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By Liz Crowe
Every year since 1950, in the city of Munich, German, the mayor busts open a barrel of beer with a hammer to kick off a two-week long celebration. You’re probably aware of what this is, of course. I’m not here to insult anyone’s beer intelligence. But for the record, Oktoberfest begins in September, and has done so since 1819. It lasts two weeks. There is a lot of beer flowing, to put it mildly. These days, it’s taken on a serious touristy edge, complete with carnival-style rides and whatnot, but it remains one of the best pure beer-based celebrations you can aspire to, should you have such a thing on your beer tourism bucket list like I do.
It began in 1810 to celebrate the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Teresa of Sassonia-Hildburghausen. Talk about a wedding party—the entire city of Munich was invited to a field at the city’s gate that is now named Theresienwiese in the princess’s honor, later shortened to Wies’n. That year, and several years after, there was a horse race and a ginormous feast. The next year they did it again (because why not?) and the concept of the Oktoberfest was born.
There have been breaks in the celebrations for epidemics and war, and the horse race part of it ended in 1960, but the event is as much a celebration of the agriculture and the Bavarian economy to this day. But yeah, there is a lot of beer. Because Germany.
The phrase O’zapft is! is Bavarian dialect for es ist angezapft in German. Anzapfen is a tap with a wooden hammer that is used to open a barrel of beer. So, basically when that sucker gets busted open by the mayor, it means “Let’s Party!” I don’t know about you, but I’m loving that phrase and now want to pack for my trip to Munich.
Now, mind you, because this a German celebration, there are certain rules that must be adhered to with regard to the beer. No, not the consumption of it. That you can do however much your heart and liver desire. But the beer itself, the “Oktoberfest,” is a specific style. It’s called a Märzen which means (traditionally) it’s brewed in March and stored through the summer months until it’s ready to consume in the fall. Obviously, this was done because when it was first consumed, there was no such thing as a giant refrigerated beer cooler; there were only underground caves for storage, so it made sense to brew it in the spring. It has a higher hop content than most traditional German beers and is also higher in alcohol—about six or seven percent.
Now comes the fun part where I finally get to teach you about the Reinheitsgebot. This is sometimes called the “German purity law,” as it relates to beer. Also known as the Edict of Purity, it was enacted in 1485 for the city of Munich (which is the capital of Bavaria), then signed in 1516. It specified that the production of beer throughout Bavaria was bound to use of only three ingredients.
Know them? Go on, I’ll wait. Yep. Just the basics: barley, hops, and water.
“But Liz,” you say, because I love getting questions. “How can you make beer without yeast?”
Well, of course, you can’t. We’ve learned this together, have we not?
You see, in 1516, the reason that beer became beer (i.e. yeast) wasn’t really fully understood. So therefore, it wasn’t in the original Reinheitsgebot. Fermentation, one supposed (and I am only supposing here and I write fiction too, bear with me) happened by magic. Once Louis Pasteur figured it all out, we got our fourth ingredient for beer purity.
Oh, and the hops were not added for “haze” or “juiciness.” They were merely used as a preservative. Bonus! We got some interesting flavors added to the malt as a result.
Today, the German beer law (Biergsetz) leans heavily on the Reinheistsgebot to maintain high quality, although it was technically replaced by the Vorläufiges deutsches Biergesetz (Provisional Law on German Beer) which allows for certain formerly prohibited ingredients like wheat malt and sugar cane. Yeah. You’re not gonna convince these guys that adding raspberries and mango is the way to quality beer.*
(*Please do remember our discussion of Radlers. Germans love to mix things into their beers. However, there are over 100 kinds of hops, forty types of malt, plus over 200 yeast strains available. Not to mention the wide variation in the water in the country; I’m told that—and I have yet to verify this, but am willing to give it a shot—you could drink a different German beer every day for 15 years. That’s not one beer a year. That’s 365 beers a year. This is coming from the German Brewers Federation, so you decide whether or not to buy into it.)
A traditional Märzen beer is deep copper-colored and malty (sweet, as opposed to bitter or hoppy). Comparatively, it’s a stronger version of a Vienna Lager. There is now a paler, less strong Oktoberfestbier that has broader appeal, although the Bavarian breweries always make a proper Märzen for those who want the Real Deal. About those breweries—which brings up another rule for this fest: during the festival, only six breweries meet the criteria for making and serving Oktoberfestbier. They include some you’ve heard of: Paulaner-Bräu, Hacker-Pschorr-Bräu, Löwenbräu, and a few you might not know. Suffice it to say, these guys know this style inside and out and produce their beer according to the rigid constraints of the Edict of Purity. So that’s that. Done and dusted.
That said, we are, of course, in the Great Beer State. Many of our very own breweries have their version of this style, with varying levels of purity and/or success. A few of them keep things pure and their Märzens truly stand out: Bell’s, Wolverine, Mitten Brew, ROAK, and Griffin Claw. The thing to bear in mind is that this is a specific style—a lager (stay with me here. We learned the difference between lagers and ales) that is heavier (ABV) and maltier than other lagers, so making it the traditional way is key for some consumers. For others, as long as it’s amber, not too hoppy, and around five or six percent ABV, and served in a giant mug or a giant glass boot—well, that’s what “Oktoberfest” means to them.
And where does one most happily consume one’s favorite version of the Märzen? Outdoors, of course, in a beer garden. There are a few worth checking out down here in our corner of the state. You owe it to yourself to have at least one amber, malty beer this fall at Fenton Winery and Brewery. It has arguably the most beautiful, natural beer gardens around. Right downtown Ann Arbor you can quaff a cold Oktoberfest style brew at Bill’s on the corner of Ashley and Liberty. One of my faves is Corner Brewing in Ypsi for al fresco beer drinking. The Session Room out on Jackson Road also has a lovely expanse of green with tables. But you are truly remiss if you don’t have a couple delicious Hacker-Pschorr-Bräu Oktoberfestbiers at one of Ann Arbor’s oldest traditional German restaurants: Metzger’s, out on Zeeb road near I-94. I’ll meet you there!
Well…what are you waiting for? O’zapft is, already!
Amazon best-selling author, mom of three, brewery founder, beer and wine consultant, and avid sports fan, Liz Crowe is a Kentucky native and graduate of the University of Louisville currently living in Ann Arbor. She has decades of experience in sales, public relations, and fundraising, plus an eight-year stint as a three-continent, ex-pat trailing spouse, all of which provide ongoing idea fodder for novels and other projects. She helped found and is the current president of Fermenta Michigan, a non-profit organization dedicated to the education and employment of women in the fermented industries.
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