History of the Marzen – Oktoberfest beer

It’s no wonder that while food is plentiful and the weather is still favorable that many cultures across the Northern Hemisphere choose to celebrate this time of the year. So it’s really no wonder that the most iconic beer festival in all the world takes place in early fall. Bavarias ultimate party, Oktoberfest. It may have started as a wedding party for the royalty. But over the hundreds of years has become the most famous beer celebration in all the world. And there is one beer style that dominates this festival so much so that here in America the style is often referred to as Oktoberfest, The Marzen.

Its copper color and crips taste lend themselves perfectly for the fall weather. Although the Marzen is strongly associated with Oktoberfest its history goes back quite a bit further than that first wedding party.

For more history on another German beer, style feel free to check the History of the German Kolsch Beer.

The Wonderful Lagers

A glass of Marzen style beer on a wooden table
Credit: https://www.craftbeer.com/craft-beer-muses/american-craft-brewers-experimenting-with-marzen

To understand the history of the Marzen is to understand the greatest revolution that ever took place in beer brewing. In 3000 year history with humanity achievement were lagers. Meaning that they are beers that are fermented by a strain of yeast that likes hanging out in the bottom of the fermenter. It likes the wort to be a little colder and it likes to take its time eating all the sugars and turning them into beer.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bavarian and Austrian brewers began experimenting with this brewing technique. After an initial fermentation period, beer would be given a second lagering period at a lower temperature. Stored either in a cool beer cellar or in a mountain cave. They could be kept there for a few weeks or even several months. Which gave a lot of time for the beer to mellow out and become incredibly clear.

It didn’t take long for these refreshing beers to catch on with the drinking public. Lager beer quickly spread across Central Europe. Lagers basically became a staple of the European diet by the 1850s and with a late colonial push spread across the world incredibly quickly.

The Vienna Lager and brewing ordinance

A glass of Vienna style lager beer.
Credit: https://learn.kegerator.com/vienna-lager/

One of the first consistent lager beer styles was the Vienna lager. And when the brewers in Munich got a taste of what they were making in Vienna they knew they had to put their own spin on these great recipes. But due to limits in brewing technology at the time the ability to brew great beers year-round was non-existent without refrigeration.

Even before lagers came on to the scene Bavaria had a brewing ordinance in 1553 that beer may only be brewed between September 29th and April 23rd of each year. When it was getting close to the end of the brewing season in March. Every year brewers in Bavaria would make one last lager that was intended to be stored in cellars or caves and saved until the start of the next brewing season and fall.

Because these lagers were intended to be stored for several months they were given some unique characteristics.

First, they were hopped a little more than other lagers that Bavarians brewed to be consumed fresh. This allowed the beer to stay unspoiled during storage due to hops antiseptic properties.

Second to hide that extra bitterness they would use darker malts with more color than you see in other lagers being brewed at the time. These brews were usually broken out in the early fall and they were referred to as March beers.

A mug of beer with large pretzels, dry wheat and an Oktoberfest sign.
Credit: https://www.neweuropetours.eu/blog/tours-activities/oktoberfest-for-first-timers-10-things-youll-wish-someone-had-told-you/

The Oktoberfest

March beer became popular in Bavaria and was often a sign of fall harvest and the new brewing season being upon them. It’s no wonder that the first Oktoberfest to celebrate the marriage between Crown Prince Ludwing and Teresa of Saxony in 1810 they were drinking brown Marzen over the 5 days of festivities.

At the 1872 Oktoberfest, an amber color lager was introduced. It combined the traditional Marzen with some Vienna lager recipes and a couple of new lagering techniques to produce a delicious refreshing copper color lager. The modern Oktoberfest beer was born.

Over the next hundred years, the modern version of the style absolutely dominated the festival. They all have a good balance of malt and hops and offer a refreshing crisp taste that’s perfect for a draught. Cheers.

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