Prost! Digging Down on the Origins of Oktoberfest

Inside a beer tent at Oktoberfest in Munich, 2013 // Photo by Roman Boed, Flickr

Inside a beer tent at Oktoberfest in Munich, 2013 // Photo by Roman Boed, Flickr

Munich’s Oktoberfest is the biggest beer festival in the world. It’s been held nearly every year on the famous Theresienwiese since 1810 when Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig organized a series of horse races to celebrate his marriage to Princess Therese of Bavaria. Ironically, beer was reportedly not a central feature of that first fest—although I find it difficult to believe that beer didn’t play some role—this is Germany we’re talking about.

The beer style that we know as Oktoberfest, also called Märzen, has roots that go back much further than 1810. In the days before refrigeration brewing beer in the summer was problematic. Higher levels of bacteria in the air made for more frequent spoiled batches. Although brewers didn’t know the cause, they did understand that it was better to make beer during the colder months of the year. An ordinance decreed in 1553 made that official, and brewers could only make beer between St. Michael’s Day (September 29) and St. George’s Day (April 23).

Märzenbier was brewed in March—März is the German word for March—and stored in cold caves for consumption starting mid-summer. When the brewing season resumed in October, the remaining casks of Märzenbier would have been consumed. It’s not hard to imagine German villagers gathering for a celebration of the year’s harvest and drinking this now well-seasoned beer, providing perhaps an older origin for the festival itself.

These original Märzen beers were described as being dark brown and full-bodied. They likely had somewhat elevated alcohol in the 5% to 6% range and higher level of hopping to aid preservation. The copper-colored beer that we call Oktoberfest today has its origins in the mid-1800s. Its invention has been credited to Gabriel Sedlmayr, owner of the Spaten Brewery in Munich, and is said to be based on an adaptation of the Vienna Lager style developed by Anton Dreher around 1840. The style came about due to advances in malting technology that made available lighter-colored, lightly-toasted malts, now called Vienna and Munich malt.

The Beer Judge Certification Program describes the Oktoberfest/Märzen style as deep gold to copper colored with bright clarity and a solid, off-white head. The aroma highlights malt with the rich, melanoidin character, a kind toasty caramel, of Vienna and Munich malt being foremost. The malt balance carries into the flavor with some sweetness at the start. Those same toasty melanoidin notes from the aroma also define the flavor. Moderate hop bitterness provides balance without overshadowing the malt. It finishes clean and crisp as a lager should.

One might expect to look for Oktoberfest beers in October, or maybe late September as that’s when the Munich festival actually takes place. But the gradual trend toward the ever-earlier release of seasonal beers means that Märzens now start appearing in mid to late August. Given the style’s historical mid-summer release, perhaps this is appropriate.

Oktoberfest/Märzen is great with food. Falling somewhere between the lighter flavors of pilsner and the darker flavors of bock, it will complement a wide variety of dishes. It’s great for grilling, being a perfect partner for everything from steak and pork chops to chicken and veggies. The acid balancing malt sugars make it a good companion for American pizza with tomato sauce. It sings with salty/sweet glazed ham and will wash away the gooey goodness of your mom’s mac & cheese. And of course it’s a German style, so a pairing with mild sausages will always be a winner.

Photo via August Schell's Brewing Company Facebook

Photo via August Schell’s Brewing Company Facebook

Summit and Schell’s both make fine examples of the style, the latter having medaled multiple times at the Great American Beer Festival. The local brewpubs craft their own examples of the seasonal favorite. If you are looking for an authentic example from Germany, Ayinger Oktoberfest is the one to get in my opinion.

It’s interesting to note that the beer we think of as Oktoberfest is not the beer that is served under the tents in Munich. The official beer of the Oktoberfest is a malty, light-golden lager brewed to about 6 percent alcohol by volume. Think of it as something like an imperial Munich Helles. Paulaner Wiesen Blonde is the only commercially available example available in this country that I am aware of. Look for it to arrive in stores around the same time as the other Oktoberfest beers.

Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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