This week’s featured beer is Spaten Oktoberfest, brewed by the Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu located in Munich, Bavaria, which has a long history without which the history of German beer would be incomplete. Oktoberfest beer is a malty, moderately hopped, gold to copper German lager. Although Spaten’s products bear the label Seit 1397 (Since 1397), that date refers merely to the establishment of a brewing site in central Munich that would later become Spaten proper after 1622. For much of the site’s history, however, ownership changed from brewer to brewer, and business didn’t really take off until the location was acquired by Gabriel Sedlmayr I in 1807. Sedlmayr had been the master brewer to the royal court of Bavaria. Within 60 years, Spaten became the largest brewery in Bavaria. In 2004, Spaten was acquired by the German subsidiary of InBev, the massive multinational brewing company.
The forerunner of Oktoberfest as it exists today was once known as Märzen, from the German word for March. The style was originally so called because of the time of year when it was brewed. Beginning in the second half of the 16th century, breweries could produce beer only during the cold months because of a decree which prohibited brewing from April 23 to September 29—between the feast of St. George and the feast of St. Michael—one of the stated reasons being to prevent fires caused by the high temperatures involved in boiling. So brewers began to produce Märzenbier and store it in caves and cellars; then, whatever was left come October had to be finished off to make the casks available again for the next batch. It is interesting to note that as a consequence of the new law, brewers could no longer brew ales, since ale yeast goes dormant in cold temperatures. As a result, lagers became the predominant style in Bavaria. But the Märzenbier that would eventually become the favorite at the festival known as Munich Oktoberfest was not created until 1871, when Josef Sedlmayr, son of Gabriel Sedlmayr I, produced an adaptation of the Vienna-style lager created by Anton Dreher in 1836, which was a reddish-brown lager brewed with malt kilned according to a new English technique that produced lighter, more caramel-like malt. Märzenbier came to be known as Oktoberfestbier from that point, and nowadays the two names are used more or less interchangeably.
The event known as Munich Oktoberfest has its origins in October of 1810, first taking place on the occasion of the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen. The celebration which was held in 1810 took place every year thereafter, initially drawing a crowd of some 40,000 guests and then growing in size each subsequent year. Within 50 years, the crowd had reached 100,000 visitors; today, the event averages around 6 million. Each year, around 5 million liters of Oktoberfest beer is served over the course of the 16-day folk festival. Early in the festival’s history, the featured events included a horse race and an agricultural show. The horse race has long since been discontinued, but nowadays events and attractions at the festival include the donning of costumes, music performances, a parade, and amusement rides. The beer served at Munich Oktoberfest comes exclusively from six breweries located within the city limits of Munich, including Spaten, Löwenbräu, and Paulaner.
Spaten Oktoberfest (5.9% abv) pours a fluffy, off-white head and a brilliantly clear medium gold body. The aroma is minimally sweet and grainy, a little tart, and slightly metallic. The flavor is somewhat sweeter than the aroma, perhaps a bit like graham crackers; there’s a little bit of puckering bite. The feel is very smooth and a little dry; the body seems to be on the light side of medium.
Spaten Oktoberfest is really straightforward, making it hard to say much about it. This isn’t a complaint though; Märzenbier is about clean, elegant maltiness, and Spaten’s leaves little to be desired in that regard. It’s not very sweet but offers plenty of flavorful toasted grains and low-level, underscoring bitterness. It’s just the kind of beer than can be poured down the gullet in large quantities while enjoying festivities.
Today’s beer was purchased at Nissin World Delicatessen in Azabu-Juban in Tokyo.