Millions of people descend on Munich every September to drink steins of beer at Oktoberfest, but Denise Garland chose to visit the city for Bavaria’s lesser-known annual beer festival, Starkbierfest.
At 4pm on a Saturday afternoon in March, I found myself in a crowded Munich beer hall, dancing with a half-full stein of doppelbock and singing along to a German song that I could only guess was repeating the words “Johnny Depp”. I was at Starkbierfest, and it was fantastic.
Starkbierfest is not the typical German beer festival trip for New Zealanders – or any international tourists, actually. Instead, people usually opt to visit Munich for the more popular Oktoberfest in September.
In fact, 5.5 million people attended the city’s Oktoberfest in 2016 (and that number was down on previous years), when the festival ran over 18 days in 34 tents. It’s a festival that’s been an annual tradition for Munich since 1810, when festivities were held to celebrate Crown Prince Ludwig’s marriage.
Starkbierfest is a lot smaller in comparison, and while I can’t find any reference to the number of attendees for any recent years, it runs for 17 days over just three major venues – Paulaner am Nockherberg, Löwenbräukeller and Augustiner-keller beer halls. But yet, it’s a far older festival.
Paulaner monks brewed the first doppelbock (as it was later named) in the 1650s, with the idea the strong, dark beer would make it easier for them to fast through Lent. In 1751, the monks were given permission to serve the beer – which they had named Salvator – to the public. And so the festival was born.
Starkbierfest is not well-known outside of Germany and it was hard to find native English speakers at the Paulaner beer hall.
But myself and the boyfriend decided the strong beer festival was just our cup of tea – a lively German beer festival without the crowds of obnoxious British and American tourists, and with a style of beer we much prefer to the Oktoberfest. We met three of our friends from New Zealand in Munich for a week-long holiday and headed to the Paulaner Starkbierfest on Saturday March 18.
While we considered buying tracht, the cost proved too prohibitive for five unemployed 20-somethings, and so the lederhosen and dirndl stayed on the racks. And when we showed up at the festival three hours after gates opened, it turned out we were among the few not wearing the national dress.
After waiting in line for about half an hour, we got inside to find every trestle table completely full, and soon discovered (with virtually no help from the surly servers) the only way to purchase steins of Salvator was to be seated at one of those tables. We managed to pounce on a leaner in the adjacent hall, and two of our five-person party were sent to try and find space at a trestle to order us all a serve of the festival beer. After using some basic German, smiling sweetly, and playing the Kiwi card, the five of us were reunited at the leaner about 20 minutes later with a one litre stein of Salvator each.
At 7.9%, Salvator is a roasty, warming beer, with flavours of chocolate, toffee, licorice and raisins. And it wasn’t long before we were dancing and singing around our small table, as the crowds grew around us. We consumed several giant pretzels and roast pork sandwiches.
We decided at the end of our first steins that perhaps it wasn’t the most sensible (or practical) to try to order and drink more of the Salvator, so we spent the rest of the festival filling our vessels with small bottles of Hefe Weissen and Helles – the only beers you could purchase from the small indoor bar.
Delicious dopplebock, crowds of friendly Germans, dancing and singing – Starkbierfest was amazing fun, and an event I would highly recommend attending. And even though I couldn’t get that Johnny Depp song out of my head for more than a week afterwards (look up Johnny Däpp by Lorenz Büffel on Youtube and you’ll understand), I hope to make it back to Starkbierfest at least one more time while I’m hanging out in this part of the world.