“It’s tapped!” The first keg of the Volksfest has been tapped! And so begins the first day of Oktoberfest, the largest beer festival–the largest folk festival–in the world. This year, that day was September 19, and the festival runs through October 4, so most of Oktoberfest is in September.
This year marks the 205th Anniversary of the first Oktoberfest, a celebration of the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen, October 12, 1810. The celebration became annual, and the start of the festival soon moved forward into September to take advantage of longer, warmer days. In truth the festival is far older than 1810, probably dating back to the 15th Century. By the way, there will NOT be a test on any of this material, particularly not after a couple of liters of Märzen, the traditional Oktoberfest beer.
As for “the largest beer festival” there’s really no competition. More than 6 million people will attend, consuming more than 7 million liters of beer! This horde jams 14 large tents and many small ones, and when we say “large” tents, consider that the Löwenbräu-Festhalle tent has a seating capacity of 5,700, with 2,800 more seated outside! You see the Hippodrom-Festzelt tent above. This massive party occupies Theresienwiese, “Theresa’s meadow,” named in honor of Ludwig’s bride and now colloquially referred to as the “Wies’n.”
The Oktoberfest in Munich from Ferris wheel
Back to the beer, the true point of the exercise! Authentic Märzen-Oktoberfestbier is only brewed within the city limits of Munich, just as authentic Champagne is only produced in that region of France. Any “champagne” from anywhere else is technically “sparkling wine” and any “Oktoberfest” brewed outside Munich is “Oktoberfest-style.” There are six breweries producing the genuine article, Augustiner-Bräu, Hacker-Pschorr-Bräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, Spatenbräu and Hofbräu-München.
In the world of American craft beer, 20 years makes a brewery an elder statesman, and 50 years–the rescue of Anchor Brewing by Fred Maytag–marks the beginning of time. This is but a blip in the history of the Munich breweries. Some of the founding dates are a little fuzzy, but Augustiner is acknowledged as the oldest independent brewery in Munich, dating to 1328. Lowenbrau followed in 1383 and Spaten in 1397, rounding out the 14th Century. Hacker (not yet Pschorr) came along in 1417, Hofbräu in 1589, and Paulaner, the youngster, in 1634.
So what IS the genuine article? Märzen is “March” beer, traditionally brewed during the cold months suitable for unrefrigerated brewing and lagering. These got stored in cool cellars and caves for consumption during the hot months, but then needed to be finished off in October when the new crop of cool weather beers needed to be stored. One thing this means is that these March-to-October beers were well aged, by beer standards.
And what of the style? Craftbeer.com gives a brief description, “A beer rich in malt with a balance of clean, hop bitterness. Bread or biscuit-like malt aroma and flavor is common.” The classic Märzen is a relatively dark lager, amber, typically with a reddish tinge. By Munich standards it is a relatively strong lager averaging about 6% ABV (Alcohol By Volume.) It should clear and effervescent with a big head, at least when poured vigorously, and a vigorous pour is traditional, as fast as 1.5 seconds to fill a one liter stein. There is a slight sweetness from the caramelization that produces that reddish color.
Perhaps sadly, Märzen is no longer the beer served in the great tents on the “Wies’n.” Tradition has fallen before modern tastes, and the lighter Helles lager has supplanted the heavier Märzen. Fortunately, the Oktoberfest beers exported to the United States still represent the Märzen style.
Only four of the six breweries export their Oktoberfest. Lowenbrau no longer exports across the Atlantic. Augustiner does not export their Oktoberfest. This leaves four of the Big Six for this tasting, and four tasters for a “rigorous” scientific sample. Three would describe themselves as casual beer drinkers, with one who doesn’t care much for lager at all. Add to this one beer geek.
The panel’s immediate reaction: good drinking beer, smooth, “doesn’t hit you in the face” with slight bitterness on the finish. The color is fairly pale, palest of these four, crystal clear light amber with a big frothy white head. The nose is of light cracker & biscuit malt with a small puff of noble hops. Very crisp with moderate malt and a bit of caramel. The hops gently dry out the finish. Classic lager, it does nothing poorly. It’s a good–if light–introduction to Märzen, luring in even our non-lager drinker. 6.3% ABV
Pours chestnut-amber with a moderate white head. Sweeter than the Hofbräu, it has more flavor with no bitter aftertaste. The flavor is smoother and more balanced with a longer finish and better mouthfeel. To me, it has a sharply hoppy nose with mild biscuity malt. On the palette it is quite smooth with medium malt, a touch of toffee and light effervescence. The finish gives nice quiet toffee with the spice of noble hops. 5.9% ABV
They claim the title “Original” because brewmaster Joseph Pschorr was commissioned by the Crown Prince to develop special beers for his big party. The modern version is medium amber, then our panel found it bitter on the initial flavor, but really with not much flavor. They found it “a little thin. Not enough going on, nothing special” but not bitter on the finish. I found it to have a less hoppy nose with more caramel and more malt. It’s not as smooth as Hofbrau but it has more malt flavor and less hop flavor. It gets crisper and smoother on the finish, distinctly more bitter. Basically the profile emphasizes aroma hops and bittering hops over flavor hops. 5.8% ABV
Another chestnut amber, this with a light off white head, perhaps poured too gently. The panel found it to have a good malt flavor turning rapidly bitter, medium bodied, and with a medium bitter finish. Basically medium medium. I found it to have an aroma of light bakery malt with a note of noble hops, a fairly light body and flavor with just a hint of caramel. The quiet finish develops more malt and caramel. I guess that’s a more elaborate way to say “medium.” 5.8% ABV
The Judgment of Jersey
At this point we ranked the four brews. To our surprise, all four of us picked the same favorite: Spaten. We were almost unanimous placing Hofbräu second, though I found a tie with Paulaner, favoring lighter Hofbräu if drinking more, and heavier Paulaner if drinking less. Paulaner came third for two of us, but last for one who found it too bitter. That left Hacker-Pschorr with one vote for third and three votes for last. So our ranking went Spaten, Hofbräu , Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr.
Now if someone will pay the airfare, I would be happy to visit Munich to report on the other two. Until then,