Fall is finally upon us, gentle readers, and with the changing seasons comes a tidal wave of new and exciting fall beers. If you like to drink seasonally, like I do, you’ll already have downed a few Märzens and a few Pumpkin beers, but you may still be wondering about the origins of those styles and what makes them so popular today. Well, wonder no more! What follows is a beginner’s course in the two most prevalent autumn styles. And you may use what follows to impress friends and neighbors at your next barbecue/tailgate/Oktoberfest.
Märzen, Märzen, wherefore art thou Märzen? Would a lager by any other name smell as sweet? Well, maybe. When it comes to names, the Germans tend to pack a lot of state-sanctioned meaning onto their labels and into their beers, and the Oktoberfest Märzen is no exception. Back in the days before temperature-controlled cellars and pasteurization, it was actually illegal to brew beer between March and October in what is now the southern German state of Bavaria. All the brewing had to be done during winter. The beer (which was higher in alcohol and well-hopped for preservation) was stored in ice-filled caves and released slowly all summer. Of course, by the time October (Oktober in German) rolled around, many breweries’ barrels were still full, and needed to be emptied out quickly to make room for the new batches. And what better way to get rid of hundreds of barrels’ worth of beer in a hurry than by throwing a big outdoor party and drinking it all? Thus, Oktoberfest was born out of Bavarians’ natural desire to first legislate and then consume beer. The beer itself was called “Märzen” because it was brewed in March (März in German).
The beer itself is a lager, not an ale, but unlike the straw-colored lagers from Pilsen in nearby Bohemia, these were deep amber to copper in color, and full flavored with strong malts and a rich mouthfeel. Around 1840, the Märzen style was further refined by the founders of Spaten brewery, which is still in operation today (and available in the store!). And in case anyone asks, the enormous Munich Oktoberfest of today dates back to 1810, and the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. During this two-week celebration, typically six million liters (1.75 million gallons) of beer are consumed, accounting for some 30% of Munich’s annual beer production. Some party!
So, if the Oktoberfest Märzen is Bavaria’s signature style, what does that mean for the pumpkin beers so widely-embraced by American craft brewers today? Well, for one thing, pumpkin beers are no flash-in-the-pan trend. They actually date back to colonial New England, where good malt was scarce and pumpkin meat was the best source of fermentable sugar available to the newly-transplanted British expats. In 1643, the use of pumpkin in brewing was satirized in song:
“If barley be wanting to make into malt
We must be contented and think it no fault
For we can make liquor, to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut-tree chips.”
Of course, the pumpkin beers of those days were made entirely of pumpkin, which is a marked difference from the pumpkin beers we love today (although, if some enterprising brewer were to make a 100% pumpkin beer, I would be first in line for a taste). Starting around 1980, American craft brewers began to revive the long-dead idea of pumpkin beer, though this time with a different end in mind. In modern brews, pumpkin meat is combined with spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves), delivering a flavor profile closer to pumpkin pie than roasted pumpkin meat. And unlike the heavily-proscribed styles in Bavaria, these American beers can take on just about any size (alcohol-wise), shape or color, depending on the brewer’s whim.
Most are released seasonally, in highly limited quantities, leading to an annual pumpkin craze that begins in late August and lasts until early November. And though many beer geeks turn their noses up at these sweet, spicy brews, in doing so they ignore the uniquely American tradition of pumpkin ale, and one of the most competitive, creative corners of the craft beer market. Some of the most popular pumpkin beers are Dogfish Head’s Punkin’ (based on a brown ale recipe), and Southern Tier’s Pumking, an Imperial Pumpkin Ale (8.6% abv). Both are delicious, and both disappear almost as soon as I put them out on the shelf. Fall is a wonderful season here in North Carolina.
The heat has finally broken, the leaves begin to change color and our thoughts turn to the State Fair, Halloween and the steadily-shortening days. And as we pair our Märzens with a bratwurst on the grill, or our pumpkin ale with a bonfire and toasted marshmallows, we are engaging in the centuries-old tradition of gathering together with jolly company in the waning days of the year. So gather together, gentle readers, and enjoy. Cheers!
Wine Department Southern Season (919) 913-1205