The 208th Munich Oktoberfest kick-offs tomorrow and will rage for sixteen glorious days. While it hasn’t reached the fandom of St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest celebrations in America have exploded over the past twenty years. Chalk it up to the craft beer revolution, a resurgence in German beer halls and restaurants, or the fact that more Americans own passports now more than any other time in US History, but Oktoberfest in America is proliferating.
Thus the story behind the event — the October 12th, 1810 marriage between King Ludwig I of Bavaria and Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen is quite well known. Their union ignited great celebrations in the outskirts of Munich, where festivities were open to both royal and common-folk alike — an unprecedented feat for the time. Those fields were named Theresienwiese or Therese’s Meadow and remain the exact grounds where the Munich Oktoberfest is held today.
The idea of Oktoberfest beer being interchangeable with the Märzen or March style is also a tale known to most. Even the most amateur of beer snobs understands that in the days before refrigeration, when the brewing season ran from September to March, Märzen beer was created as a last ditch brew to be lagered in cellars and caves throughout the Bavarian Alps during the summer. When the weather turned, and it was safe to brew again — roughly late September — the Märzen would then be consumed.
What some might not know is how and why we associate a specific color, alcohol percentage, and taste to what we call a Märzen beer today. The Märzens of the early 19th century would approximate much more closely to a dunkel or dark lager. In general, dunkels were the only type of lager cranked out in Bavaria during the 18th and early 19th century. That was until the kiln-dried pale malt — most famously used in English Pale Ales — was introduced to German brewing. Here is where the the love affair with pale lagers in Germany begins. The predominant pale lager of this era was the pilsner and this light beer was distributed far and wide to thirstier and thirstier audiences throughout Germany and abroad.
Yet a riff on the Pilsner, known as the Vienna Lager — amber in color, slightly higher in alcohol, and utilizing the Vienna Malt as a base— was created by Anton Dreher, a brewer near Vienna, in 1841. The Vienna Lager was unique in the sense that it struck a balance between the compositions of pale lagers and dunkels, while still offering attractive elements of each lagerbier.
It is of important note that Vienna Lagers were super local, brewed only in that region, and thus were quite rare. It was the Pilsner that was all the rage in Germany in the middle of the 19th century. That is until 1872, when Josef Sedlmayr — a brewer at Franziskaner — wanted to capitalize on the pale lager craze strangling Europe. Playing with the Vienna-style Lagers of neighboring Austria, he created the first Märzen or what we call Oktoberfest beer today and released it at that festival. The stuff, even though priced higher than other beers at that 1872 Oktoberfest, sold like crazy. The rest is history.
And it’s not hard to see it’s appeal — the beer is tailor-made for the cooling temperatures of the fall and the harvest. Just know that the original composition of a Märzen wasn’t always uniform, nor similar to our current interpretation at all, and Oktoberfest went on for 62 years without it’s deliciously malty signature beer.