Munich's Strong Beer Festival

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 lots 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 an entrepreneur named Franz Xavier Zacherl, 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. Münchners answered the call, descending on Zacherl'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. And because their strength is masked by a strong malty flavor, they can sneak up on the most experienced of beer drinkers.

The site of Zackerl's beer hall is still the gathering place for Starkbierzeit--especially on March 19, 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. Paulaner Keller is located at Hochstrasse 77; take U-Bahn line 1 or 2 to Sendlinger Tor, then tram number 27 to Ostfriedhof.

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." It's a tradition followed over here as well.

Paulaner's biggest competitor is Löwenbräu, 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
Löwenbräukeller. Show up on the right evening, and the entertainment will include boulder-lifting competitions and other feats of strength. Löwenbräukeller is located at Nymphenburgerstrasse 2. Take U-Bahn line 1 to Stiglmaierplatz; once you come out of the station, look for the roaring mechanical lion.

Doppelbock isn't the only style of beer served during Starkbierzeit. For an interesting change of pace, head for
Weisses Bräuhaus, 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. Weisses Bräuhaus is located at Talstrasse 7, in the heart of the pedestrian zone. It's a good starting point for a downtown pub crawl: two Munich institutions, Hofbräuhaus and Augustiner Grossgastsätte, are close by.

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 officially opens. Forschungbrauerei 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. The brewery is located at Unterhachingerstrasse 76. To get there, take S-Bahn line number 1 to Perlach; it's about a 10-minute walk from the train station.

Starkbierzeit isn't widely publicized, which is just fine with Münchners. 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.