vienna lager

A beginner's guide to Märzen (or Oktoberfest) beer?

Have you been wondering what on earth a Märzen style beer is?

Marzen Oktoberfest craft beer in a glass

We certainly have, so we set out to find out all about this style of beer. Here’s what we discovered.

Märzen literally means “March”, or more specifically a German beer brewed in March. Oktoberfest, as you are no doubt aware, is the huge German beer festival held every autumn. Although interestingly usually in September, rather than October as the name would suggest.

So a Märzen (or Oktoberfest) style beer is one that is brewed at the end of winter (March in the northern hemisphere) for consumption months later at Oktoberfest.

Before there was refrigeration or sophisticated brewing equipment, making and storing beer over summer was a risky business. Once spring arrived wild yeasts made it harder to control fermentation. Warmer temperatures over summer could also spoil beers that had already been made. So German brewers basically took a sabbatical from about March through to September. Brewing stopped and the March beers (Märzens) were stored in cold caves. They lasted just long enough to be enjoyed through until September when Germans celebrate with gleeful mass consumption of the remaining beer, as well as the start of the new brewing season in the colder months.

Luckily these days you don’t need to wait to enjoy a Märzen. Although some breweries promote them as a seasonal offering, we reckon their versatility means they are great all year around.

Okay, but what does it taste like?

Märzens have a sweet, lightly-toasted maltiness, sometimes with a little hint of caramel. Hop flavours and aromas are usually very subtle. Not too dissimilar to a Vienna Lager we reckon. In fact Märzens, Oktoberfest beers, and Vienna Lagers are often collectively thought of as belonging to the same small family of European, amber lagers. As the title suggests these beers are red, amber, or copper in colour.

Marzen Oktoberfest craft beer and food

But wait, there’s more

As well as common characteristics Vienna Lagers and Märzens also share a common history. Read about the intriguing scullduggery that links these two beers styles together.

Similar to a Vienna Lager, the maltiness of a Märzen pairs well with grilled, or roasted meats. The toasty flavours these methods of cooking bring out perfectly complement the malt-forward flavour of a Märzen. Or, for the full Oktoberfest experience, pair with traditional accompaniments such as soft pretzels, crumbed pork schnitzel, or a selection of German sausages (with sauerkraut of course!)

Why we love Vienna Lagers (and you should too!)

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a craft beer that combined the flavour of an ale with the crispness of a lager?

Vienna Lager craft beer Tinker Tailor bottle

Turns out a beer style from almost 200 years ago is just what we are after. We’ll show you why we love Vienna Lagers and you should too.

Take an English-style, ale-malt making process, and combine it with the German lager-brewing technique – you've created the Vienna Lager. This traditional European-style beer may just be original mash- up!

"But its red..."

The first thing you’ll notice about a Vienna Lager is its gorgeous colour. Amber-red, almost chestnut, and beautifully clear.

“Hang on a minute” you’ll say as your brain does a bit of a flip-flop. “How can a beer that calls itself a lager be so dark? This isn’t what a lager should look like.”

But I can assure you - you haven’t been poured the wrong beer! The red colour is the result of a unique malting process that dates back to the 1800s. Vienna Lagers share a common history with the perhaps more widely known Märzen (or Oktoberfest) beer style.

The best part about a Vienna Lager?

It’s a great, easy-drinking style, usually around five percent alcohol. Malty, rather than hoppy, the flavours are delicate, caramelly, but with a complex toastiness. All delivered in a lovely, crisp, clean lager. Not too bitter, not too sweet. Just right we reckon.

That’s not all.

Vienna Lagers are a great food matching choice. The malty sweetness pairs superbly with all kinds of grilled meats – why not try a Vienna with a beef burger. Barbequed vegetables are also a great choice. Or honour its European heritage by serving it up with bratwurst and mustard.

A short history of the Vienna Lager

Once upon a time there was a brewer

Anton Dreyer, who inherited a brewery when he was just 10 years old, is the brainchild behind the Vienna Lager. In the 1820s Anton was travelling Europe on what was officially a kind of apprenticeship, but sounds suspiciously like a years-long brewery crawl.

Along the way Anton met up with another young brewer, Gabriel Sadlayer, and they joined forces and headed off to England. Remember, that in this period of brewing history, English brewers were all about creating ales, while in the German-speaking countries in Europe, it was all about lagers. Also at the time, a new technology was emerging in England. Instead of using direct heat to to dry malts, brewers were experimenting with using dry air.

Why does this matter?

More control over the colour of the malts means less ‘smokiness’, and gentler, more subtle, delicate malts.

What happened next?

Anton and Gabriel proceeded to steal samples of their hosts’ malt in canisters they had designed especially for the task. Gabriel is reported to have said “It always surprises me that we can get away with these thefts without being beaten up.”

Anton and Gabriel survived, apparently scot-free, and headed back to their respective breweries, in their respective hometowns (Vienna and Munich).

Gabriel used this contraband to create a Munich malt resulting in the creation of style we know now as Märzen or Oktoberfest. That’s a another story for another day, so for now, we will say auf wiedersehen to Gabriel.

Back in Vienna...

Now at the helm of the Klein-Schwechat Brewery, Anton continued to experiment with the English way of kilning and created a slightly caramelised amber malt that he christened Vienna Malt. He combined that with traditional German lager yeast and in 1841 the Vienna Lager was born.

For about 60 years the Vienna Lager was popular, and gold-medal-winning, in Austria and other parts of Europe. Then it mysteriously disappeared completely after World War I. No one really knows why.

But don’t worry

In the early 20th century the style popped up again in Mexico. Yes, Mexico! Far from its European origins, the style was lovingly nurtured by Austrian brewers that immigrated to central America. Using local ingredients such as corn, the Mexican version is considered to be more robust than the original, but just as delicious. You’ll probably even heard of some of the more popular examples such as Negro Modelo and Dos Equis Amber.   

That’s not the end of the story

As these beers were exported across the border Vienna Lagers were quickly embraced by pioneers in the US craft beer industry. These days hundreds of American craft breweries, including big names such as Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada and The Boston Beer Company all have a Vienna Lager on their books.

And in New Zealand a small number of craft brewers, including the team here at Tinker Tailor are spearheading the Kiwi-comeback of the Vienna Lager.

Vienna Lager craft beer in a glass