Last week, the Gordon Biersch Brewery in D.C. tapped its Bavarian-style "Fest Bier" to ring in another Oktoberfest season. But what most people didn't notice was the more authentic bier on tap that didn't get a party. Although the scene felt Oktoberfestive, with revelers chugging down Fest Bier in liter-sized mugs—some boot-shaped, like in the movie Beerfest—the more traditional Marzen hardly got a nod.
According to Gordon Biersch brewmaster Jason Oliver, Marzen is closer to what original Oktoberfesters drank in the 1800s. With heavy wheat and malt tones, the caramel-colored beer is named after the German for March, the last month when Bavarian brewers can conceivably brew. (Warm weather ain't conducive to beer-making.) Over the summer, the liquid ages in caskets, and come Oktober-time, it's ready to go.
So why would Gordon Biersch celebrate with a less traditional brew? The people want it. According to Greg Engert, the beer director at Rustico in Alexandria, Virginia (they have 300-plus esoteric beers sitting in fridges behind the bar), "it's too robust for most contemporary tastebuds."
In recent years, German brewers have been pouring hofbraus and spatens, both very similar to the Fest Bier, at the two-week festival. "Marzen has this great spicy flavor, but most people don't like its heaviness. They pick the lighter Fest Bier types, which usually get all watered-down and gross after they've been sitting out," Engert explained to me the other night.
Marzen may not get all the hoopla, hype, and confetti, but it's old-school, and the beer authorities know it. Deep in Bavaria, it's still brewed in caskets (hopefully by a guy named Hans). And at Gordon Biersch locations nationwide, Marzen gets the full 365-days-a-year treatment. Not just a limited time through late October, like the faddish Fest Bier.
About the author: Erin Zimmer, Serious Eats's Washington, D.C., correspondent, is a just-graduated Georgetown gal following her nose about town as Washingtonian magazine's Dining intern and Best Bites blogger. She got her start as the Hoya campus paper's food columnist, and since entering "real person-hood" has ached for her dining hall's omelet station.