This time of year, everyone seems to be churning out an Oktoberfest beer, often referred to interchangeably as Marzen. The history and evolution of this style of beer is rather winding and confusing, so what follows is the best effort to summarize its origins as concisely as possible.
The first Oktoberfest Festival was held on the wiesn, or fairground, of Munich in 1810. At that time, the best historical data suggests that the festival beer of choice would’ve been Dunkel, the brownish-black roasty lager that originated in Bavaria. The rich, malty amber lager that we associate with festbier didn’t come to be for another 50 years or so. Anton Dreher brewed the first Vienna lager in the 1860s. Vienna lager gave rise to the best known version of festbier that was first brewed as a stronger version of Vienna lager by Joseph Sadelmayr in the 1870s, specifically for the festival. Thus, this richer and lightly spicy cousin of Vienna lager became known by its own style name, Oktoberfest. The truth, as previously stated, is that the beer of choice at the festival has changed repeatedly throughout the decades. Beginning in the 1990s, oktoberfest beers in Munich have trended toward drier, crisper, lighter and easy drinking golden versions that are usually marketed as wiesn, although the style of festbier that remains most popular in the U.S. is the predecessor of wiesn, known commonly as Oktoberfest or Marzen. The term Marzen refers to the month of March, when brewers would traditionally brew beer for the fall festival before lagering it for the summer months so that it would be ready to serve when the festival rolled around.
Oktoberfest marzens today are largely unchanged from their 19th century forebears. Boasting an alcohol range of approximately 5.5%-6.5% abv, expect a medium to full body with a fair amount of residual sugar. Traditionally, the beer would’ve been made using decoction or step mashing, that heats the mash gradually, thereby enhancing the sugars and malt flavors of the finished beer. Owing to its time consuming nature, decoction mashing is rarely done today though its effects are well worth the time and effort. The overall impression of an oktoberfest marzen is a rich and decadent, yet surprisingly easy to drink amber lager with hints of spice. The beer itself is a showcase for the delicious Vienna and Munich malts that comprise the bulk of the grist.
Due to the area’s large German immigrant population, Cincinnati hosts the world’s second largest Oktoberfest celebration every September. We also have no shortage of fantastic oktoberfests to choose from. Look out for Samuel Adams Oktoberfest, Paulaner Oktoberfest Marzen, Hi-Wire Zirkusfest, Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen, Weihenstephaner FestBier, and Sierra Nevada/Brauhaus Miltenberger. Prost!