March always makes me think of October. No, it’s not that I’ve forgotten what month comes next. Before refrigeration, brewing was a seasonal affair. March and April marked the end of the brewing season. Summer brought warm weather and an increased microbial presence in the air that encouraged beer spoilage. The summer months were so harmful for beer that in 1500’s, Duke Albrecht V outlawed brewing during the summer months. Brewers would produce an extra strong beer in March and then age it in cool caves so that they would have beer for Fall, when the brewing season would start up again. These beers were named Märzen (German for March) and would often be served at the fall festivals, and later, it would be the defining beer of the legendary Oktoberfest in Munich.
The James Bonds of beer
Our modern day idea of a Märzen was invented in 1841. As with most beer history, the facts get a little bit muddled. This is not due to too many beers when writing the history books but more a result of the clandestine nature of brewing. This secrecy has its reasons, these pale and amber lagers were a product of technology, trade secrets and espionage (cue Mission Impossible soundtrack).
Amber lagers were really the brainchild of two friends and peers, Anton Dreher and Gabriel Sedlmayr II. Both men came from brewing families. Dreher’s father died when he was 10 and being too young to run the brewery he was sent away from his Austrian home to study at breweries abroad. One of these establishments was the legendary Munich-based Spaten Brewery, which was then owned by the Sedlmayr family. It was here that he met Gabriel Sedlmayr II and the two spent part of the 1830’s traveling Europe and studying different brewing techniques.
It was in England that the two found the most progressive brewing techniques. At the time, English pale ales were a world wide phenomenon, being sent along the trade routes established by the East India Company. Dreher and Sedlmayr toured the country, trying to learn the magic behind these pale beers. Brewers would give them tours but were obviously wary of these two curious travelers. They made a point to not leave them alone while in the brewery. Their suspicions were well founded. Since the brewers were unwilling to share recipe formulations and technical details, the two resorted to industrial espionage. Dreher and Sedlmayr would carry a flask on them and steal samples of fermenting beer while still under the brewer’s watch, a technique that Sedlmayr admitted they had become “especially masterfully in.” They later had special canes crafted that were hollowed out and fitted with a valve so that the walking stick could be dipped into the liquid to quickly and secretly take a sample.
The saccharometer had been invented in 1785 by John Richardson. This tool allowed brewers to measure how much sugar was in the liquid, creating consistent strength between batches. Saccharometers were not yet being widely used throughout the brewing world but Dreher and Sedlmayr realized its usefulness and quickly mastered its operation. They would take their stolen samples back to their room and measure their properties.
The English malting techniques were also a key factor in the building of Märzen. Moist malted barley would be dried in a kiln using the hot air from a fire. This would put the barley in direct contact with soot and smoke. In 1818 the British developed a method of drying malted barley with hot air that was warmed by the fire but did not come in direct contact with the flame. This in-direct heat not only allowed a much greater degree of temperature control but also removed smoke residues that would color the malt and therefore the beer. This resulted in a pale malt that produced a light beer with such a clean taste that it would soon change the world of beer forever.
Putting it all together
The pieces were in place, now the two just had to combine all that they had learned. Dreher believed that malted barley was the key to a successful beer. He developed strict standards for his maltsters and began producing a barley malt that using the English malting techniques. This pale malt had a toasty flavor and soon became known as Vienna malt. Sedlmayr followed suit and began using his form, Munich malt. Dreher brought the cold fermenting, long aging lager yeast used by Sedlmayr and other Bavarian brewers back to Vienna with him. They each introduced the beer in their own breweries and had immediate success. What they created was a pale lager with a brown-red tinge that had a light flavor, decent alcohol content and a toasty finish.
The two beers are thought to have been very similar when they were first created. Years later, Dreher invested in refrigeration technology so that he could brew beer year-round. This began to differentiate his beer from Sedlmayr’s Märzen. Refrigeration reduced the amount of time required to age the beer. Alcohol is a preservative and the shorter aging period required a lower alcohol content. This began to differentiate the two beer styles and Dreher’s crisper, less strong version became known as Vienna lager.
These days, Märzen is far more common than Vienna lagers. Negro Modelo is really the only example of a Vienna lager that can be commonly found. How Vienna lager ended up in Mexico is a whole other story. An Oktoberfest beer is simply a beer served at Oktoberfest. Over the 20th century, the lighter Pilsner and Helles beer styles slowly replaced Märzen at the festival. That being said, some brewers still produce their Oktoberfest beers in the Märzen style. Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen is a personal favorite. The rich maltiness with a warming toasty note and balancing bitterness embodies the beer style. If you are interested in trying the two beer styles side-by-side than you are in luck. Santa Barbara Brewing Co is offering both a Märzen and a Vienna lager, both of which are perfect examples of the style.
Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel, March 5, 2014