Starkbierzeit: The Munich Beer Festival You Haven’t Heard Of…
You’ve almost certainly heard of Oktoberfest, those glorious days in autumn when the city of Munich turns into total beer-swilling, bratwurst-fuelled bedlam. From the end of September every year, our flights to Memmingen (just west of Munich) fill up with hedonists, as people descend on the city in their thousands to join more than 6,000,000 (yes, six million) other beer lovers and party animals, to fill up on as much fine German beers and beautiful bratwursts as their stomachs can handle.
It makes total sense that there is a year between each of these big, bad, beer festivals. I’ve been there once, and I think my hangover lasted eleven months – so I can completely understand why Munich takes some time out to recover between each one.
But for all you hard-core beer hounds, you don’t have to leave your lederhosen gathering dust in the back of the wardrobe for a whole year until the next awesome Munich beer festival comes round. See, there’s a little-known beer festival in Munich that happens in March every year, and it’s well worth checking out…
Think of it as Oktoberfest’s smaller, drunker brother. Why smaller? Well, it just is. It’s like the locals’ Oktoberfest, where they get to enjoy their own city and their own local beers without the millions of weekenders all around, with shorter queues at the beer halls, emptier streets, a more relaxed vibe… and crucially, with lower prices – accommodation will be cheaper and easier to find and beers are up to €3/4 cheaper than at Oktoberfest.
Why drunker? Well, Starkbierzeit means ‘strong beer season’. So actually, while it might not match the overall mass drunkenness of Oktoberfest (this might be a good thing for some), it certainly serves fine Bavarian brews that will get you drunker than most. The minimum alcohol requirement for Starkbier to be Starkbier is 7.5%.
What’s really great about Starkbierzeit is its history. This strong beer was initially brewed by monks – men of the cloth, no less – to keep them going during lent when they would usually be fasting for 40 days and nights. So to be clear, these monks made extra strong alcohol that would help them deal with their empty stomachs. I have to be honest; this flies in the face of every bit of ‘line your stomach’ drinking advice I’ve heard throughout my life, but who am I to question the divine wisdom of these holy men?
They went through a few different names for it, including ‘Blessed Father’s Beer’, and ‘The Holy Oil of St. Francis’, before they finally called a spade a spade and simply named it ‘Salvator’ (Saviour). Between these fellas and the holy men of Buckfast abbey with their rocket fuel tonic wine, I’m starting to have a new-found respect for this way of life…
Anyway. The festival. So, the main thing you should do here is sample copious amounts of Starkbier. Most of the popular brands come from the city’s four main breweries: Paulaner, Augustiner, Unions and Löwenbräu. But if even if only you’re here for the beer, you’ll definitely fall for the Bavarian charms that are on show throughout the festival, and we don’t just mean the ample bosoms of the frauleins in their dirndl dresses. There are beer carrying, wood chopping and stone-lifting contests designed to show off Bavarian brawn – and if these sound funny now, wait until you watch one after a couple of 9% proof Starkbiers.
Even though the Starkbier is nicknamed ‘Liquid Bread’, you will need to eat something unless you want to end up in a right mess. The Paulaner am Nockherberg restaurant is a good place to go for really traditional food, and it has a massive beer hall to help you get into the spirit of the festival. Apart from that, I can tell you from experience that bratwursts and pretzels are the ultimate soakage cuisine, and are an inexpensive way to feed yourself.
It doesn’t have the spectacle or madness of Oktoberfest, so please don’t expect fairground rides and giant tents – but if you want to experience a Munich beer festival like a local, and spend less doing it, this is the one for you. And if you simply can’t hang on six more months until the big fest kicks off, Starkbierzeit is the ultimate stopgap.