NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, the beers in the European Amber Lagers category have been reclassified. The old Style 3A Vienna Lager is now Style 7A Vienna Lager in Category 7 Amber Bitter European Beer which groups amber-colored, evenly balanced to bitter balanced beers of German or Austrian origin. And, the old Style 3B Oktoberfest is now renamed Style 4B Festbier in Category 4 Pale Malty European Lager which contains malty, pale, Pilsner malt-driven German lagers of vollbier to starkbier strength. While malty, they are still well-attenuated, clean lagers, as are most German beers.
European amber lagers have their origins in Austria, as do all lagers. Anton Dreher has been credited with isolating the first strain of yeast that fermented at a lower temperature and did most of their fermentation work on the bottom of the fermentation tank. He began brewing with this yeast exclusively in his family's brewery around 1836. His beer eventually became the Vienna lager. Brewers around the world quickly adopted his yeast and the modern lager was born.
The BJCP Style Guidelines for 2008 list two beer styles in the European Amber Lagers category:
The two beer styles which fall in the European Amber Lagers category are similar in many ways. Both beers are malt-focused with low hop character. Both are clean refreshing lagers that can be very elegant. Oktoberfest is a little bigger beer with more maltiness a some malty sweetness up front.
You'll find a couple of views as to why the Märzen/Oktoberfest style was not brewed in the summer months. One says it's because of a Bavarian brewing ordinance that said beer could only be brewed between the days of Saint Michael (Michaelmas, or September 29) and Saint George (April 23). The reason being that there was an increased danger of fire during the hot summer months.
The other reasoning says that brewers had a hard time brewing acceptable beer in the summer months because the beer would invariably become infected with air-borne bacteria which were much more prevalent during those months. At the time they had no idea what caused the beer to go sour, but by trial and error, found that beers brewed between the months of October and March were almost always clean and tasted great. Both views may be correct, but the fact remains that beer wasn't brewed during the summer months.
To have enough beer to sell during the summer, brewers would brew a huge supply of an extra strong well-hopped beer in March that could be stored (lagered) for a long time.
The extra alcohol and abundant hops served to preserve the beer, along with the cold lagering temperatures in the ice caves. This beer became known for the month it was brewed in, Märzen (pronounced Maer-tsen).
When the summer was over, and brewing could commence again, the brewers had to empty all the kegs of Märzen to make room for the new beer. So, like any of us would do when we had a huge supply of beer that needed to be drank quickly, they threw a big party and Oktoberfest was born.
Eventually, the March beers turned into Oktober beers. The hops had mellowed out and the malt came forward. As a style, modern versions of Märzen, like Oktoberfestbier, are well aged, sometimes for as long as three or four months.
To be a true Oktoberfestbier, the beer must be brewed by breweries within the city limits of Munich. All others are called Oktoberfest-style beer. The term Oktoberfestbier is a little misleading. These beers are not actually brewed in the fall, they are an offshoot of the original Märzen beers.
The Märzen-Oktoberfest style of European Amber Lagers eventually evolved with advancements in brewing knowledge. In 1841 Anton Dreher and Gabriel Sedlmayer, friends and owners of Dreher Brewery of Vienna and Spaten Brewery of Munich respectively, got together and decided to lighten the beers up.
They used a new malt that was just slightly caramelized and very pale. We now call this malt Vienna malt. Sellmayer at Spaten Brewery continued to call the beer Märzen but added the slogan "brewed the Vienna way". In Anton Dreher's brewery the new beer was given a new name and style designation, Vienna Lager.
In 1871 Sedlmayer reformulated the Märzen "brewed the Vienna way" using a slightly darker malt than the Vienna malt. He introduced the beer at that year's Oktoberfest in Munich. He marketed the beer under the name Oktoberfestbier, and the rest is history. The new malt is now called Munich malt.
You won't find any Vienna lager recipes brewed in Vienna. They are mostly brewed here in North America. In the late 1800's Austrian brewer Santiago Graf and others emigrated from Austria to Mexico and brought their favorite style of beer with them.
The modern Vienna lagers brewed in Mexico aren't exactly true to style because they are brewed with adjuncts (cheaper) which lighten the malt profile and sweeten the finish. There are many great Vienna lagers brewed in the US and they are worth trying.
References: Information for European Amber Lagers was taken from the online pages at the German Beer Institute, The German Beer Portal for North America, the article about Märzen in wikipedia, and the BJCP 2008 and 2015 Style Guidelines.
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