HISTORY OF STARKBIER FESTIVAL
Starkbierfest runs from March to April, with some biergartens as early as March 3. The heart of this festival is in Münich, Germany, specifically at Paulaner am Nockherberg Brewery, where it all began and lasts about two weeks.
This year, it begins on March 10 and runs through April 2. It is unlike its more well-known sibling, Oktoberfest, in a few ways.
Outside of Germany and Münich in particular, it’s not widely known, except to German ex-pats or beer lovers. Or historians who have visited Münich in the Spring.
There are perhaps half a dozen locations at which it is celebrated in Münich.
What is Starkbierfest?
It’s the festival for Starkbier.
What is Starkbier?
It’s German for “strong beer.”
What is Strong beer?
Some assume the name refers to its higher alcohol content, but that’s not the case, though it is more alcoholic, about 6.5% to 14% by volume. Not your father’s 3.5% beer.
Instead, the name is because of the higher gravity, or Stammwürze of the beer, with its concentration of solids like proteins, starches, and sugars… the wort.
Starkbier contains 180g of solids or the equivalent of a third of a loaf of bread. The monks who created it were originally dubbed flüssiges Brot, or “liquid bread.” It’s liquid nourishment.
History of Starkbierfest
When did it start?
The story goes back to the monks of Münich. Indeed, the German word for the city, München, means “by the monks” in reference to the Benedictine monks who ran a monastery in what is now the Old Town of Münich.
At the beginning of the 17th century, the Paulaner monks of Münich, in observance of the 40 days of Lent, did not eat during the daylight part of the day.
For years they had been brewing beer, so they turned to creating a “strong beer” that was particularly rich in nutrients.
They were allowed to consume this during daylight hours due to the slogan:
Liquid non franguent ieunum
…or in English, “liquid does not break fasting.” Starkbier would curb their appetite during the day. It only took a few decades before other Münichers tapped kegs of starkbier and instituted annual local public celebrations. The clever Paulaner monks did this without violating the Purity Law of 1516, which required all beers brewed in Germany to be made with only water, hops, malt, and yeast.
But what if the Pope should not approve?
They sent a barrel of this rich, malty Doppelbock (double bock) to the Pope at the Vatican in Rome for his benediction. The trouble began with the long journey across the Alps from Bavaria to Italy.
By the time the beer arrived, it was sour and spoiled. When the Pope tasted it, he found it so terrible that he assumed it must have been intended as some form of penance. He told them that if they wanted to drink this strong beer, they were welcome to do so. They could fill their tankards five times a day with the brew. But their tankards were a liter, or two, in size.
In 1751 the Paulaner monks created the “Holy Father Beer” for the name day of their religious founder Franz von Paula, or Francis of Paola, after the namesake of the Paulaner monks, and “Sankt Vater” (sacred water) soon became “Salvator.”
In the 1780s, laws changed, making the monks’ beer available to the public. Beer prices climbed until 1888, when a fight broke out with celebrants drawing swords, walking sticks, and using their heavy ceramic beer mugs (steins) as weapons. Things have calmed down in recent years, with less saber-rattling.
Naming of Starkbiers
Starkbiers have names that typically end in “-ator” giving them a strong, dinosaur-like name:
- Salvator, by Paulaner: father of the Doppelbock beers
- Triumphator, by Löwenbräu
- Maximator, by Augustiner
- Aviator, by Airbrau (at the airport)
- Delicator, by Hofbräu
This event traditionally occurs annually in Münich. It’s held not in the traditional Theresienwiese festival grounds of Oktoberfest or Fruhlingsfest.
Instead, it’s in the local breweries:
- Paulaner am Nockherberg – the first tap and one of the largest beer halls in the city, holding 5,000 inside and a few thousand outside under tent coverings.
- Löwenbräukeller – long tables
- Augustiner Keller
Starkbierfest At the Löwenbräukeller
In 2003, I was speaking in Münich for work. The local office invited me out to Löwenbräukeller for Starkbier. I knew little German at the time and understood the words bier and Löwenbräu, but not by the German pronunciation.
We got to the brewery at 6 pm. The ballroom is one of the larger event spaces in Münich and holds 2,000 people. They served us “lighter” beer to fortify us for the strong stuff.
Long tables filled with people of all ages lining them got started with glasses of beer the size of 55-gallon drums. They were called steins. I knew that stein meant stone, and stoned is what people were soon becoming.
The band in lederhosen started with traditional German music. The locals began to sing along. When the starkbier came out later, the signature 7.6% alcohol Triumphator was thick, rich, malty, slightly sweet, and almost chocolaty. The crowd became more animated. Another band came out, and the music changed to American rock and roll. Everyone knew all the words.
By the end of the evening, we were literally dancing on the tabletops with complete strangers and singing “Twist and Shout” in English. Yet another band ended with “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” a song written by Randy Newman and featured at the end of the UK movie “The Full Monty,” where the men drop their pants. The band then did the same at the stroke of midnight.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian