Award winning Beer Writer Adrian Tierney-Jones explores the Central European 'Lagerlands' in a series of Euroboozer blogs: Part #2...
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I could hear the sound of Oktoberfest from a couple of streets away. A massive hum of voices hung in the air, as if a monster beehive had been disturbed. The low boom of drum beats provided a bass-like counterpoint. The pavements were packed with people, seemingly drawn to the sound’s source. A few were leaving, some uneasy on their feet, having drunk deeply at the best-known beer festival in the world. A group of three young men passed me bellowing Oktoberfest’s irritatingly catchy signature tune Ein Prosit. There was a glow in the sky behind the neo-gothic church of St Paul’s. This was Theresienwiese, the home of Oktoberfest, which is normally one of Munich’s green lungs, but from the third weekend in September it becomes a raucous, rollicking two-week celebration of beer, gluttony, licence and Gemütlichkeit.
Naturally, once you arrive at the festival you want to drink beer, but what to choose? Oktoberfest biers from the big six breweries of Munich are the only ones allowed to be sold, so over a couple of days I tried them all.
Augustiner Oktoberfest Bier was sunlit gold with a snow-white, thick, tight, foamy head; the taste of bitter lemons alternated with a crisp biscuity-like snappiness and a light appetising bitterness in the finish. At 6.3%, Hofbräu München Oktoberfestbier was the strongest beer available though you wouldn’t think so by looking at the innocence of its glistening golden-copper hue beneath the thick but loosely formed meringue-white foam. It was a beer that said, ‘who me?’, as the caramel sweetness and hints of vanilla and lemon got all cosy in the glass. The foam ran over the brim of a Maß of Löwenbräu’s soft, shiny, malleably golden Festbier as if it couldn’t wait to be drunk. The restrained sweetness and hushed lemon notes made it a bit of a wallflower, though the brisk bitterness encouraged further gulps. Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier is the festival beer that sells the most volume and is a glass of boozy, foamy sunlight with a smooth, sweetish character, hints of bright lemon and a dry, slightly bitter finish. Then there was Spaten Oktoberfestbier, which sparkled like a wedding ring, orange-gold with glints of a setting sun. Beneath its fluffy head of foam the beer had a breadiness and caramel sweetness that made it an excellent accompaniment to roast chicken. If the other Festbiers were light and chatty in the glass, Hacker-Pschorr’s Oktoberfest Lager was darker in colour beneath its loose collar of foam. Its ruby reddishness gave it almost a moody air, reminiscent of a sullen teenager perhaps. Yet on drinking it was as if the teenager had lightened up — there was a bready sweetness with hints of orchard fruits in the background and a welcome bitter finish.
Augustiner Oktoberfest and the Oide Wiesn
All these beers are known as Oktoberfest biers and woe betide any Bavarian or indeed German brewery outside this circle of six that styles its autumn beer release as one. There are always rumours alleging that the Munich breweries employ students to scan the internet for any malefactors with cease and desist writs waiting in the wings. However, a few decades ago these beers would have been called Märzenbier, one of the trio of classic beer styles that emerged from central Europe in the early 1840s. Like Hacker-Pschorr they would have also been much darker in the glass, but before we tell the story of Märzenbier let us travel back in time and ponder on the mystery of its origins.
The mystery of Märzen
Time has a habit of changing our perceptions, of wreaking havoc on our memories and what was and what will be can be two different things. The passage of time in the world of beer can certainly be a mysterious journey, as writers and brewers try to find out the origins of various beer styles, some of which only emerged blinking into the daylight during a time when no one, least of all the brewers, bothered to keep much of an account of what they were doing. This fog of time has drawn itself around so many beer styles like a cloak and all we have to go on are myths and legends and tall tales that seemingly originated in a celestial tavern where stories were the currency of time. However, that may not be such a bad thing as stories are how humanity learns and progresses, as Gaia Vince writes in her compelling book on the evolution of humans, Transcendence: ‘Our invention of stories provided a collective memory bank for our accumulating knowledge, improved the fidelity and reach of cultural transmission, and bound our societies into closer cooperation.’
