Beer and wine

The Complete (Chicago) Beer Course: Marzen (Oktoberfest)

When COVID-19 closed taprooms and cancelled festivals, I looked for ways to still engage with Chicago’s craft beer scene. I therefore decided to finally work my way through The Complete Beer Course. Doing so involves the tough job of sampling beers for each style the book details; I’ll balance national (and international) recommendations from author Joshua Bernstein with examples from Chicagoland breweries. Unless otherwise stated, historical background comes from The Complete Beer Course.

Style

Marzen (Oktoberfest)

History

Marzen’s roots go back a long way, with three notable events marking its development:

  1. In 1553, a Bavarian decree made it illegal to brew beer from April 23 to September 29 (The Beer Bible). This decree reflected a practical consideration: it restricted brewing in warm months when wild yeast and bacteria were more likely to ruin beer. As a result, Bavarian dark lagers were brewed in March (Marzen, in German) and housed in caves or cellars until the fall.
  2. In 1810, Munich celebrated the first Oktoberfest in honor of the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxe-HIldburghausen. Given the October timing of the celebration (counterintuitively, the annual celebration is now in September), freshly tapped marzen made the perfect beer to serve at the festival.
  3. In 1872, Josef Sedlmayr came out with a version of Vienna lager, which he labeled ur-Marzen, or “original marzen.” That amber-colored lager set the standard for what a marzen is to this day.

Beer Judge Certification Program Description

“An elegant, malty German amber lager with a clean, rich, toasty and bready malt flavor, restrained bitterness, and a dry finish that encourages another drink. The overall malt impression is soft, elegant and complex, with a rich aftertaste that is never cloying or heavy.

Fun Fact

In 1953, Paulaner introduced the light-colored festbier at Oktoberfest, which quickly took off and became the dominant style at the festival (Porch Drinking). In other words, while marzen is the traditional Oktoberfest beer and can still be found at most American Oktoberfest celebrations, it hasn’t been consumed at the real deal in Munich in decades.

Third Coast Review’s Take

Marzens are an excellent fall beer: malty and complex, with just enough hop for balance.

I Tried:

  1. Spaten Oktoberfest
  2. Revolution Oktoberfest
  3. Metropolitan Afterburner Oktoberfest

I wanted to try at least one Bavarian marzen, and selected Spaten Oktoberfest based on Bernstein’s recommendation and local availability. I wish I could get it fresh; I found it a bit lacking and wonder if the long journey from Germany was part of the problem. It’s a light-bodied beer whose blend of malt sweetness and hop bitterness suggests aspirations of balance, but the flavors didn’t come together as smoothly as other marzens that I tried.

With Revolution’s strong foothold in the Chicago market, their Oktoberfest is perhaps the easiest local marzen to find in the fall. It’s smooth, light-bodied and mild, making it both crushable and accessible. Best paired with tailgating, apple picking and other outdoor fall activities.

There’s a reason why Metropolitan Afterburner take is widely considered the best local example of a marzen. It’s simply a remarkable beer – balanced and smooth, yet full of flavor. It’s the perfect early fall beer, best enjoyed at Metropolitan’s riverside patio in Avondale.

Up Next:

We return to the world of light lagers with Dortmunder.

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