiography: Oktoberfest (the lager style, not the party) was one of the reasons I started brewing.
Its clarity in the glass and the bright purity of its flavor seemed so alchemical to a brewer of 5-gallon batches of ale. The tubby red-cheeked Maß-guzzlers on the label (Paulaner, circa mid-1990s) put forth the intriguing notion of consumption by the liter. The timing of its release coincided with one of my favorite seasons. The rich but dry maltiness of Oktoberfest was too compelling to ignore.
So I’ve homebrewed a bunch of Oktoberfests since that time, and that pretty much catches us up. And by now you’ve grokked that we’re brewing an O-fest this month, but why is this article titled Märzenbier?
To answer that, you’ll have to indulge me again: we have to go back to a point in time where the cities of Vienna and Munich intersected with extra-long lagering periods culminating in tubby red-cheeked Maß-guzzlers in the month of September.
In a previous installment, we explored what the ancestral, Bavarian-village version of a seasonal Festbier may once have looked like, but the version with which we are most familiar today is based on the more modern Vienna lager: golden-amber, brewed to a bit lower ABV% but higher hop character than our O-fest, and making use of Vienna malt (essentially a toasty, delicious midway point on the spectrum between Pils malt and Munich malt).
Thanks to an exchange of brewing knowledge and technology between Vienna’s Anton Dreher and Munich’s Gabriel Sedlmayr in the 1840s, Bavarian brewers came to adopt a bigger Vollbier-strength version of Dreher’s Vienna lager as the seasonal Festbier of choice for autumn harvest festivals. At some point further on, it became recognized as a style in its own right, taking its name from the annual festival at which it filled mugs.
And that pretty much catches up. For the drinker, märzen is functionally just a shorter name for Oktoberfest; but for the brewer, its seasonality and length of lagering make it a bit of a distinct subspecies.
The seasonal clock of märzen still remembers a time when it wasn’t possible to brew lagers outside of the cold part of the year—the microbial content of the spring and summer air was too high, the temp in the fermentation cellars a little too ester-friendly. The last brews of the year were conducted in March (oder März, if du bist nasty), and left in ice-filled caves to lager through the summer, and tapped for harvest celebrations.
How bucolic! Let’s brew!
Going by numbers
Using classic Oktoberfest as a benchmark, we are aiming for a wort with OG between 1.050 to 1.057, yielding an alcohol by volume that runs from roughly 5 to 6%—a Vollbier, in the parlance of our times. Hopping is primarily for balance, with bitterness clocking in at a Germanically sensible 20–28 IBU. For color we’ll be looking for 7–14 SRM out of our wort, for a deep gold to autumnal orange-red beer in the glass.
A recipe to try:
Target OG: 1.057
Target IBU: 26
10 lbs German Vienna malt
6 oz Weyermann CaraRed
2 oz German Tradition
Wyeast 2633 Oktoberfest Lager (or a warm-tolerant alternative—see Key Points, below)
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