The season to celebrate German beer culture is upon us. That’s right, it’s time for Oktoberfest! This year’s festival runs from September 16th through October 3rd.
The origins of the festival date back to 1810, when Crown Prince Ludwig wed Princess Therese and invited the citizens of Munich for celebrations held for the wedding.
Obviously there’s a lot more in depth history to this annual event, but we’ll save that for another time. Today we’re going to talk about the beer style, or should we say styles, that share the same name as this beloved festival. The two styles in question are Mårzen and Festbier.
First let’s talk about the original style, Mårzen. Derived from the German word for the Month of March (Mårz), this lager style was typically brewed at the beginning of Spring, in March, and then fermented and cellared throughout the summer, to be enjoyed in the fall. This long maturation time allowed for a complex, yet incredibly clean lager with brilliant clarity.
The original Mårzen was much darker than what we know today. Historically, these beers were more of a rich brown color with moderate bitterness and higher alcohol strength, similar to a higher strength Dunkel. It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that the current Amber colored Mårzen came to be.
The current Mårzen style is typically orange to amber in color with bright clarity. Aromas of fresh baked country bread and mild toasted character dominate with flavors of moderate sweetness and bitterness, finished with clean bread crust. In some cases, moderate alcohol can be detected due to the higher alcohol content to aid in long-term storage. Typically, the ABV of the style hovers around 6% but many modern American versions aim lower around 5-5.5% ABV.
This style of beer was the official style of the festival from the mid-1800s up until 1990, when the new, lighter style, now known as Festbier was adopted. This style had been toyed around with since the 1970s, in an attempt to create a lighter festival beer that would allow for additional consumption without feeling so weighted down by heavier malt sweetness.
The Festbier, or Wiesn as the locals call it, is essentially an export Helles Lager. Straw to golden in color with moderate sweetness and bitterness and fresh lightly baked bread character and a brilliant clarity due to long term cold maturation. The main difference between the Festbier and a Helles Lager is a slightly higher alcohol content due to increased malt usage, as well as a slightly higher hop content to counteract added sweetness and act as a natural preservative. That being said, they should not have a pronounced bitterness, or hop aroma and flavor.
Oddly enough, when it comes down to the hard data, Festbiers are really no lighter than Mårzen in terms of richness or calorie content as both styles have roughly the same measurements of residual sugars and roughly the same alcohol content. Largely the perceived heaviness is psychosomatic due to the darker color of the Mårzen versus the lighter color of the Festbier. Although, some breweries chose to make their Festbiers even lighter to encourage additional pours.
Whichever route you go, just remember to appreciate the long, hard work that goes into making these clean, refreshing styles. And don’t feel the need to only enjoy them during the roughly 17-day span of Oktoberfest as many breweries make these styles year round now. Prost!