Of all the dozens of different kinds of beer that are now sold, Oktoberfest beer is arguably the one that has the strongest ties to the calendar. After all, there’s a month in its name!
But across the country special Oktoberfest bottles and cans are already showing up in stores and in bars. What’s going on here? Keeping track of time in 2021 is already hard enough to do without folks moving key milestones.
September would be completely legitimate for Oktoberfest beer sales. If you have even a passing acquaintance with the marvelous festival that is the Munich Oktoberfest, you’ll know that this huge carnival takes place in the two weeks before the first Sunday in October, so it’s mostly in September. It used to be almost entirely in October, but as it became more popular, wise people moved it to September because the days were a little longer and warmer.
The other wholly legitimate and historical factor in this is that the beer for Oktoberfest was traditionally called Märzen (“MARE-t’zen”), because it was brewed in März, or as we say, March. That’s right, there are actually two months in the name of this beer, but neither one is August.
Why was Oktoberfest beer brewed in March? Back in the days before mechanical refrigeration, there was no efficient method for cooling the boiling beer so you could add the live yeast and then no way to cool the fermenting beer, so it didn’t run wild. For these very important reasons, brewing in the summer was frowned upon.
“If you brewed the beer when you could control the temperature of your fermentation better, [it] resulted in a higher quality liquid,” says Jack Hendler, the co-owner of Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers in Framingham, Massachusetts.
Cold air was the only temperature control brewers had, and the cool caves and cellars they did have were mostly only good for keeping big vats of already made beer cool and fresh. They would brew a lot of beer in March and then store it in caves and cellars. Folks would drink this beer through the summer until the weather cooled off and they could make more.
But the German breweries were pioneers in mechanical refrigeration. I’ve seen one of inventor Carl von Linde’s very first ice-making machines at the brewery museum at Paulaner in Munich. These big ammonia-based devices made the calendar irrelevant for brewing more than 130 years ago. Germans have a strong sense of tradition, though, and a beer tradition that centers on their favorite annual event was hard to abandon.
So, the luscious lager Oktoberfest beer is in fact brewed well before October or even September. “We always joke that brewers are time travelers,” said Sierra Nevada Brewing’s Innovation Brewmaster Scott Jennings. “We live in the future! Oktoberfest starts for us in February.” That’s when Jennings plans and formulates Sierra Nevada’s interpretation of the style for the year.
The brewers at Paulaner in Munich stick with their traditional formulation year to year, so they start making it in the spring. “The beer for export is brewed in late March through April,” said Steve Hauser, president and CEO of Paulaner USA. “The process is two weeks for main fermentation and four weeks of lagering at -1.5°C.”
Then the beer has to get to America. “We traditionally receive the beer via the ocean by June,” he said. “This year has been significantly more difficult due to the global shipping crises. We [were] still receiving draft beer from Munich [in] the first week of August.”
What complicates things, is that Paulaner makes two different Oktoberfest beers. One is the old-style Märzen, amber-colored and toasty with lots of Vienna-style malt, which they ship to America, because that’s what we expect. But the company also brews a lighter, golden Wies’n beer. VEE-zun is Bavarian for meadow, specifically the large grassy expanse right in Munich where Oktoberfest takes place every year. So that special beer is served in staggeringly large quantities at the Paulaner tent at Oktoberfest. Some Americans argue over which one is the “real” Oktoberfest beer—I say who cares. Let’s drink!
Jason Oliver is currently the brewmaster at Devils Backbone in Roseland, Virginia, and an old friend of mine whose lagers I’ve happily enjoyed for years at the various breweries he’s worked at. Since introducing its Oktoberfest beer O’Fest in 2009, Devils Backbone has always released it in August. “We know the Devils Backbone drinker wants to see O’Fest hit shelves in August, so we plan well in advance to ensure our Oktoberfest brews are there when they want it. We brew no shorter than five weeks before releasing the beer for sale as that’s the amount of time we allow all of our lagers to do their thing.”
Sierra Nevada had what was maybe the most commercial—and honest—explanation for its August release date. “Seasonal beers have a subtle timing component built into them in that the drinker always buys ahead of the season,” says chief commercial officer, Joe Whitney. “It’s not all that different than something like seasonal swimwear; most swimwear sold at full price is sold in spring leading up to summer, and [then] it’s discounted in fall. That same value perception lives in the mind of the drinker relative to seasonal beers, so distributors and retailers want to start and end early.”
Hendler agreed that August is the right time to start selling Jack’s Abby’s own Copper Legend festbier even if seeing it now is a bit jarring. “It seems weird because it’s the middle of summer and your head hasn’t made that adjustment,” he said. “Certainly, consumers think Oktoberfest on Nov. 1 is old, but would they still buy it in November? Probably.”
He paused, and added, “but if you were somehow able to rebrand Copper Legend as a ‘copper lager,’ for example, I think it’s a great beer to be drinking year-round.”
That I have to admit, would be my solution to this seasonal question. I’d be a happy camper if I could get fresh Oktoberfest beer—Märzen or Wies’n—all-year-long.
Oliver gets that, and Devils Backbone—pardon the expression—has my back. “For people who want to drink Oktoberfest-style beers year-round, we have our Vienna Lager, which is brewed in the style that influenced the original Oktoberfest celebrations and is available 365 days of the year.”
So, I guess that’s why August is when you get the beer that’s brewed in March and is named for the October festival that actually happens in September. Easy-peasy. Just don’t ever get me started on why people start asking about pumpkin beer in July.