The best of Oktoberfest

By MIKE MILIARD  |  September 26, 2007

But thirsty Germans cannot last a summer without beer. Unthinkable. The answer, then, was to work overtime in March and April, making barrels and barrels of stronger, slightly hoppier beer, then caching them away in cellars or mountain caves to keep them cool. This lager, called Märzen (“March”), was dipped into over the course of the summer until brewing could legally begin anew in September.

In those days, cooperage was very expensive — barrels were precious commodities. So to free up the casks for the new batches of fall beer, folks would gather around harvest time for an informal celebration to finish off the Märzen beer, at this point mellowed and clarified by its cool summer-long rest, in October.

The designation “Märzen Oktoberfestbier” is not a calendar-jumbling contradiction in terms. It simply means a Märzen beer that, keeping with tradition, is consumed in October.

THE HUNT FOR PERFECT OKTOBER: German brewing expert Horst Dornbusch gives us the best four-hour lesson of our lives.
As Dornbusch defines it, a “Märzen” is a pale but full-bodied lager brewed with Munich malt and aromatic German hops — Hallertauer, say, or Tettnanger — with an alcohol by volume between five and six percent. A Märzen-Oktoberfestbier is a Märzen that has been aged for at least two months but not longer than six. Got it? Gut.

When discussing German beer, one soon understands that definitions and rules are inherent in the style. And not just the famed Reinheitsgebot (or “Purity Law”) that was on the books from 1516 until 1987 — “the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops, and Water. Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall be punished” — and is still followed voluntarily by most brewers.

“The German culture is rule governed,” says Dornbusch. (Ya think?) “They like laws dictated from above. It’s sort of bred into them.” He laughs. “That’s why I’m here. I wasn’t obedient enough.” When it comes to beer, however, he’s happy to play by the rules.

Dornbusch identifies three great beer cultures in the world. The British styles — primarily malty, fast fermenting ales, using English hops like Fuggles and East Kent Goldings — are a little simpler, technically speaking, and more forgiving of variation. The Belgians still follow brewing techniques developed in the Middle Ages, making ales with any ingredients they fancy — raspberries, peaches, candy sugar, lactic bacteria, you name it.

The Germans, on the other hand, tried to “un-Belgify the beer by making it clean tasting,” says Dornbursch. In the days before Pasteurization and microfiltration, that was a tall order. “They took a route that was trickier. It took them 300 years, from the 16th century to the 19th century, to sort of perfect their way of brewing. They knew all the odds. They were up against bacteria and up against yeast. They pursued something that was very difficult. Eventually they came up with a perfectly controlled set of lager styles.”

In the process of waging war against microorganisms and the stylistic excesses of their European neighbors, Dornbursch says, “the Germans became perfectionists in the 60-odd styles that they decided to be dedicated to. They played to their strengths.” As a result, German styles are rigid. Rule-bound. But rewarding. “The Germans went for the stylistic straightjacket,” he says, “and strove for meticulous perfection.”

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