Such is the case when thinking about the development of Bavarian Märzenbier, whose story reaches right back into the middle of the 16th century. For this was when the then ruler of Bavaria, Duke Albrecht V, put his name to a decree that banned brewing between April 23 and September 29, due to the perils of warm weather causing disastrous infections to the beers being stored in the cool caves and cellars around Munich and the surrounding region. Looking back over the centuries it is easy to suspect that March must have been a busy time as brewers made beers they hoped would be ready to drink in the autumn. So according to sources and brewers I have spoken to in this part of the world, these were the first ‘Märzenbier’ (German for March beer). However, if we look at Märzenbier now and compare it to its 16th century antecedents there is an immediate difference. For a start all the beers brewed back then would have been dark brown in colour, which was to be the case for all beers made in and around Munich until the 19th century. We also know that because they had been stored (or lagered) in cold conditions, a new strain of yeast had emerged, which would eventually form the basis for fermenting lager beers.
Let us now redirect our time machine to the 1830s for more stories. This was when a couple of brewing friends, Anton Dreher from Vienna and Gabriel Sedlmayr the Younger from Munich, went on a tour of English breweries and managed to filch samples of wort and yeast from their hosts with the use of a hollow walking stick. This was not the act of cooperation that Gaia Vince writes about in Transcendence but rather a spot of industrial espionage. Or maybe we should be a bit more lenient to the two, given that modern craft breweries have been known to break down a pioneering IPA or pale ale in order to apply its secrets to their brew. Whatever the analysis, we do know that the duo’s actions were undertaken so they could analyse the wort and work out how to apply this knowledge when they returned home to their respective breweries.
However, you might want to believe that the real story of modern Märzenbier began in 1841, when Sedlmayr the Younger’s Munich brewery Spaten introduced one for that year’s Oktoberfest, which is why the festival has such a pivotal role in the beer’s genesis. Coincidentally this was the same year Anton Dreher brought Vienna lager into the world, while 1842 would see Josef Groll in Pilsen produce the first golden lager. These two years of what would become a tumultuous decade, with its 1848 outbreaks of revolution and rebellion sweeping through Europe, can perhaps be seen as some of the most auspicious in brewing history. Yet, as we shall see, these beers, especially Märzenbier, did not develop on their own or appear as if by magic. The growth of technology within brewing, a nascent consumer society, the Bavarian love for beer and a thrusting and changing European world all played a part.
Let’s take technology. During the 19th century, especially with the ending of the Napoleonic Wars, Europe (including Great Britain) experienced a dramatic surge in technological developments in industry, communications, in the home and, naturally, warfare. Perhaps this was also the start of a consumer society, where the middle classes started to demand quality in the goods and foodstuffs that they bought, especially in the beer they drank. It was the century of London’s Great Exhibition in the 1850s, followed by trade fairs across the continent (where beers from Vienna, Pilsen and Munich were often sold); this was the era when the Eiffel Tower was build and these advances were mirrored in the brewing industry, especially in central Europe. For instance, thanks to Dreher and Sedlmayr the Younger’s visits to British breweries, they encountered what were called ‘English kilns’. This discovery inspired them to produce lighter coloured malts, which played their part in the birth of the modern Märzenbier.
‘The malts brought a big impact to the beer colour and taste,’ says Matthias Ebner, International Brand Ambassador for Weihenstepan in Freising, Bavaria. ‘With the onset of the Industrial Revolution it was easier to produce (constantly) paler malts, than it was usual at the time. Märzen and Vienna lager are based on the speciality malts that were developed then. This was a key moment in the development of the styles’.
He continues by stating that the original Märzenbier and Vienna lager were ‘related, but a little bit different. Both were paler than the dark beers that were common then and both were based on a speciality malt — Munich malt for Märzen and Vienna malt for the other — and subtle in hops. The biggest difference was that the Munich Märzen had a more copper/amber colour influence and the Vienna lagers left a more red-shiny colour impact.’
