Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I, was married to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen on 12th October 1810. The citizens of Munich were invited to attend the festivities held on the fields in front of the city gates to celebrate the happy royal event. The fields have been named Theresienwiese (“Theresa’s fields”) in honor of the Crown Princess ever since, although the locals have since abbreviated the name simply to the “Wies’n”. https://www.muenchen.de/int/en/events/oktoberfest/history.html
Horse races in the presence of the Royal Family marked the close of the event that was celebrated as a festival for the whole of Bavaria. The decision to repeat the horse races in the subsequent year gave rise to the tradition of the Oktoberfest.
The Oktoberfest continues in 1811
In 1811 an added feature to the horse races was the first Agricultural Show, designed to boost Bavarian agriculture. The horse races, which were the oldest and – at one time – the most popular event of the festival are no longer held today. But the Agricultural Show is still held every three years during the Oktoberfest on the southern part of the festival grounds.
In the first few decades the choice of amusements was sparse. The first carousel and two swings were set up in 1818. Visitors were able to quench their thirst at small beer stands which grew rapidly in number. In 1896 the beer stands were replaced by the first beer tents and halls set up by enterprising landlords with the backing of the breweries.
The remainder of the festival site was taken up by a fun-fair. The range of carousels etc. on offer was already increasing rapidly in the 1870s as the fairground trade continued to grow and develop in Germany.
According to the BJCP, Märzen is “an elegant, malty German amber lager with clean, rich, toasty and bready malt flavor, restrained bitterness, and a dry finish that encourages another drink.” Festbier, by comparison, is described as “less intense and less richly toasted than a Märzen.”
Classic Märzen should be a little darker, a little richer, a little heavier, and a little higher in alcohol than Festbier. Basically, Märzen is just a little “more.” The switch to the lighter Festbier occurred specifically to allow Oktoberfest attendees to drink more beer. (https://www.porchdrinking.com/articles/2019/08/06/oktoberfest-lagers-marzen-festbier-and-autumnal-confusion/?fbclid=IwAR2Nw6SUWfxyXUOZ-GPNIgjGrwIdj3zOotNK4y0Ay8CcwnjTTscM42uxRgk)
They are lagers (bottom fermented at cooler temperatures), fuller-bodied than pale lagers, while still crisp, slightly sweet but well-balanced and flavorful, with beautiful, deep amber color. Amber lagers in other words. Märzens were named that way (meaning March beers) because before there was refrigeration they were the last beers of the cooler fall and winter months to be brewed, usually in March. Summer brewing was forbidden at the time (see comments for explanation). They had higher gravity (alcohol content) than regular lagers in order to have a longer shelf life and make it to the harvest festivals of fall without becoming spoiled during the heat of summer. They were left to ferment slowly in cool cellars and caves and were tapped in early fall. Amber lagers are made with an exclusively malted barley grain bill and boast sweet toasted bread aroma, they are crisp, yet smooth, with faint hints of spice, sweetish yet with a noticeable Noble hops bite, and they finish dry. https://www.craftbeering.com/oktoberfest-vs-marzen-oktoberfest-style-beer/
This is just cool! “Only six breweries are allowed to call their Märzen lagers Oktoberfestbier. The name is actually their registered trademark. These are the same six breweries exclusively serving their creations during Munich’s Oktoberfest. They are all situated within the city limits of Munich – Augustiner, Hacker- Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten.” https://www.craftbeering.com/oktoberfest-vs-marzen-oktoberfest-style-beer/ Sort of Champagne-style. All other beers are supposed to use “märzen” or Oktoberfest-style”
Once again, there seems to be some disparate information on what the difference is between the styles. One article suggests the original Festbier was created purposefully lighter for the wedding celebrations to make it easier to drink in large quantities. But the beerconnoisseur article I was reading (https://beerconnoisseur.com/articles/oktoberfest-vs-marzen) suggested that the lighter style didn’t crop up until the 1990’s. I’m realizing I need to start getting actual books on these styles. Even then, I wonder what the “real” or “true” information is. But to be honest, this article also said that Märzens were created in 1841 with the inclusion of it as the official fest bier in 1872, and that doesn’t match with other information I was reading, however, it may be a more accurate representation, and the less “urban Mythologized” version. Märzens were around before, but the Oktoberfest styles we know now are likely a more “recent” invention than the wedding they are named for.
In an All About Beer article (which corroborates this), they lay it out as a sharing of information between cultures, advancements or changes in brewing (including types of malts and kilning methods), that lightened the traditional Märzen in the mid 19th century. Specifically between Britain (who had been using kiln dried pale malts for a couple hundred years) and central Europe.
There’s some long exposition about a couple of brewers that is worth reading, but it comes down to the up-and-coming brewers for Spaten and Sedlmayr were learning to brew paler beers by apprenticing in other countries and learning new techniques, and sensed the change in the populous back home who desired lighter beers. So “By the 1870s, Josef Sedlmayr, Gabriel II’s brother and brewer at Franziskaner (today part of Spaten), was keen to the changing landscape, noting that lighter beers were becoming quite popular. The Sedlmayrs were among the most prominent brewers in Munich, and the penchant for tinkering was apparently an inherited trait. Josef got busy working on a Vienna-style lagerbier, finally hitting his mark and rigorous standards in 1871. He brewed it the following March and introduced it in 1872.
It was poured in the Schottenhamel Banquet Tent by Michael Schottenhamel, a carpenter from the Palatinate who erected a small barn on the Theresienwiese in 1867. Called Franziskaner-Leistbrauerei Ur-Märzen (original Märzen), it was pricey, but sold like crazy. The newly stylized beer was hastily copied by other Oktoberfest brewers and soon enough became the event’s signature brew.” http://allaboutbeer.com/article/oktoberfest-style/
What’s really fun is this all ties into Vienna Lagers, which we’ll cover separately, but they really go hand-in-hand. I also learned that Negra Modelo is a Vienna lager and it explains why I enjoy it so much.
In conclusion: “Mostly, North Americans will encounter the seasonal amber versions of Märzen/Oktoberfest made for export. They are expressively rich with the flavor, aroma and color of Vienna- and Munich-style malts. The more intensive kilning deepens the color and contributes a significant, tasty bump of juicy melanoidin-rich, toasted malty sweetness, creamy but lean mouthfeel and spiciness. Both of these flavorful base malts are true to their predecessors of the 19th century. Märzen/Oktoberfest may be made with a combination of these malts or from a single, specific kilning. Those that lean golden may contain a fair measure of pilsner malt along with Vienna or Munich. Hop rates are restrained, but there is no mistaking the noble German aroma and flavor that marries ever so perfectly with the malty foundation. Strength is in the 5.5 to 6.5 percent ABV range. The finish is clean, smooth and with minimal residual caramel sweetness.”
SO what is the difference?
Ultimately, Oktoberfests are lighter, milder Märzens.