Friday, March 11, 2011


    Can you say Starkbierzeit?  It's German for "strong beer festival", an event held every March in Munich.  For two weeks, breweries bring out their most potent beverages, and beer halls throw noisy parties with a  host of Bavarian entertainment and food.  It's Oktoberfest without the tourists.
   The festival's roots go back to the Paulaner monks who, according to legend, began making an extra strength beer to sustain themselves during their Lenten fast.  The beer, first brewed in the 17th century, gained a "word of mouth" following.  The townspeople called it Salvator.

   Strong beer's popularity took off after Napoleon rode into town and sold the monasteries to local businessmen.  Paulaner ended up in the hands of a entrepreneur named Franz Xavier Zacheri, who turned the monastery into a beer hall and mass produced the monks' beer.  In an inspired bit of marketing, he promoted Salvator as a cure for the wintertime blues.  Munchner's answered the call, descending on Zacheri's beer hall in droves.
   Salvator is classified as a doppelbock, which means an "extra strength" version of the Bock style.  "Bock", in Bavaria, is a generic term meaning strong beer--pale as well as dark.  Just how strong are doppelbocks?  They start at 7.5 percent alcohol by volume.  Anbd because their strength is masked by a strong malty flavor, they can sneak up on the most experienced of beer drinkers.

  The site of Zackeri's beer hall is still the gathering place for Starkbierzeit--especially on  March 19th, St. Joseph's Day.  Today, it's called the Paulaner Keller.  This sprawling complex can hold 5,000 revelers, and there's room for thousands more outside.  It has everything you'd expect in a traditional beer hall: sturdy beermaids; brass bands blaring out drinking songs; and plenty of malty, amber colored Salvator Doppelbock.
   It didn't take long for Munich's other breweries to follow Paulaner's lead and come out with their own doppelbocks.  But as a tribute to the original Salvator, they've all given their beers names ending in "-ator". 
   Paulaner's biggest competitor is Lowenbrau, which brings out its sweetish--and lethal--Triumphator in March.  You can find it all over town, but if you want to join the party, the place to go is the brewery's enormous Lowenbraukeller.  Show up on the right evening, and the entertainment will include boulder-lifting competitions and other feats of strength.

   Doppelbock isn't the only style of beer served during Starbierzeit.  For an interesting change of pace, head for Weisses Brauhaus, a popular destination for those who like to start their evening with a good meal.  As the name suggests, it specializes in wheat beers, which Germans often call weiss, or white beers.  This time of year, the brewery pours Starkweizenbier, a dark colored beer whose pronounced wheat flavor hides a big alcoholic punch.

     Munich's most intriguing strong beer venue is Forschungbrauerei, which means "research brewery", in English.  By tradition, it's allowed to start serving its doppelbock, called St. Jakobus, a week before Starkbierzeit, it is a small, family run establishment whose entire production is consumed on the premises.  It's also one of the few remaining places where beer is served in ceramic mugs which do a better job of keeping beer cold. 

   Starkbierzeit isn't widely publicized,which is just fine with Munchners.  It's their time of year to show pride in Bavarian culture and tradition.  But don't let the local color scare you away,  that's why millions of people visit every year!  Bring a good guidebook, a hearty appetite, and a taste for strong Bavarian beer.  That'll be enough to earn you a "Wilkommen" at any beer hall in town.