What’s In A Name? A Lot, Even With One You Think You Know Well, Like “Oktoberfest”

Fall is coming.  At least the calendar says so.  If you look hard enough, you can see a few signs, here and there.   Along the outermost edges of trees, leaves have begun to redden, a chill is just beginning to sneak into the evenings, and then, there are the beer store shelves.  For those of us who look forward to the annual reappearance of a particular style of beer each fall, we can tell you exactly what time of year it is without problem.  Each year, around the beginning of September, Oktoberfest style beers will appear to begin their roughly two month long run of seasonal availability that many of their fans welcome as if a beloved family member has come for their yearly holiday visit.  Beginning when we first see those familiar bottles picturing armies of beer stein armed bar maids, many folks suddenly have the giddy kind of joy more commonly found on children’s faces on Christmas morning – long outgrown train sets, now, it’s good beer – and then assured to us in that first, satisfying sip, Oktoberfest beers have a familiar, comforting flavors their fans look forward to each year.  Or maybe it’s the beer’s association with one of the biggest parties on earth, and who doesn’t want to be a part of that.  Either way, those of us who enjoy Oktoberfest beers each year generally know what to expect.  No mind blowing complexities here, these lagers make up in their rich, somewhat bready, toasty, malty goodness what they might lack in shock value, and that’s perfectly ok.  Then it’s safe to say that we know all we need to know about these beers well, and that we have this style nailed down, right?

When it comes to beer styles and their accompanying histories, nothing is ever quite “nailed down” though.  No major topic in world lore truly is, of course, and Oktoberfest style beer is no different.  For fans of these brews, you first knew this was true when you noticed the German word “Marzen” on a bottle of what you thought was an Oktoberfest.  (And if you haven’t yet, you will.)  To truly understand the association between the two, let’s start with the average beer drinker’s appreciation of a beer that during its brewing has no chance of cold storage, is brewed during warm summer months, is brewed with nineteenth century brewing methods, and therefore is quite possibly left open to a high chance of bacterial infection.  Not interested?  Not surprisingly, German beer drinkers during those times had the same opinion.  German brewers had figured out that the most consistently tasting beer was brewed during colder months.  Faced with little ability to properly protect their beer against “spoilage”, and the “off” flavors that summer brewing could bring before the days of refrigeration, German brewers chose to brew large quantities of beer during the last months of winter, ending roughly in spring, or March (or, in German, “Marzen”) and store them in ice lined caves during the summer, releasing them on an as needed basis to drinkers.  Towards the end of the summer, leftover quantities of the beer had to be moved out to make way for new batches, and such an event seemed like a great idea for a party.

So what so many of us refer to as “Oktoberfest” beers began simply as “Marzens”, and now the two are practically synonymous, often showing up on the same labels.  It all might seem settled, then, until you realize that it wasn’t for many years after the Oktoberfest celebrations started in Germany that the beer took on the “Oktoberfest” label at all.  According to a wonderful article on the German Beer Institute website, early Marzen brewers in the mid 19th century switched things up a bit, introducing a lighter version of the beer.  Get out your road map, because here’s where it starts to get interesting.  This lighter colored version was a result of a type of lighter malt, one that would eventually become known as “Vienna Malt”, and in Austria, the beer would even eventually become known as a different beer altogether, the Vienna Lager.  In Germany, it was a case of simply adding a new tagline – Marzen, brewed “The Vienna Way”.  This all might seem academic, and true, it might seem that it’s somewhat difficult to find an example of a Vienna Lager.  After all, doesn’t a “Vienna Lager” sound like some slightly obscure beer style that only the stuffiest of beer geeks would be able to define?  The truth might surprise you.  As a matter of fact, no matter who you are, I’m fairly positive you’ve had one.  Ever heard of a not so slightly obscure beer known as “Boston Lager”, by an equally not so obscure brewery called Boston Beer, or Samuel Adams?  Yes, indeed.  A Vienna Lager.

Now, you’ll occasionally see descriptions of Vienna Lagers that mention they are the “inspiration” for the Oktoberfest style.  And in no small way, it turns out they actually are.  Nearly thirty years after the switch to the lighter Marzen, the same German brewery which helped pioneer that change decided a return to a slightly darker one was in order.  The Vienna malt that had been used in the earlier change was adjusted, and the resulting darker lager was finally, for the first time, called an “Oktoberfestbier” – roughly sixty years after the festival that bears the same name began.  Additionally, according to the same article, only beers of this style produced in Munich are true Oktoberfests, and those brewed anywhere else should be labeled as “Oktoberfest-style”.

So let’s recap.  Oktoberfests are the same as Marzens, although only should be called so in Munich, everywhere else as Oktoberfest style, and grew out of a brewing change that somewhat spun off a completely different style known as a Vienna Lager, which some consider the inspiration of the Oktoberfest beer.  You might find spellings of “Oktoberfest” or “Octoberfest”, but either way, the beer we call these today didn’t really get started until sixty some years into the famous German festival of the same name.  And for what it’s worth, and somewhat sadly to me, the beer that dominates the festival nowadays is actually a different beer style altogether.

The history behind beer styles always adds to the enjoyment of what’s in your glass, but at some point, it’s what’s in your glass that’s most important.  So with a little history under our belts, let’s not linger on just spellings and style labels.  After all, Oktoberfest season doesn’t last long.  It’s time to stop by the store, pick up your favorite interpretation of this familiar, delicious beer, and while enjoying one, go outside on your deck or porch, have a seat one quiet evening soon, and take in the slow but sure signs of the changing of a season.  The beginning of fall always gives me a particular feeling of reassurance, as with anything certain and that can be depended upon.   And so it is with the Oktoberfest beer.  Fall is finally here.

Looking for Oktoberfests to try?

There are quite a few solid Oktoberfest style beers out there, both in imported German and in American craft versions.  To me, the season would not be the same without Paulaner’s Oktoberfest Lager.  Other great German examples include versions by Ayinger, Hacker Pschorr, Hofbrau, and of course Spaten.  On a more domestic note, this year, I just might have a new favorite in DuClaw Brewing’s (Bel Air, Maryland) Mad Bishop Oktoberfest, which I thought was exceptional from the first sip.  Other annual favorites include Legend’s (Richmond, Va) and St. George’s (Hampton, Va) Oktoberfests, Duck Rabbit’s (North Carolina) Marzen lager, and Brooklyn Brewing’s Oktoberfest.

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~ by thebeerroad on September 30, 2011.

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