Märzenbier is German for “March beer,” a golden to deep amber lager style with a full body and a moderate bitterness, which is related to both the oktoberfestbier and the Vienna lager. The historical origins of märzenbier lie in a decree issued in 1553 by the Bavarian ruler Duke Albrecht V, in which he forbade all brewing between April 23 and September 29. The decree was to prevent brewing during the warm season, when, unbeknown to microbially ignorant medievals, ambient bacteria would often infect the Bavarians’ beers and quickly spoil them.
As a beer style, however, märzenbier became fixed only in 1841, when the Spaten Brewery of Munich introduced, at that year’s Oktoberfest, the first lager officially labeled märzenbier.
Technically as well as historically, there is a great deal of overlap in the specifications of märzenbier, Vienna lager, and oktoberfestbier; and brewers around the world do not apply these designations consistently on their labels. However, the following general guidelines do apply in most cases. Much of the base malt in a märzenbier and oktoberfestbier, then and now, is so-called Munich malt, a highly aromatic malt with a color rating of roughly 10 to 25 European Brewery Convention (EBC; roughly 3 to 10 degrees Lovibond), whereas much of the base malt in the Austrian brew is Vienna malt with a lighter color rating of roughly 6 to 10 EBC (approximately 3 to 4 degrees Lovibond).
In Germany, incidentally, the name Oktoberfestbier is now legally reserved only for the six breweries—Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräuhaus, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Spaten—who may serve their beers at the Munich Oktoberfest. All other breweries may use just the märzen designation for their Oktoberfest-style beers. In other countries, of course, especially in North America, where German law does not reach, märzen/oktoberfest is treated like any other beer style and has seen a great surge of interest, especially in the emerging craft brew sector, although some craft brewers occasionally stray and brew the beer as an ale rather than a lager.