man drinks beer at OctoberfestBefore the microbrew revolution — when nearly all North American beer was pale lager — dark beer meant a darker-hued version of the same beer, with marginally more flavor than the pale variety. While most of the craft brewing energy in the last quarter century has gone into ales, some new lager breweries looked back to the original Bavarian and Viennese models for darker lagers with more pronounced malty flavor. The most popular model was Munich’s Märzenbier (literally “March beer," because it was traditionally brewed in the spring and lagered over the summer to serve at Oktoberfest). What began as a seasonal beer has become a year-round favorite with many beer drinkers, and for good reason.

A typical Märzen/Oktoberfest beer is dark amber to reddish brown in color, with medium body, and a rich, malty sweetness in the middle, but usually a dry finish with a good dose of hops. It is a bit higher in alcohol than other lagers but not knockout strong. Overall, it’s a style that is easy to enjoy with a variety of foods. I especially like to serve this type of beer with complex, spicy Mexican foods like mole and Yucatecan banana-leaf dishes, not to mention Asian curries, but it’s equally at home with German-style sausages or Italian pizza.

By definition, Märzen/Oktoberfest is a lager, and not surprisingly the classic West Coast examples are brewed by lager specialists Gordon Biersch and Sudwerk. However, some ale-brewing microbreweries apply the name to reddish ales with a similar flavor profile.

Bock is another southern German seasonal style, typified by higher-gravity lagers brewed to serve in the spring — the higher alcohol presumably meant to fortify drinkers who can’t wait to start the outdoor beer-drinking season. In Germany, bocks come in a whole range of colors, from nearly as pale as Pilsner to doppelbocks nearly as black as stout. While it’s not a very common label on the West Coast, bock usually implies a lager that is stronger than the brewery’s other lagers, often quite strong (7 percent alcohol by volume or more). Some are presented as winter “-fest” brews rather than spring specialties, which seems appropriate.

Also from The Microbrew Lover's Cookbook

• From the Beer Belt

• Pizza and Beyond

• From the Spice Bazaar

• Malt and Hops, Meet Ginger and Soy

• From the Home of the Chile Pepper

• Beer in the Melting Pot

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The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook 

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From The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook, Copyright © 2002 by Jay Harlow. Used by arrangement with Jay Harlow.

Photo: Ben30/Flickr