In celebration of March and the coming of spring, Chuckanut Brewery will be tapping its Märzen Lager this Friday, March 6, at 5:30 p.m.

This malt-forward beer, which literally means March in German, has a deep golden hue, a smooth texture, a subtle sweetness and a gentle hop profile. Its mild bitterness level balances the sweetness, but it does not challenge the malt base. At 5.6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), it’s slightly stronger than Chuckanut Pilsner, but not as strong as the Winter Bock.

Unlike so many hop bombs these days, Märzen will get your attention with its delicately intricate and nuanced malt flavors. With each sip, layers of bread, crackers, caramel and a hint of toast surface. It is a clean and highly quaffable beer.

“Our Märzen is more like the old-school, Munich-based Märzen, but with a slightly higher ABV,” says Bryan Cardwell, Chuckanut’s head brewer. “It’s like the traditional Oktoberfestbier, which is no longer brewed for Oktoberfest.”

Bryan Cardwell, Chuckanut Brewery's head brewer, pulls a sample of Marzen.

Bryan Cardwell, Chuckanut Brewery’s head brewer, pulls a sample of Marzen.

Chuckanut Märzen is made with Munich base malt, German Pilsner malt and a small amount of CaraMunich to give it some color and a hint of sweetness. It is hopped with Hallertauer Tradition and German Perle hops.

What is a Märzen?

As the story goes, Bavarian brewers of the past (going back to the 1500s) would cease brewing operations during the warmer months of the year, typically from March through September, due to lack of refrigeration and spoilage concerns (they didn’t know it at the time, but airborne microbes were the culprits, and they are more active during the summer months). To make up for the lapse in production, they would produce lots of extra beer toward the end of winter through the spring (i.e., March), and then store it in cool cellars and mountain caves for summer and fall consumption. Supposedly, they also brewed it with a slightly higher than normal amount of alcohol plus an extra dose of hops to help preserve it further.

In October, when cooler weather allowed brewing again, the brewers needed to empty their barrels to make room for new beers, so the Märzenbier needed to be finished off.

Märzenbier eventually became a part of the annual Oktoberfest celebration, transitioning over time from a dunkel to an amber lager to the modern-day Dortmunder-like lagers (although some export versions may be darker, stronger and maltier). But that’s another story.

What is the difference between Märzen and Oktoberfest?

Unbeknownst to many, while “Oktoberfest,” also known as “fest/festbier,” is considered a beer style in the United States, it is not in Germany. Oktoberfestbier in Germany only applies to the beers that are served by the six Munich breweries at the Oktoberfest event. Even though these six beers are similar in style (i.e., malt-forward pale lagers), they do not necessarily have to adhere to any sort of style guideline. Similarities are purely coincidental, and they have all lightened up in recent times, most likely to appeal to the masses and to make the beers more sessionable for the Oktoberfest attendees.

Adding confusion to the situation, the terms Märzen and Oktoberfest are often used interchangeably in America. Up until last year, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) even lumped the two together in its style guidelines.

Vienna Lagers also can be similar in style to Märzens and Oktoberfests, though they typically contain a higher percentage of the lighter Vienna malt. “Märzen is driven by Munich malt and it tends to be more rounded and bready,” Cardwell explains, “whereas Vienna Lager is driven by Vienna malts and it tends to be toastier.”

But let’s not get off track. When comparing Märzens with Oktoberfests, some claim Märzens tend to be slightly richer, darker, toastier and a pinch stronger than Oktoberfests (or Festbiers). Oktoberfests, on the other hand, tend to be brewed with lighter, less-kilned malts and a higher percentage of German Pilsner malt, and they can have a more pronounced bitterness level. Both beers should have a pleasant maltiness that isn’t too sweet or cloying (with no more than a small amount of crystal/caramel malt), complemented by a restrained yet balanced hop bitterness.

Slightly tongue-in-cheek, this chart provides a rough visual of the styles.

Slightly tongue-in-cheek, this chart provides a rough visual of the styles.

These are all general descriptions, of course. If you sample enough of these beers, you’ll find that they vary greatly and it can be difficult to distinguish between one and the other.

What it really comes down to is what a brewer decides to call a given beer that he or she brews within this genre.

In America, Märzens and Oktoberfests are traditionally brewed as seasonals in the fall, but because modern brewers have a good understanding of yeast, bacteria and sanitation, as well as the technology to control temperatures, these beers can be brewed any time of year. Some breweries (like Chuckanut) release a Märzen in the spring and an Oktoberfest/Festbier in the fall.

If you really want to geek out, here are the style descriptions that the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) uses.

If you really want to geek out, here are the style descriptions that the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) uses.