OKTOBERFEST: A GREAT BAVARIAN TRADITION
By Luke Ballou October 10, 2017
At a time before Shakespeare, in a region called Bavaria, people were brewing beer. In fact, there was even decreed a German Beer Purity Law called Reinheitsgebot (Rine-heights-ge-boat), which set forth a list of standards regarding permissible ingredients in beer. The law, handed down by the Holy Roman Empire to its dutiful states, set a precedent for monk and pub brewers across the land.
In 1516, Bavaria passed a similar law as the region unified after years of family squabbling, and decreed that only three ingredients be used: water, barley, and hops. If there were any more, your production would be confiscated under the claim of impure beer.
It was this setting that the Märzen, or Oktoberfest, was created, under yet further constraints by the families of power. To minimize the risk of breweries setting ablaze while boiling mashed grain into wort, the Duke of Bavaria limited beer production to a time between September 29 (feast of St. Michael) and April 23 (feast of Saint George). This allowed for brewing in March - März in German - and fermenting the beer in cellars and caves during the warm summer months. The large breweries of Munich understood that yeast cultures could be isolated and fermented, even though microbiology was far from an established science, all while stored in cellars dug into the banks of the Isar River.
May we all raise a stein to these innovative minds, because what spawned from these river cellars was the world’s largest and greatest beer festival.
As you may or may not recall, King Ludwig I of Bavaria married Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on October 12, 1810, and the citizens of Munich were invited to royal festivities held on large fields in front of the city gates. It was such a spectacle – horse races, sack races, goose chases, fine foods, carnival booths of silver, porcelain and jewelry, tree climbing, bowling alleys – that the citizens took it upon themselves to repeat the festivities each year after.
Soon Märzen beer became the staple of the festival, and when city fathers decreed it an official annual event a decade later, what followed in the centuries ahead was a beer flow the world had never seen. One hundred years later, in 1910, 120,000 gallons of beer were consumed in Munich; in 2013, 7.7 million liters – a record which will inevitably be broken. A bit of math to put it in perspective: here at the Gilded Goat, Charlie and Ben brew on a 7-barrel system, needing 9,374 batches to quench the thirst of the very thirsty patrons at Oktoberfest 2013.
Speaking of brewing, what makes a Märzen taste so good? The original Märzen is said to appeark dark brown and taste bitter with a full body. Over the years brewers modified the style to its current profile we know today: a deep gold to copper color with bright clarity and an off-white head. Your nose fills with a rich, malty, toasted caramel scent – attributes deriving from the Vienna and Munich malts.
I sat down with Gilded Goat brewmaster Charlie Hoxmeier to get his take on our own Festbier (released September 29):
"Staying true to the modern style of the Märzen, 80% of the malt bill is made up of Vienna and Munich malts, providing a crisp, sweet aroma that lingers above a deep orange-copper color. Flavors begin with an initial maltiness leading into a moderately dry finish, contained beneath a smooth, creamy head.
We didn’t want to make it different, but we wanted to make it good measurable to others. Our personal touch came through the addition of malted rye, which adds body and spiciness to counteract its sweetness, and to provide a deep red coloration. We wanted to make a true-to-style Märzen, but the addition of rye sets this beer apart. The Märzen is a perfect picture in a glass of German brewing."
Before he left to tend to his brewhouse, he noted his admiration for the old brewers and the tremendous planning required under limited resources. Their ability to consistently replicate the style year in and year out, using cellars dug into the riverbanks, is never far from his mind.