March Madness

BYOB by | Mar 2009 | Issue #26

Illustration by Scott Murry

March is an inauspicious month. Don’t believe me? The last storms of winter blow through with spiteful malice, and don’t forget to ask Julius Caesar how he felt about Martius. Old-time brewers also looked at March with a bittersweet eye, for it marked the coming end of the legal brewing season.

Without the modern understanding of microbiology, people realized that beer brewed in the warmer months spoiled faster. We know that’s thanks to spoilage bacteria reproducing faster at higher temperatures. From this bit of observed knowledge, governments outlawed brewing in the summer. Birthed from that legal pause was a plethora of “March beer” styles. This month, we’ll look at the most famous of those: Oktoberfest!

October? March? Yup, the other name for the style is Märzen, German for March. Invented in the 1830s, after the founding of the fest, it began life as a lager spin on England’s new Pale Ales: burnished copper from coal-fired pale malts, with brilliant clarity from a long lagering. By the 1870s, it had acquired the Märzen name and its reputation as the festbier of choice. Sadly, today the tents prefer to pour a modern, souped-up Helles festbier over the classic copper Märzen we know and love.

This month’s recipe is the result of many years of traditional Märzen brewing. Every spring, I brewed a batch of Märzen to squirrel away until the Falcons’ Oktoberfest. Periodic samples showed real change through the whole time. Think ahead if you want to have an O’fest in September. It’s well worth the planning.

Traditionally, a multistep decoction mash would be the expected procedure for a German brew, but I’m lazy and want to enjoy my beer without a lot of stirring, so I substitute melanoidin malt for sweet. When combined with the already wonderfully bready Munich, the malt richness potently pops. Some brewers use nothing but Munich, but I find that to be a recipe for overly rich beer. For my money, the best balance comes with an equal portioning of grassy and grainy Pilsner malt.

To further enhance the malt profile, consider doping your water with extra carbonates. Munich, like the other dark beer cities of London and Dublin, has fairly high carbonate levels. Know your water profile before adding water salts, like calcium carbonate.

Stick to the noble hops from the classic German hop families: Hallertauer, Tettnang and Spalt. Despite its origins, this is not a German Pale Ale, so light bitterness is the order of the day. You want some hop bite, but don’t overdo it. Adding aroma hops to the kettle during the sparge is an old German technique called “first wort hopping.” In theory, the aroma stabilizes through the boil and yields pleasing characteristics.

The Märzen yeasts are real troublemakers. To start with, as lagers they require cold fermentations (about 50°F) and approximately double the starter size. Primary fermentation is two to three weeks with little visible krausen. To correct their unfortunate diacetyl habits, the yeasts need warmth motivation, a “diacetyl rest.” Let the fermenter rise to the ’60s for a day or two and then crash back to 50°F. Once cold, transfer the beer out of primary to a carboy or keg for long storage.

Gradually lower the fermenter to lagering temps to allow the working yeasts to settle and clear. Once you hit 35°F or so, sit back and wait. To be traditional, wait until September before tapping that keg, but even a month of lagering yields a beautifully clear and crisp malty beverage.

Invite the friends over, shout, “It is tapped!” and fill the steins with your own March beer!

For 5.5 gallons at 1.055, 21 IBU, 10 SRM, 75-minute boil, 5.5% ABV

Malt / Grain
5.0 lb. Weyermann Pilsner malt
5.0 lb. Weyermann Munich malt
1.0 lb. Weyermann Melanoidin malt

Extract Version
Replace 5.0 lb. of Pilsner malt with 4.0 lb. of Pilsner/pale LME and 5.0 lb. of Munich malt with 4.0 lb. of Munich LME.

Saccharification rest 60 minutes at 153˚F (strike with 3.5 gallons).

0.75 oz Tettnang Tettnanger (pellets) | 4.5% AA | first wort hop
0.3 oz Hallertauer Hersbrucker (pellets) | 4.5% AA | 40 minutes
0.5 oz Hallertauer Hersbrucker (pellets) | 4.5% AA | 20 minutes

Wyeast 2308 Munich Lager; WLP820 Octoberfest-Märzen

Cool the beer and ferment at around 50°F for 2–3 weeks. Raise temperature to 60–65°F for 1–2 days. Crash cool back to 50°F, rack and then proceed to lower the temp by 1–2°F per day until resting at 34°F. Lager for 2–5 months before serving. 

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