Today we aim to bring clarity to the whole Oktoberfest vs Märzen, Oktoberfest style and Märzen style riddle which seems to confuse many of a craft beer and German beer lover.
Oktoberfest vs Märzen
Basically, Oktoberfest beer is Märzen, but not all Märzen beers can be called Oktoberfest beers. Technically, Märzen precedes Oktoberfest beer (in German spelled as one word, Oktoberfestbier, you know how German complex nouns tend to be loooong).
Let me explain by outlining a historical sequence of beer related events. By the time you finish reading this post, you will not only understand the distinction, you will feel confident explaining it to others.
This below is an Oktoberfestbier.
What is a Märzen Beer?
It all started with the Märzen beers. Long before Ludwig of Bavaria married Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen and Oktoberfest became an annual beer festival there were Märzen beers.
They are lagers (bottom fermented at cooler temperatures), fuller-bodied than pale lagers, while still crisp, slightly sweet but well-balanced and flavorful, with beautiful, deep amber color. Amber lagers in other words.
Märzens were named that way (meaning March beers) because before there was refrigeration they were the last beers of the cooler fall and winter months to be brewed, usually in March. Summer brewing was forbidden at the time (see comments for explanation). They had higher gravity (alcohol content) than regular lagers in order to have a longer shelf life and make it to the harvest festivals of fall without becoming spoiled during the heat of summer. They were left to ferment slowly in cool cellars and caves and were tapped in early fall.
Amber lagers are made with an exclusively malted barley grain bill and boast sweet toasted bread aroma, they are crisp, yet smooth, with faint hints of spice, sweetish yet with a noticeable Noble hops bite, and they finish dry.
What is Oktoberfestbier?
Naturally, Märzen was the style of choice served during the famous wedding that gave rise to the annual Oktoberfest festival. Some Märzen lagers became known as Oktoberfest lagers or Oktoberfestbier. The Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest beer is a classic example.
Only six breweries are allowed to call their Märzen lagers Oktoberfestbier. The name is actually their registered trademark. These are the same six breweries exclusively serving their creations during Munich’s Oktoberfest. They are all situated within the city limits of Munich – Augustiner, Hacker- Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten.
Any brewery outside of the city of Munich limits, whether still in Germany or in another country has to name their beer brewed in this style Oktoberfest-style beer or simply Märzen. It is an appellation kind of concept, just like not all sparkling wines can bear the name Champagne.
There you go – now you know the difference when it comes to Oktoberfest vs Märzen.
For example, the beers we featured in our Oktoberfest tablescape post fall under the Oktoberfest-style category. Both are brewed in Colorado. True to the Märzen style, amazing taste, yet not official Oktoberfest beers. Not Oktoberfestbier.
Now let me shift your focus to another style that has a lot to do with Märzen and must be included in this discussion of Oktoberfest vs Märzen. It is important.
It is the Vienna lager. Remember when I said that Vienna lagers deserve more attention than I gave them in a cooking with craft beer recipe? And that the most prolific contemporary producer of the Vienna lager style is in Mexico?
In brief, Vienna lagers emerged in result of the work of an Austrian brewer, a very skilled one, by the name of Anton Dreher to improve the quality of the earliest amber lagers. He was influenced by the English brewing tradition and decided to use paler malts, such as used in the pale ales of England. He still used the Bavarian lager yeast though and achieved elegant maltiness balanced by firm, but not pervasive bitterness. He was known to describe his amber lager as Märzen brewed in Viennese style, therefore the name Vienna lager emerged. Some even credit him for laying the stepping stones for the evolution of the early Märzen beers into today’s Oktoberfestbier. Talking about a relation to our Oktoberfest vs Märzen topic.
The Vienna lager style is also thought to have set the ground for the creation of the Munich Helles style (my all time German favorite as you might know). It gave rise to ever paler, golden lagers and ultimately was overshadowed by them. It did not go extinct though, mainly because the Austro-Mexican brewer Santiago Graf decided to brew the style in Mexico.
Santiago Graf imported the lightly toasted Vienna malt (invented by Anton Dreher to be used in the Vienna lager) from Europe and used only high quality Noble hops. He single handedly saved the Vienna lager from extinction and created the most flavorful Mexican lager – Negra Modelo.
Similarly to Vienna lager, Munich dunkel also has its roots in the Märzen amber lagers. We plan on focusing on this style in upcoming posts, it is Chris’ favorite German style. We even have a few tricks of using it in Asian inspired sauces of all things, for real!
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