The Beers of Oktoberfest

As the summer months are winding down, it’s time to look ahead to cooler temps – and the beer fest that paved the way for Brewgrass, Queen City Brewers, and all the rest…yes, we’re talking about Oktoberfest!

Many people don’t realize there are actually two beer styles (closely related but distinct) that are associated with Oktoberfest.

One is the classic Märzen, and the other is the newer style known as Festbier. Let’s take a look back at the history of Oktoberfest to explore how these delicious lagers came into being…

Prior to modern refrigeration methods, in 18th century Germany and Austria, the brewing season was dictated by a Bavarian brewing ordinance. Beer could only be brewed between the months of September and April, and they strictly adhered, of course, to the Reinheitsgebot, Germany’s Beer Purity Law of 1516. Beer brewed at the start of the brewing season could be safely consumed right away; however, precautions had to be taken to ensure that beers made late in the brewing season (early spring) wouldn’t spoil. Cold cellars and caves were utilized in these areas to keep the beer cold through the warmer months. Those that were brewed and lagered at cooler temperatures were called Märzenbier – “March beer”.

Oktoberfest

The first Oktoberfest was held in Munich on October 12, 1810 to celebrate a royal wedding.

The beer served at the event was a Märzenbier that was likely similar to the modern Munich Dunkel – a full-bodied, dark amber lager. The style evolved over subsequent decades until the late 1800s, when Josef Sedlmayr, co-owner of Spaten-Franziskaner Brauerei, began serving what was later considered the definitive Märzen.

Also instrumental in Sedlmayr’s recipe was Anton Dreher of Vienna. Dreher first experimented with pale malts in his family’s brewery while studying the Munich lagering process under Gabriel Sedlmayr, Josef’s father. When Gabriel died in 1839, Anton continued his studies under Josef. It was Anton’s stroke of genius to use these new paler malts to create an amber version of the Munich Lager. Thus, the Vienna Lager beer style was born.

Fast forwarding to 1871, we find Josef adapting the Vienna Lager recipe as a template for a new, lighter Märzenbier. He dubbed his creation Ur-Märzen, meaning “Original Märzen.” Josef brewed the beer again in March of 1872 to be consumed later that fall. During that year’s Oktoberfest, Josef introduced his Ur-Märzen, which proved to be an overwhelming success. Other Munich breweries followed Josef’s lead, and started adopting his popular recipe. This became the modern Märzen, and in turn, the new staple of Oktoberfest!

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the popular Oktoberfest style experienced another evolution – this time as the Festbier. Festbier Lager

Even lighter than the Märzen, this new beer was created by the Paulaner brewery in Munich. (Aside: Paulaner is one of six Bavarian breweries that are allowed to call their beers “Oktoberfestbier” for the festival; the Sedlmayrs’ Spaten-Franziskaner is another.) With more people flocking to Oktoberfest from around the world, brewers at Paulaner saw a demand for a refreshing, approachable beer to appeal to the masses. The Festbier, therefore, shifted lighter in color (a deep gold in contrast to the Märzen’s amber hue) and less heavy, while still remaining malt-forward and flavorful. It finishes a bit like the German Pilsner, clean and slightly bready. Interestingly, Festbier is now the only beer style poured during Oktoberfest in Munich, which may surprise American visitors who expect to find the more familiar Märzen.

Catawba’s Festbier Lager is brewed true to style, according to modern day Bavarian standards.

This easy-drinker showcases its distinctive Vienna malt character. Balanced with a touch of Noble hop bitterness, it finishes smooth and clean. Festbier made its debut last Friday (August 18) at all four of our locations. If you can’t make it out to a tasting room, look for it in 6-pack cans throughout our 5-state distribution area. Festbier will be available through September.

Keep an eye out for announcements about our Catawba Oktoberfest coming in September, which will feature the new Festbier, a Small Batch Märzen, and other traditional German beer styles!

Prost!