When the sultry, carefree days of summer give way to crisp, structured autumn, you can take solace in the fact that the light and easy shandies that have dominated the beer marketplace since May will be replaced by a bevy of richer, more complex fall seasonal releases. Of course, that means love-‘em-or-hate-‘em pumpkin beers will make their annual debut. It also means you’ll be able to get your hands on Oktoberfest.
In the Beginning, There Was Märzenbier
Oktoberfest, the beer style, traces its origins to old-style Märzenbier, or Märzen, which literally means March beer in German. The moniker comes from the pre-modern refrigeration, Bavarian tradition of ramping up beer production in the month of March, before warm weather set in. As air temperatures rose with the change of seasons, so did bacterial activity and risk of beer spoilage, rendering spring and summer brewing untenable. Brewers would put their Märzen in cold storage (i.e., they would lager the beer) in cellars and caves until fall. This practice ensured a lasting beer supply despite the brewing hiatus. As an effect of aging, it also had the additional benefit of rounding out any harshness or disjointed elements in the beer’s profile.
Back in the day, a Märzen was defined mostly by this brewing timeline. Märzen as a distinct style had not yet taken on all of the attributes we now associate with it.
Märzen Meets Oktoberfest
In October 1810, the autumnal tapping of that year’s Märzen stores coincided with what would turn out to be the first ever Oktoberfest celebration. To honor the marriage of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig I to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen, the city of Munich hosted five days of festivities. Märzen would have been what was available locally at that time of year, so it can safely be assumed much Märzen was poured. From that point forward, the festival, replete with heavy beer consumption, became a tradition that continues to present day.
It wasn’t until 1841 that Märzen took on its modern expression. According to the Oxford Companion to Beer, that was first year that a beer officially labeled and marketed “märzenbier” was served at Oktoberfest. That beer was produced by Munich’s Spaten Brewery.
It was at this time that Märzen became the distinctive style we are familiar with today. According to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines, a representative Märzen is amber or copper colored with a rich, elegant Munich malt profile and brilliant clarity. Bittering hops are restrained but present in sufficient quantity to balance the perception of sweetness. Otherwise, the hops in Märzen should not offer much in way of aroma or flavor.
At Oktoberfest 1872, Spaten further entwined Märzen and the festival when it released the first ever Oktoberfestbier in a Märzen style.
Oktoberfest, the American Seasonal
The vast majority of breweries in the European Union are not permitted to call a beer Oktoberfest or Oktoberfestbier. It is a protected appellation, which means only six designated breweries in Munich have the right to use the label for marketing purposes.
Brewers outside the E.U., however, are under no such restriction. Ergo, come autumn (or even late summer), you’ll find dozens of Oktoberfest/Octoberfest beers lining North American grocery stores shelves and on tap at stateside bars and breweries. Oktoberfest has become a staple American seasonal.
American Oktoberfests are, for the most part, Märzens. Some, like Brooklyn Oktoberfest, adhere closely to the malt-forward Märzen tradition. But because there are no regulations on the label Oktoberfest in the United States, other American breweries take liberties with the style. You may come across Oktoberfests with significant hop character or that lack any Munich malt. In some cases, American Oktoberfests are ales as opposed to lagers. It doesn’t make them bad beers; they just aren’t Märzens.
Even the six breweries at the official Oktoberfest celebration in Munich have moved away from amber Märzens toward a style decidedly lighter in color, malt, and body. In 2015, the BJCP recognized the trend with the creation of a Festbier category in its authoritative stylebook.
Given all the aforementioned gray area, you may be wondering what beer is most appropriate for your at-home Oktoberfest celebration. You could start by sampling suggestions from this list of highly regarded Märzens or you could take the opportunity to explore any number of German beer styles. But, at the end of the day, you should be drinking whatever you like best (bonus if it pairs well with würstland soft pretzels). If you have a favorite American Oktoberfest beer that isn’t exactly authentic, don’t get too hung up on it. Above all, Oktoberfest (the festival) is about revelry and good beer—in all its forms.