Published: October 02. 2012 6:42PM
Written by Rod Grandy
Photos by David Poleski
October, the start of fall. Never mind that autumn technically begins in late September; this is the month we associate with the change in seasons. October is when temperatures start to cool off, leaves begin to turn and football is in full swing. There is also another uniquely fall event, Oktoberfest.
Dating back to the 1810 wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Bavaria in Munich, the marriage celebration evidently was such a hit that this royal party became an annual affair. The festival begins in late September and ends on the first Sunday in October and attracts more than 6 million visitors. Only wars and cholera outbreaks have gotten in the way of the celebration, causing it to be canceled 24 times during the past 200 years. Over time, the festival grew into a worldwide celebration, and by the 1960s, Oktoberfest had spread to countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Mexico, India and the United States. Given that German-Americans are the largest self-reported ancestral group in the U.S., it is not surprising that there are hundreds of Oktoberfest celebrations across America.
Of course, much of the focus of the festival is beer. And not just any beer. In Munich, only beer conforming to the Reinheitsgebot standard may be served at Oktoberfest, and it must be brewed within the city limits to earn the designation of Oktoberfest Beer. Six breweries have earned this right: Spaten, Augustiner, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, and the more familiar Lowenbrau and Haufbrau. The most popular Oktoberfest Beers are made in the Marzen style. And what, you may ask, is the Marzen style?
Well, before we dive further into that, lets review some beer fundamentals.
Beer falls into two primary categories; ales and lagers. Both use the same four basic ingredients: grain, water, hops and yeast. The process begins with malting. Grains (usually barley, but sometimes wheat, rye or others) are harvested, heated, dried and then cracked. These broken, or malted, grains, which are the primary source of a beer’s color, are steeped in hot water for about an hour (mashing) and then drained. The water, now full of sugar from the grains, produces a hot, sticky sweet liquid known as wort. This wort is basically unmade beer.
The wort is boiled and hops are added to balance out the sugar and create flavor. The hops also act as a natural preservative. After boiling, the wort is cooled, strained, filtered and put in a sealed container. The next step is to initiate the fermentation process. It is here that beer reaches the proverbial fork in the road. To create an ale, the brewmaster will add a yeast that works in warm temperatures and rises to the top of the container. Conversely, a lager is created by using a yeast that sinks to the bottom and needs colder temperatures to do its magic. The beers are then aged. Ales generally age for just a few weeks at 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but lagers require much longer aging periods — months instead of weeks — and at much colder temperatures. Carbonation is usually added when the beer is bottled, although if left alone the beer would naturally carbonate from the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast.
These brewing techniques produce two distinctly different kinds of beer. Ales are complex and flavorful, and typically served closer to cellar temperature — 50 to 60 degrees. Lagers, because of the longer aging time, are clearer with lighter aromas and flavors. Refreshing is an adjective commonly used for lagers and they are served at the colder end of the drinking spectrum. Brewmasters will create the dozens of styles within these broad categories by tweaking the combinations of the grains and hops. Common lager styles include pilsner, ambers, bocks, pale lagers and Marzen.
Marzen and Oktoberfest styles have become practically synonymous because of the festival. Originally brewed in the spring (beer would not brew and ferment properly in the summer heat) and lagered until September, the style soon took on the name of the month it was brewed — Marzen, the German word for March. It is a malty, rich beer with a higher-than-usual alcohol content. Popular brands include Dogtoberfest by the Flying Dog Brewery in Maryland, Spaten Oktoberfestbier by the Spaten-Franziskaner-Brau (reputedly the first Oktoberfest beer) and Sam Adams Oktoberfest.
These beers are only available from August through October, so this fall grab one of these special brews and raise a glass to Oktoberfest.