7.2 million annual visitors, 7.7 million liters of beer, and roughly 111,000 foiled attempts of theft of glass mugs. Finally, Munich’s 16-to-18-day celebration of drunken revelry and boundless bratwursts, better known as Oktoberfest, is upon us.
Oddly enough, the beer brewed and named to honor this centuries-old tradition, marketed by both American and German breweries in the US as “Oktoberfestbier,” isn’t what’s served in Munich at the Oktoberfest at all. Luckily for us, it’s better.
The vast majority of what we refer to as Oktoberfestbier is an amber to copper-colored, malt forward lager known as märzen. Before the widespread availability of refrigeration, märzen was brewed in March (März), toward the end of the brewing season, to be stored in cool lagering caves through the summer, and served at the Oktoberfest in mid-September. It’s malty, it’s rich, it’s elegant. In short, it’s damn tasty.
Märzen was the beer of choice at the Oktoberfest from 1872 until 1990, when it was replaced by the lighter bodied, less flavorful, golden, “festbier,” that is served at Oktoberfest today. While the six Munich-based breweries that are permitted to serve beer at the Oktoberfest do still produce the traditional amber colored märzen, they do so chiefly for export to the United States. And for that, we’re grateful.
A couple of my favorite examples of märzen -- now on tap at HopCat Madison -- include the German staple Ayinger Oktober Fest-märzen, as well as a great representation of the style from Chicago’s most authentic German lager producer, Metropolitan Brewing. Metropolitan’s Afterburner Oktoberfest is a tremendously refined, clean and toasty malt-driven lager. While erupting with malt richness, the beer finishes dry enough on the palate to necessitate subsequent sips, or gulps, as is appropriate for a celebration of overindulgence such as Oktoberfest.
While traditional märzen may have fallen into obsolescence in Munich, I’m proud to see that, in an ironic twist, it is the American beer drinkers’ palate and US craft brewing industry that are keeping the German brewing tradition alive. Prost!