In the world of beer no nation is more traditional than Germany. A rich brewing history has made the Germans famous for high quality beer. The foundation of America’s brewing legacy is deeply rooted in German brewing. Frankly, almost all of the top selling beers in the world are styles traceable back to German brewing. However, relying on tradition can lead to a boring beer experience.
Most beer drinker’s attention turns to German beer in the fall because of the overwhelming popularity of Oktoberfest and the beer associated with the event, Märzen. Oktoberfest takes place every fall in Munich. While once a celebration of the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen, it has transformed into a massive beer-driven festival.
The first modern Oktoberfest beer (also known as Märzen) was brewed by the Munich brewery Spaten in 1872. However, the style can be traced back to Vienna, Austria. By the early 1840s brewing technology had advanced considerably and brewers were able to refine the malt characteristics in beer. Beer could be brewed paler in color, clarity was improved and most importantly flaws and off-flavors began disappearing. Before the 1840s all beer was dark in color, vaguely smoky and generally unpleasant to look at… and, most likely, not that tasty by today’s standards.
When Spaten introduced their new beer at Oktoberfest it was a smashing success. Märzen has become the official beer of Oktoberfest since. Traditional Märzen is brewed in March and lagered (stored) over the summer and served in the fall. The end result is a smooth, malty-sweet lager which is dangerously drinkable.
Within the last couple decades, the once amber hued Märzen served at the Munich Oktoberfest has been lightened in color and the alcohol has been slightly reduced. The Märzens exported to the United States, or those brewed by U.S. craft breweries, tend to resemble the traditional, richer Vienna inspired version. The modern Munich Märzen resembles the Helles-style of lager that is also popular in Germany. Many casual beer drinks find the Helles influenced Märzens more appealing. Likewise, the lower alcohol content allows for more liters to be consumed before the alcohol takes its toll, which the business-minded breweries like.
For a brewery to sell their Märzen at Oktoberfest in Munich the brewery must be located within city limits. As such, only Spaten, Augustiner, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräuhaus, and Löwenbräu have the ability to serve the thirsty patrons. Other breweries throughout Germany, and now the world, brew this tasty style of lager. But, are German breweries still producing the best Märzen?
Based solely on opinion, antidotal evidence and my own palate, American brewers have overthrown German brewers as the best producers of Märzen in the world. American craft brewers are creating both traditional Okoberfest beer and Americanized versions. Both should have a place in the beer drinker’s heart (or belly).
One of the finest examples of Märzen sold in the United States, and sold in Nebraska, hales from Longmont, CO. Left Hand’s Oktoberfest is a stunning example of the style; amber hued, malty nose with a kiss of herbal hops. Rich maltiness on the palate, hints of crackers, bread, and earthy-spicy herbs are balanced perfectly.
Unfortunately, some craft beer drinkers are a bit snobby and overlook the largest craft brewer in American, Boston Beer Company. The brewers of Samuel Adams also offer an excellent traditional Märzen. Samuel Adams Octoberfest (sic) is coppery in color, fairly aromatic in the nose with balanced maltiness. As expected for the style, it is very drinkable.
Likewise, from New Ulm, MN is Schell Oktoberfest. Again, this arrives from a brewery that many craft beer drinkers consider old fashioned. So what! Schell produces a superb Märzen; bronze in hue, moderate bouquet but the palate is ideally malty and balanced.
Since American brewers don’t have stodgy rules to follow or centuries of tradition to dictate how to brew they are limitless. As such, many traditional styles have been “Americanized.” In most cases this means the beer is hoppier or maltier or stronger than the traditional version. Märzen has too been Americanized.
Probably the most glaring example is Avery’s The Kaiser. Clocking it at a robust 9.3% ABV, The Kaiser is far removed from tradition. This “Imperial Oktoberfest” is hoppy, boozy and ridiculously robust.
Another Americanized Märzen comes from the quite traditional Summit Brewing of St. Paul, MN. Simply packaged, Summit Oktoberfest looks and smells the part of a traditional Märzen. However, one sip reveals a more robust maltiness and fuller body. The sneakiness of the 7.7% ABV is what pushes this beer away from traditional.
When freshness and cost is also factored in it is hard not to gravitate towards domestic Märzen. Of course, German-brewed Märzen is tasty and perfectly drinkable but it just seems too many craft beer drinkers have blinders on. Just step away from the Old World and look at good old American brewed Märzen.