From Spring, Lager Awaits Its Day
The older I get, the more I appreciate the seasons. Our lives are always emerging from somewhere, always headed somewhere. We always have something to remember and something to anticipate. And it all goes in a circle, so that we can say farewell to one season in the confidence that it will always come back around in about nine months.
Modern technology can make the seasons somewhat invisible to us, though. That’s not all bad: I’m grateful for both central heating and REI, for example. But I’m more ambivalent about the fact that I can get ripe avocados any time of the year, because it sort of feels like cheating. On the other hand, avocado toast all year long? Yes please. Maybe the solution to my ambivalence is to take a moment to remember the seasonal traditions that our hard-won modern conveniences have made us forget. This month, that means talking about a beer style aptly called Märzen.
Perhaps no appliance in our homes is more taken-for-granted than the refrigerator. (It’s been around so long it sounds like a joke to call it “modern” technology.) But perhaps no other appliance has done so much to make the seasons invisible. Before refrigeration technology, our relationship with food was as seasonal as our relationship with the weather, and this was especially true for brewers.
To make good beer, a brewer has to play offense and defense — the unfermented wort has to be inoculated with microbes that the brewer wants, and also protected from microbes that would spoil it. This is difficult to do without temperature control, especially before the days of sanitized stainless-steel fermenting vessels, and that meant that the warm weather of spring and summer was a threat. Brewers in Bavaria confronted this threat simply by giving into it: their brewing season began in September and ended in April. Their last brew of the season, brewed at the end of March, would be stored (“lager” in German) in caves over the summer and then cracked open to celebrate the harvest, and the beginning of another brewing season, at the end of September.
So that March beer had something of a double life. Brewed in spring but drunk in September, it marked two turning points in the Earth’s annual trek from winter to summer and back again. The modern-day descendent of that beer style has a double name, too, because until relatively recently it was the beer served at the Oktoberfest festival, which starts at the end of September. Whether you call it a Märzen or an Oktoberfest, these beers typically taste strongly of bread crusts but are exceptionally crisp and smooth due to the long lagering process. Chuckanut Brewery has an outstanding example, but you probably won’t find it on tap right now, since, well, it’s not September!
So why tantalize you by talking about a beer you can’t drink? Mostly so that you can have something to look forward to. That is, after all, one of the contributions that the seasons make to our lives. So, this month, as we approach the spring equinox—that halfway point between maximum dark and maximum light, where the nox is equal to the day—take a moment to mark the end of the traditional brewing season. While you continue to enjoy fresh beer throughout spring and summer, remember that it wasn’t always so.