Munich’s Starkbierzeit (literally Strong Beer Time) is lovingly referred to as the town’s fifth season. Though its actual dates vary from year to year, it runs concurrently with Lent. These Dopplebocks were first brewed by the Paulaner monks to help them get through the weeks of going without while fasting. “Liquid bread” is the euphemism most commonly used to refer to these very heavy brews which generally clock in at over 7% alcohol. Though all of Munich’s big breweries make such beers, the first was Salvator from the Paulaner brewery. Most brewers venturing into this style give their beers names with the suffix -ator added in homage to the original. It’s a marvelous mix of malt and hops with just enough bitterness to make it moreish. It’s dangerously drinkable and particularly so when served in liter mugs, as it is at the Starkbier Festival at the Am Nockhergerg location.
This much beloved festival kicks off with a political roast attended by Munich’s rich, famous and powerful, and runs its course over three weeks leading up to Easter. The townspeople, however, have become somewhat disenchanted with those in power at Am Nockherberg. A suspicious arson caused fire destroyed the original in 1999. This brought the initial bad feelings and even though the Paulaner owning family was eventually exonerated, later plans to move the facility and sell the valuable real estate caused an uproar from locals who hold traditions very seriously. Oddly, enough, my first visit to the Salvator Keller was a mere two months prior to the calamitous destruction. Unfortunately, in my pre-digital camera days, I didn’t take any photos.
The revamped Salvator Keller & our first Starkbierfest in 2004
My first time at the actual Starkbierfest was in 2004 so it was already the new hall but it was run quite differently than it is now. To my mind (and I imagine to most locals), it was run much better, too. I’ve had a few good visits since along with a couple bad experiences. I went yesterday with a very open mind and though in the end, I enjoyed it, I must say it was despite how it was run, not because of it. So, I’m going to walk through the past starkly and along the way, tell you:
Ten Things Not to Do when running a Strong Beer Festival:
1) Build a Wall. No, not that wall and not really a wall but a fence. Back in the day, you climbed Nockherberg to find an idyllic Biergarten and just walked in like you would anywhere else. No waiting in a big line. No fuss. Now, they’ve put a huge fence around the whole place, evidently anticipating to be besieged by beer immigrants, or worse yet, beer terrorists.
2) Charge admission. Of course, the whole point of building a wall is to charge admission. Back in the day, there was no admission. Then they started charging to get into the festival hall but you could still go to the Biergarten for free. Now, with that fence in place, they charge to get into the Biergarten, too. For Chrissakes, they don’t even charge to get into the Oktoberfest, perhaps the most popular beer festival in the universe.
Second night visit to the Starkbierfest in 2011 after moving to Munich
3) Forbid people to bring food to the Biergarten. First, a lesson for those not in the know. Biergartens were originally disorganized beer dispensaries at the mouth of caves surrounded by leafy chestnut trees. Before refrigeration, this was to keep the beer from spoiling and people soon went to the caves to drink the beer. They brought food because there was no food there. Breweries soon got the idea to serve food and tried to forbid people from bringing food but the city enacted laws saying that people could forever bring food to Biergartens. Nockherberg was one of the originals and I hate to keep saying this but back in the day, you could bring food to the Starkbierfest. Obviously, not into the hall but to the Biergarten. Now, with that fence in place, they feel perfectly fine telling you at the entrance to a BIERGARTEN that you can’t bring that food you’ve just shlepped up that hill in. We used to bring wonderful cheeses to enjoy with the Salvator, a truly perfect pairing. Now, you’re stuck eating incredibly marked up bland supermarket cheese. My first wall experience was perhaps the worst Starkbierfest for me. We’d brought a lot of great food with us as we were meeting another couple there only to be told it wasn’t allowed. This led to my aforementioned Biergarten history along with the fact that I’d been to the Starkbierfest numerous times and had brought food. No dice. They ever so nicely let us sit in an unused part of the restaurant’s terrace, along with quite a few older and obviously disgruntled Bavarians doing the same. They’d surely told the bouncer a similar story but even they were turned away.
early days of enjoying Am Nockherberg’s real Biergarten
4) Forbid bags. This was how they made it easier to forbid food. Since you can’t bring a bag in, you can’t bring much of anything in. Women are obviously being sexistly targeted. Make sure you bring a very small purse or you’re going to have to check your bag.
