Cincinnati makes it hard for its beer drinkers to not be fans of Oktoberfest beers.  If our German heritage shows itself at any particular time, it’s most during the fall, as we not only play host to Oktoberfest celebrations all over the Greater Cincinnati area but also to the largest such celebration outside of Munich, right in the heart of the city.

With Oktoberfest celebration, of course, comes Oktoberfest (also called Marzen) beer – but what’s the story with it?  Relax, open a beer, and I’ll tell you.

Marzen Is Born

Oktoberfest is a fall “holiday” – heck, it uses the word October in it.  To make things a little more confusing, the beer is often called Marzen, which in German means March.  How does any of this make sense?  It’s actually not as complicated as you’d think, but to explain it, we have to go back in time a little… before Oktoberfest existed.

Marzenbier didn’t always look the way that it does now.  It wasn’t always Amber colored at all.  There was a time when what people were calling Marzenbier was actually closer to what we now know as Dunkel.  It was a dark lager.  At the time, that was the most popular style of beer being drank in Munich.  The name Marzenbier meant something a little different to drinkers then.

You have to understand that at the time, there wasn’t any refrigeration. That was a long way off.  Instead, cool temperatures were required for the lagering that Germany was famous for.  These Dunkel lagers for years relied on the cool months to keep them from spoiling.  This became such an issue that in the mid-1500s there was a decree that actually made brewing from late April until late September illegal.

They were serious about making sure their beer stayed the way it was supposed to.

However, it’s not like the Germans were going to just forget beer drinking when it got warm outside. Surely, there was another solution that they could find… right? Right!

As the weather started to warm up, the Germans would pick up their brewing schedule… stockpiling beer to drink at a later date (this even went on here in Cincinnati before refrigeration was commonplace). It started being noticed that the beer that was from the spring months was actually really tasty when it was cracked into in early Fall… this beer (now being referred to as Marzenbier or March Beer) started to gain a pretty good reputation…and it stuck.

Seeing The Light(er Styles)

The next big evolution for Oktoberfest comes as brewers are able to brew lighter styles of beer.  I’m not talking about the pilsners and pale lagers that would eventually take the world by storm, I’m talking about the amber lagers, who have their own story within a story.

There was a brewer by the name of Gabriel Sedlmayr, who had part of his training set about to learn the brewing methods of other countries.  He “teamed up” with a brewer from Vienna named Anton Dreher, and they did a bit of traveling, learning, and sharing of ideas.

After returning to their home cities from Britain, they had a newfound knowledge of lighter malting methods that they both implemented in ways that their respective drinkers didn’t see coming… It was around 1842 when finally a beer with amber malt, and all lager yeast was born. In Vienna, they called this beer a Vienna Lager, while in Munich, to pay homage to the techniques learned from Dreher, they kept calling it a Marzenbier, but with the tag-line “gebraut nach Wiener Art,” which means “Brewed in the Vienna way.”

Both of the beers were essentially brewed the same way (which, by technique, should have been considered the Munich way) using multi-step decoction mashing, long boils, low hopping, and a long aging or lagering period.  But call it marketing; call it the stubbornness of Munich to adapt to a new style… it caught on much quicker in Vienna.

Enter Oktoberfest

Actually, Oktoberfest had already been around for a little while.  The festival first started back in 1810 with the marriage of Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hidburghausen.  The event took a year off and then started repeating itself every year after… only growing with each celebration.

In 1871, Spaten (now run by Gabriel’s son Josef) introduced a game changer – Ur-Marzen.  It was popular… after beer supply ran low in 1872, drinkers from other breweries found their way to Spaten to try the “new style” and it kicked off a new trend.  Soon after – all of Munich was making this new Oktoberfestbier.

I will admit, that as the years have progressed, the evolution has continued for the style.  Shifting clientele (especially in the 70s) forced the beers into lighter and lighter territory.  So much so now that you might even find two varieties at some Munich breweries, a golden and a copper version.  Things have even begun to shift more as craft brewing here in the States has adopted the style (though if you ask Germany, if it’s not made in Munich, it’s called Oktoberfest-Style beer…not Oktoberfestbier). We now have Oktoberfest ales and other styles that have been “inspired” by the original.

So… What defines an Oktoberfest?

Ahh, let the arguments commence.  I’m not a big stickler on beer styles.  I don’t think that we need to be rigid with criteria unless you’re running a competition, and when a beer is on my table, it’s never being “judged”.

So… what’s an Oktoberfest if you don’t have style criteria?

The beer is a copper orange color, and the toasted Vienna and Munich malts used to me are the biggest factors in the style.  There is certainly a range here, though.  The most important factor in Oktoberfest beers is a bit more… fluid.  Jeff Alworth put it best in his “Beer Bible” when he wrote it as:

March beers have a rasa about them, too – celebration.  Marzens are infused with the spirit of fest-going. They might be a bit higher in alcohol than a typical lager… but they are still undoubtedly drinkable.  Straddling the moods of summer warmth and chilly autumn air.  They need the delicate spicy qualities of German strains of hops though, in my book… providing that gentle German quality that is all too often overlooked.