Any brewer knows that their brewing gear needs to be cleaned thoroughly before and after each use. Even a little speck of bacteria can grow into a mess that will ruin all the effort you put into brewing your beer. The conditions that a brewer creates to encourage yeast to grow and turn sugars into alcohol are precisely the same as needed for malevolent bacteria to grow and turn your lovely brew into foul muck.
Prior to modern methods of refrigeration, it was more or less impossible to brew beer during the summer. The warm weather made it much easier to produce bacteria and much more difficult to brew a fine tasting beer. In Germany, in many ways the home of beer making, they would brew only during the winter months, stopping in spring and picking up again in fall.
The final brew of the year would be mashed in March, then stored underground for the summer. The brewers would fill a cellar with ice and allow the beer to ferment in the cool temperatures over several months.
This process is (of course) known as lagering and the distinctive pale beer with a crisp flavor became known as a lager. The beer that was brewed in March and tapped in the fall became known as Marzenbier, or simply March beer in English.
Märzen ist Oktoberfestbier!
Marzen has become associated with Oktoberfest, the yearly fall festival celebrating our favorite drink. The very first Oktoberfest in 1810 featured Marzen as the beer that was offered to the citizens of Munich to celebrate the wedding of a couple of fancy nobles.
The specifics of the history are easy to find if you’re into that sort of thing. Most beers labeled as Oktoberfest in the US are in the Marzen style.
Marzens are usually golden-orange in color, halfway between a pale summer lager and a darker winter brew, as befits its status as a seasonal fall beer. The flavor tends to have only a light touch of hops to balance the beer’s sweetness, with the characteristic Munich malt dominating the taste.
Oktoberfest and Marzen sold in the states may be a bit heavier on the bittering, as we Yanks can’t seem to resist adding hops to everything.
As with all lagers, the Marzen is a bottom fermented beer, requiring cold temperatures through most of the fermentation process. If you want to try brewing one for yourself, you’ll need a place to store it that can be kept reliably cool.
Cool Fermentation is Key
The perfect temperature will depend on the specific yeast that you’re using, but it will need to be kept at least below 50 degrees fahrenheit to truly be considered a lager and a Marzen. A fridge you can dedicate to storing your brew is probably the way to go. Unless you want to go truly old school and dig a beer cellar, then line it with ice blocks. Send pictures if you do.
Since the Marzen was buried through the summer, it had a secondary fermentation period that could stretch to six months or more. If you have that kind of patience (I envy you), you’ll most likely end up with a truly crisp beer with an exceedingly clean flavor.
For the rest of us mere mortals, a shorter period of five to eight weeks is acceptable. That will produce a Marzen worthy of the name, while letting you enjoy your brew in a reasonable time frame.
True to Tradition
For a truly traditional Marzen, you’ll want to use at least half Munich malt for your grain bill. It’s the Munich malt that gives the beer its darker, golden color and also contributes a lot to the flavor profile of the beer. The greater proportion of Munich malt you use, the darker your beer will most likely be.
It’s Munich malt that is usually used to give darker, Dunkel lagers their deep brown color. The malt is produced by ‘stewing’ it, heating it while recirculating moist air, before it is kilned. That’s that gives the malt its darker color, which it then imparts to the beer.
However, that process will prevent the production of the enzymes that will turn starches into sugars. The ability of a malt to perform this essential function is known as its diastatic power, or also its degree Lintner. Munich malt has a low diastatic power, so it needs to be paired with another malt that can take up the slack.
Vienna malt is a good candidate and was the traditional choice. It has a much higher diastatic power, but will produce a similar flavor. 2-row pale malts could also be used in there, as can Pilsner malts, to keep the beer from having an overly malty flavor.
Here’s a recipe for a traditional Marzen beer that you can try for yourself
- Batch Size: 5 gallons
- Recipe type: All Grain
- Original gravity: 1.050
- Projected Final gravity: 1.012
- Projected ABV: 5.09%
- 3 lbs – Munich Malt
- 4 lbs – Vienna Malt
- 2 lbs – 2-row Pilsner malt
- 1 lbs – Caramunich I malt
Hop & Yeast Schedule
- 1.5 oz. Hallertauer hops (4.3%) Boil 60 Minutes
- 1.5 oz. Hallertauer hops (4.3%) Boil 10 Minutes
- 4 pkgs – Octoberfest Lager Blend yeast (Wyeast Labs #2633)
Boil for 90 minutes. The wort will need to be cooled quite a bit, to 58 to 45 degrees before adding yeast.