A Brief History of Oktoberfest Beer

OktoberfestGirls_2015_C_normalWhen we think of the beer consumed at the Munich Oktoberfest, many brewers picture the classic Oktoberfest/Marzen style: a hearty, dark, and malty brew with great head retention and a warming alcohol bite. While this may have been the case over fifty years ago, today’s Oktoberfest beer is quite different. The beer that the masses are drinking at today’s festival is more akin to a Munich helles than to a marzen. It tends to be a light body beer that, while still malt focused, is usually much lower in alcohol. The added digestibility and drink-ability of this modern lager makes it more of a “sessionable” beer, but it is far different than the traditional beer of the fest.

While many of us romanticize Oktoberfest as a beer focused holiday, the truth is rather more… sober. The original festival started as a celebration of the marriage between Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen in 1810. The event was celebrated with a fair and horse racing, but beer did not play a central role. Of course, there were venders around the outskirts of the fair selling some brew but it was definitely not the focus of the event. As the years went by, the festival became more beer centered and in 1896 the first beer tents were raised. This growth in beer’s presence at the festivities was no doubt a byproduct of the festival falling around the beginning of the brewing season.

Lager caveBefore the age of refrigeration, brewing was governed by the seasons. The fall and winter were the brewing seasons since the temperatures were ideal for brewers yeast (both ale and lager species). Towards the end of the brewing season, usually March in Germany, a final strong beer was brewed to last until the beginning of the next brewing year. This March beer, or Marzen, was then stored in barrels (often in dark and cold lagering caves) and consumed through spring and summer. Once fall rolled around, the brewers once again fired up their brew kettles and needed the storage barrels for fermenting the new year’s beer. The barrels were then quickly emptied is a semi-debaucherous set of festivities. The Oktoberfest festival provided an excellent avenue for draining the last of these Marzen barrels.


The Oktoberfest beer I brewed this year falls into the Marzen category, making it more of a traditional Oktoberfest rather than a more modern example. I chose to keep the recipe simple, with a grist of 2 high quality German malts and two additions of one classic noble hop. I wanted the beer to have enough bitterness to be assertive but not so much that took away from the high quality malts. In turn, I wanted there to be a whiff of hops, but it should be subtle and almost undetectable.


Recipe: Oktoberfest

This beer is very malt focused with a hint of hops to balance out the residual sweetness. Although this is not a complex beer it is both very rich and very filling. It matches fall weather with its dark color and warming alcohol. As would be expected, it pairs very well with smoked brats.

OG: 1.058 —- FG: 1.0?? —- ABV: ?.?%

Recipe:

  • 6 lb Avangard Pilsner Malt
  • 6 lb Dark Munich Malt
  • 1.5 oz Hallertau – 60 min
  • .5 oz Hallertau – 15 Min

Yeast: Wyeast 2633 (Oktoberfest Lager)

Mashed at 150 for 60 minutes with a single decoction mash to achieve mash out temperatures. Boiled for 90 minutes. Fermented at 55 F for 2 weeks with a diacetyl rest for the last 2 days. Lagered at 45 degrees for 1 month. Kegged and forced carbonated.


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