5) Charge to check bags. After making you give up anything over the size of a deck of cards, you are told you have to pay €2.50 for the pleasure.
6) Forbid cameras. This is the latest wrinkle to the new rules. Yesterday was the first time I’d encountered it and of course, I was partially going to take photos for this blog. My friend was doing the same. Neither of us was crazy about checking our somewhat expensive cameras on top of not getting any photos of the festival. On top of that see #5. Forgive me for using some old photos in this blog though I did manage to get a few fair shots with my phone. They haven’t forbidden them yet!
The brand spanking new Salvator Keller
7) Have 100% reserved tables. This is new, too. It used to be that there were some tables not reserved, at least during the day. Now, it appears that all tables are reserved. Not only do they charge you to get in, you then walk into a huge hall of tables that ALL say reserved on them.
Dai & I after we’d forgotten about our cameras & an admittedly gorgeous chicken
8) Have one shift of reservations. The weekend reservations start at two in the afternoon and go until closing at eleven. That’s nine hours, nearly impossible if you’re drinking Starkbier. They need not look further than their festival cousin, The Oktoberfest, to see that two shifts of reservations makes more sense. Have a lunch one that runs until four or five and an evening one. Not exactly brain surgery to figure out.
Dai & Karin enjoying a Salvator & an admittedly gorgeous Haxen
9) Have rude uninformed staff. The reservation system is hard to understand as it is. You don’t need staff confusing customers more. Yesterday, we obviously looked a bit bewildered when one very nice, polite server said it was okay to sit at a reserved table and have a beer and something to eat but that we’d have to vacate the table when its owners showed up, IF that happened. Since we wanted to stay a bit longer than 2, we kept looking in vain for an unreserved table, eventually settling for a reserved one, unfortunately not in our friendly server’s section. We were immediately pounced upon by a very aggressive server saying we couldn’t sit at a reserved table to which we explained we had vouchers for beer and needed a place to drink them. She begrudgingly brought them and warmed up ever so slightly when we ordered food and a second round. Soon, people started sitting with us, thinking it was our reservation and she tried to chase each group away. The reservation never showed and she soon tore the placard from the table and ripped it up.
English friends are amazed at good natured Bavarians at Starkbierfest
10) Drink more than two liters of Salavator. Ok, this is not the fault of the festival organizers. It’s my own weakness. My wife has told me repeatedly that two liters is my limit and I always say it’s three. Well, I had three yesterday and and now have to agree that two is the safe limit. It’s a great beer and dangerously drinkable for its strength but take my advice and stop after two.
A Mass Krug of Salvator & a fun loving Bavarian crowd at Starkbierfest
So did I have a good time yesterday? I sure did. I was in good company and after the initial unwelcoming welcome, we eased into a fine afternoon of drinking a great beer. The people who sat with us were friendly and fun, too. Müncheners, though not generally considered the most friendly of Bavarians, are great festival goers and participants. My English friends often say such festivals would erupt into fisticuffs if they tried them in their home country. So, if you’re looking for a good time and you keep the above in mind before going, you’ll probably enjoy the Starkbierfest, too.
At the end of the day, it’s the company you’re in
If you just want to drink Salvator on tap and avoid all the hassles, head to the Seehaus in the English Garden. They don’t have it every year but on ones where Starkbierzeit falls later, and if the weather cooperates, they serve if in their very pretty lakeside Biergarten. You can bring your own food and enjoy the beer in an idyllic setting at a fraction of the cost.
Salvator at the Seehaus is a great combination