There was another crucial difference between the two beer styles, according to Eric Toft, Brewmaster at Brauerei Schönram in southern Bavaria.
‘The Vienna was characterised by its water composition,’ he says. ‘The Vienna lager was basically a Märzen with a high degree of non-carbonated hardness and there was a lot of sulphur and chlorides in it. Meanwhile, the Munich water or the water of the region south of Munich against the Alps is all pretty high in carbonate bicarbonate and low in sulphates and chloride so it's got a carbonated hardness rather than a non-carbonated hardness. Dreher got his lager yeast from Spaten and so even though he was making a similar beer, because of the difference in water hardness and composition his beer had a different character.’
Another key technological development in the central European brewing industry was that of refrigeration, with Sedlmayr the Younger being the first brewer in Bavaria to make use of it in the 1870s. This allowed ice to be generated, which then could be used to cool the rooms where the beers lagered, enabling Spaten to produce Märzenbier, as well as other lagers, all year round. According to Matthias Ebner, other developments making a difference included, ‘steam-powered brewhouses, which helped a lot to produce constant quality, while with the introduction of more efficient bottling lines the beer could also be transported easier and more people could enjoy them.’
Let’s take a break and have a modern Märzen, Anno 1050 from Weltenburger. It is a deep, bruised gold in colour, shining with the conviction of clarity. On the nose there is a soft toffee-like sweetness, which is also present on the palate alongside a hint of citrus before finishing with a smooth dryness. It is clean in the integration of its flavours, full-bodied and unafraid of taking a bow for its intense drinkability. Ever since its first appearance in 1841, the beer style seems to have lived a chequered life and kept evolving.
‘When this very popular style was first introduced to the Oktoberfest it very fast became a regular festival beer,’ says Matthias Ebner. ‘The style Märzen was more malt based in flavour, but was paler than the Munich beers at that time. The hops are delicate but subtle and the alcohol is between 5-6.2%. Today’s Märzens are more paler than 100 years ago, but still very malt driven.’
In his authoritative book/Kindle single Historic German and Austrian Beers for the Home Brewer, Andreas Krennmair adds more to the story of Märzenbier’s historic connection with the festival: ‘In 1872, Michael Schottenhamel was looking for beer to sell at his Oktoberfest tent. Due to an unusually hot summer, most of the Sommerbier was already gone, and since he didn’t want to serve Winterbier, Schottenhamel approached Josef Sedlmayr of Franziskaner-Leistbräu. Sedlmayr told him that they currently had a stronger beer available, brewed in the Viennese style, and that it should be in prime condition for Oktoberfest. Schottenhamel agreed to buy the beer, but also announced that he’d sell it for 12 Kreuzer. 12 Kreuzer at that time was the same price as for Salvatorbier, and since beer prices were heavily regulated at the time, the police agreed to allow a probationary sale, which proceeded peacefully, and thus, a more permanent permission was granted. The beer was subsequently advertised as Oktoberfest-Märzenbier, and became the common beer style to be served at the Oktoberfest.’
The link between Märzenbier and Oktoberfest is undisputedly strong but, as I wrote at the beginning, what used to be called Märzenbier is now styled as an Oktoberfestbier. When did this happen? According to Mark Dredge in his must-read book, A Brief History of Lager, ‘Märzen was the favourite beer of Oktoberfest until 1953, when the Augustiner brewery sold Wiesnedelstoff, a light-coloured lager that would become the new kind of Oktoberfestbier. Today the lager is around 6% and bright gold in colour, like a stronger version of a typical Munich Helles’.
Beer being poured in the Augustiner tent at Oktoberfest
As I discovered when I attended Oktoberfest, the beers on sale there, which were once termed Märzenbier, are easy to drink. According to Eric Toft this has something to do with them being highly attenuated, which he seems slightly critical about.
