Now that fall has arrived, we’re starting to see a different variety of beer styles hitting the shelves. As the temperature drops, summer ales and Goses make way for more brown ales, dunkels and pumpkin ales, but what I look forward to most of all are märzens and oktoberfests. There seems to be a lot of confusion about the true difference between these two styles. The short answer: there is none. Style-wise, these two beers are one and the same. But if we dig deeper into the origin of these German brews, we find a much more interesting answer.
The märzen first came about in the mid 1800’s in Germany. Its recipe was developed and brewed by the famous Spaten brewery. Being brewed in the month of March, the beer was called Märzen or Märzenbier(March beer). Because of the longer, colder fermentation and storage period, it was commonly referred to as “lager,” the German term for “storage” or “to store.” This became the dominant beer of Munich’s annual beer festival, Oktoberfest.
As a result, märzen has become more or less synonymous with oktoberfest. Legally however, beer in Germany cannot officially be called an oktoberfest unless it is both brewed in Munich and served at Oktoberfest.
Needless to say, the Germans take their beer pretty seriously. In fact, until a couple of years ago, the country maintained beer purity laws known as Reinheitsgebot, which limited the ingredients in all German beers to water, barley (or wheat), hops and yeast. Nothing else. Germany has a very long, rich history of brewing and drinking beer that America simply can’t match. That’s not to say we haven’t been making up for lost time, but until recently if we weren’t drinking Budweiser or Miller Lite, we were drinking imported beer from places like, well…Germany!
To avoid confusing us silly Americans, the Germans labelled märzens they sent here “oktoberfests.” This is something that continues today, even in American breweries, probably because many Americans still don’t know what a märzen is, but who hasn’t heard of Oktoberfest?
Interestingly enough, märzens are no longer the official beers served at Oktoberfest. In 1990, Paulaner introduceda new beer that was brewed to be a modern, more drinkable version of an oktoberfest. This paler, lower-ABV option became known as festbier. Just think of it as a session-märzen. Style-wise, festbiers are practically identical to Dortmund lagers or Dortmund exports, so the names are often used interchangeably.
Now that we have a better understanding of these three styles of German lagers, I recommend picking up a six-pack to celebrate the season or better yet, ask for some märzen/oktoberfest options in your BREWPUBLIK subscription! Hi-Wire’s Zirkusfest, which won the gold medal in the märzen category at the Great American Beer festival last year is a great choice. The silver medal winner, Jekyll’s 7 Bridges is one of my personal favorites. Of course if you want to go a more traditional route, you can’t go wrong with Paulaner’s Oktoberfest Märzen and Spaten’s Oktoberfest Ur-Märzen. Just remember to pour your beer hard enough to get a nice big head of foam (it’s essential).
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