Beerology: Necessity is the mother of Marzen

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With the leaves turning colors and the chill in the air, it is that time of year again when our thoughts turn to Oktoberfest.

The annual fall festival of beer in Munich, Germany, takes place mostly in September and a bit also in October. The Theresienwiese, a field that lies empty for most of the year, gets hectic as preparations are made for the most famous party in the world; and then when the gates open people from around the world flock to the rides, the food and the beer.

Especially the beer.

There are other beer festivals around Germany, many of them at the same time of year, and most have their origin in celebrating historical events or to the harvest season, but Oktoberfest is the king of them all. In Munich, the event started with the 1810 marriage celebration between the eventual King of Bavaria Ludwig I and Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The marriage site was then rechristened Theresienwiese (Therese's field) in honor of the bride.

Only beer brewed by Munich Breweries, specifically Augustiner-Br u, Hacker-Pschorr-Br u, L wenbr u, Paulaner, Spatenbr u, and the Staatliches Hofbr u-M nchen can be served at Oktoberfest. The beer they serve must be brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, and the traditional beer served was Marzen, named for the month of March. Why March?

These days we are used to new beer recipes, with brewers, like chefs, trying out all kinds of exotic styles and ingredients. But back in the (proverbial) day, beer styles were born as much as anything out of necessity. In the Bavarian Brewing Regulations promulgated in the first half of the 16th century, brewing beer was forbidden between April 24 and Sept. 29.

I have heard two stories explaining this. Originally, I heard that it was due to the inability to control bacterial contamination that would lead to spoilage during the late spring and the summer months. I have also heard that it had to do with the fire danger that the mash boiling part of brewing posed, during the summer months. Perhaps it was a combination. The regulation created a problem that needed to be solved if the people of Munich were to continue drinking beer in summer.

So, Marzen beer was developed. The brewers used more (and darker roasted) malt, which led to a higher alcohol content, and added more hops as well. All of these factors made it able to withstand the summer months, tucked away in the back of the aging caves, and still taste good until the first new beers were ready in early October.

With our modern technologies — temperature controlled sealable stainless steel tanks and virtually aseptic bottling lines — beer is stable longer. But back then, beer had a short shelf life and was best drunk pretty quickly, before it went bad.

Alcohol is antibacterial, as is hops, due to the humulon and lupulon compounds in hop bud. So by increasing the amount of alcohol and hops in the beer, the brewers lessened the likelihood of the beer going sour, one of the most likely spoilage signs in beer over time.

Another problem with storing beer for longer periods is oxidation. Beers that oxidize turn darker and develop certain flavors, like butter or butterscotch. This is really noticeable in lighter and paler beers. In darker beers and maltier beers a little oxidation isn't a problem. So this darker, maltier and hoppier beer tasted great, and was stable enough to last through the summer beer drinking season. The last barrels were pretty much finished off at the Oktoberfest.

Imagine the luck that the marriage celebration would take place around the same time of the year that bounty of the fields was harvested, and wedding and harvest celebrants would have access to the especially delicious darker richer and hoppier brew that breweries were probably trying to clear out to make room for the new beer.

And where does that leave us now? Well, breweries can brew all year round, most breweries can brew beer that will be shelf stable for a half a year and the beer at Oktoberfest barely tastes like the Marzen of old. It is quite literally a pale imitation of the old stuff, and closer to the "Export" style. A true Marzen style beer should be a bit maltier than a standard pale lager beer, but not really sweet like a doppelbock or the like, and have a copper color. The hops bitterness and herbal qualities should be noticeable, but not the primary flavor aspect. It is a really pleasant autumnal beer style.

Of domestic versions of this style, I have recently tasted Brooklyn Brewery's, Sam Adams' and Sierra Nevada's. They are all fine, but Brooklyn's stands out.


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