‘For the most part the Oktoberfest beers are pale but also highly attenuated, which makes them much more comfortable to drink,’ he told me. So they have combined, unfortunately, high attenuation with, in my opinion, way too little hops and then very low Co2 levels. We're talking probably 1.9 to 2 volumes of Co2 (author’s note: Märzen is generally 2.1-2.6 volumes www.draft-beer-made-easy.com/carbonationchart.html). It just slips down your throat without very little resistance whatsoever. So it's all about selling as much as possible.’
Oh, one other thing, if you want to get even more confused about the meaning of Märzen, then take a look at the label of Schlenkerla Rauchbier from Bamberg. Beneath these words, it says Märzen, even though this iconic beer has a taste profile more common to a bonfire. Here is Matthias Trum, Managing Director and Brewmaster at Brauerei Heller-Trum, where Schlenkerla is made: ‘We call it a Märzen because by style it is one as defined by German brewing law. The interesting thing is, that ALL standard Bamberg beers in the past were — by degree Plato — Märzen style. Bamberg beer was known to be very weingeistig (containing a lot of wine spirit), which was, in absence of alcohol analytics and terminology, the common wording back then. As we at Schlenkerla have not changed the basic recipe in a long, long time, our classic Rauchbier still is hence a Märzen.’
Enter the pale rider
Another beer style which originated in Munich and is associated with Sedlmayr the Younger is Münchner beer. This originally would have been a dark lager, though these days a Münchner Hell is more common. This change to pale happened at Spaten in 1894, presumably influenced by the success of Pilsner Urquell. The beer was paler and lighter than a Märzenbier and because it was more subtly hopped, it was not as intensely flavoured.
‘So the Münchner was just a dark lager and like the Märzen would have been the beer that was brewed at the end of the brewing season,’ says Eric Toft. ‘And it was really inspired by the Vienna and Pilsner lagers with Spaten actually the first brewery in Munich to take a shot at making a paler beer. But because of Munich water being hard, compared to the softness of Bohemian water, they were not able to throw in massive amounts of hops like they did in Pilsen or it would have become astringent. So the Helles is just a dumbed down version of Pilsner which uses less hops. I don't know if they tried using the hopping rates of Bohemian Pilsner and found that it was just too extreme.
‘Spaten first brewed the Hell in 1894, but they were worried about selling it to the locals, so it was exported north into the rest of Germany. However, when the locals found out about this new beer that was being sent north but not sold to them they demanded it. A year later, I think, it began being sold to locals and that was the beginning of the Münchner Hell.’
As other breweries in Munich and then in Bavaria saw the success of Spaten, they began to produce their own pale beers, though Toft points out that his brewery didn’t produce their own until 1955.
Beer style names in Bavaria can be confusing. You can also find an Export or a Spezial, with Matthias Ebner saying that, ‘Exports can also be Märzens, but not necessarily. Mostly they are stronger versions of a beer style (the paler Munich Helles for example). The higher alcohol helps the beer to travel better. I would say they look and taste more like a Munich Helles, but are strong as a Märzen. Spezial were beers in a special gravity range, between 14° and 16° Plato (author’s note: a measurement of the concentration of dissolved solids in a brewery’s wort), which breweries in the older days were only allowed to produce with a special allowance, like for the Oktoberfest. Today those regulations don’t exist anymore. Spezials are mostly stronger, maltier lagers’.
For Toft, to call a beer a Spezial it has to have about 13˚ on the Plato gravity scale but he also points out an anomaly in the area where his brewery is. ‘In our neck of the woods here in southeast Bavaria, most breweries made an Export and not a Helles. But the locals never called it one, so if you ordered an Export, they wouldn't know what you're talking about. It would say on the label Export but people would order a Helles.’
The evolution and metamorphosis of Bavarian Märzenbier from its literal meaning (a beer brewed in March) to festival favourite and then to its usurpation by Oktoberfestbier is a clear example of how a beer identity changes through time (it is notable that many North American brewed versions demonstrate a fidelity with the original, especially in terms of colour). Originating in a period of great change in brewing and created by a remarkable brewmaster, it remains a survivor, and still an essential part of many Bavarian breweries’ seasonal portfolios.
The next feature in the series will focus on Pilsner and the world-wide revolution in beer that it launched.