For decades, the Starkbierzeit beer festival in Munich, Germany, has been famous for flying under the radar internationally, regularly described as “Munich’s other beer festival” or “the Munich beer festival you haven’t heard of” in articles about bucket-list beer travel. But recently, a number of American craft brewers have started holding their own versions of Starkbierzeit, bridging European and U.S. beer cultures in a unique, end-of-winter celebration that doesn’t require an international voyage.
Also called “the fifth season” in Munich, Starkbierzeit literally translates as “strong beer time” or “strong beer season.” The strong beer in question is doppelbock, starting with the originator of the style, Paulaner Salvator, for which “strong” means 7.9 percent ABV. First brewed centuries ago as a kind of liquid bread for the Paulaner monks who were fasting during Lent, Salvator has gone on to inspire an array of strong-lager imitators, as well as the taproom and beer-hall crowds who love them.
Bavaria’s doppelbock-drinking season might have served as the model for the starkbier festivals that are now showing up at U.S. breweries, some of which come across as fairly authentic imitations of the original. (In Munich, the celebration is usually called Starkbierzeit, but events also go by the name Starkbierfest there, and American producers seem to use both terms in equal measure.) But as with anything that gets translated across cultures, there are often a few quirks to how Starkbierzeit works stateside, from offering a greater variety to incorporating elements of other traditions.
Traditional Beer and Clothing
Brothers Craft Brewing in Harrisonburg, Va., has an affinity for German beer, brewing a helles lager as a flagship and even holding an annual Oktoberfest party. But when a German guest suggested the brewery also consider holding a starkbier festival, the idea took taproom manager Josh Harold by surprise.
“I had no idea what she was talking about,” he says. “No one in the area does it.”
Originally planned for early 2020, the brewery’s initial starkbier celebration was put off for a year due to the pandemic. At the third edition on March 25, guests will find plenty of doppelbock, as well as some Old World costumes.
“I have a pair of traditional lederhosen that I’ll wear to be the mascot of the day, if you will, since I’m managing the taproom,” Harold says. “We have a handful of customers who really get into the German feel of Oktoberfest and Starkbierfest as well.”
Other breweries go even further, offering full menus of German food to soak up all the strong beer. In Silver Spring, Md., Silver Branch Brewing Company had to stop regularly serving obatzda, Bavaria’s celebrated cheese spread, when it saw that its American customers couldn’t get their heads around the oniony, peppery, bread-and-pretzel topping. But at the Silver Branch Starkbierzeit party earlier this month, the obatzda was back, along with big platters of German sausages, which brewery cofounder Christian Layke describes as an attempt to embrace as much of the German tradition as possible.
“We’re just really excited to bring that whole vibe that you have from Octoberfest into the dead of winter, when the days are cold and short,” he says. To that end, Silver Branch offered prizes to guests wearing the best Bavarian-style outfits. “I always emphasize that if you have a pair of Lederhosen in your closet, you want to wear them more than once a year, right?”
American Doppelbock Innovations
A few U.S. producers, like Notch Brewing in Massachusetts, aim for authenticity, serving straightforward, German-style doppelbocks at annual Starkbierfests. However, Notch will also bring out a red-hot loggerhead poker to plunge into mugs of beer at its starkbier events in Brighton (March 18) and Salem (March 19), a local tradition that dates back to the Colonial era. And with the more-is-more nature of American craft breweries, it’s not surprising to find beers at a stateside festival unlike anything you’d drink in Bavaria.
For example, Brothers Craft Brewing brews its festival doppelbock with a near-literal twist, conditioning the beer on spirals of fragrant amburana wood.
“Amburana wood presents a cinnamon-, gingerbread-type flavoring on the doppelbock that we really like,” Harold says.
Naturally, there also has to be wider variety. In Munich, when a brewery holds a starkbier party, there’s usually just one starkbier available: the brewery’s doppelbock. On this side of the Atlantic, breweries often add in plenty of other offerings, leaning into the literal sense of “strong beer,” though often from different brewing traditions.
“As an American craft brewery, we’re going to be presenting more strong beers than just doppelbock,” Layke says. “We are highlighting our doppelbock and our blonde bock, but we also have some Belgian strongs on, we have a Baltic porter on, and we have a barrel-aged stout on, so you can do a flight of other kinds of starkbier.”
In addition to its amburana-scented doppelbock, Brothers Craft Brewing will offer a maibock, an imperial hefeweizen, its flagship helles, and a few barrel-aged imperial stouts at its starkbier festival, including the seldom-seen Steadfast, with a port-like 19.5 percent ABV.
“It’s the starkest beer we’ve ever brewed,” Harold says. “To relate it to the American public and especially our public, we do the American craft beer side of things by pulling out some of our biggest beers. This seems like a good event to showcase that beer.”
With higher-octane drinks, the pours have to be different, too. In Munich, starkbier is generally served by the one-liter masskrug, which holds 33.8 ounces. That might work for a traditional doppelbock with 7.5 or 8 percent ABV, but it’s too much for something like the 13.5 percent Resolute, Harold says.
“For the big barrel-aged beers, we’ll do a 10-ounce glass, to give it the proper glassware, but also to not kill people,” he says. More extreme beers will get a smaller pour. “You can have a 5-ounce pour of Steadfast, and that’s as much as we can give you at once. It’s 19.5 percent. You might as well be taking a shot of liquor.”
Other stateside differences include the date, sliding the season that is tied to Lent in Bavaria up or down the calendar at will. In Munich, Starkbierzeit starts with Ash Wednesday, which fell on Feb. 22 this year. In the U.S., starkbier festivals can run just about whenever. With an eye on its location in Maryland, Layke says, Silver Branch decided to hold its Starkbierzeit on February 3–4.
“We’re in the mid-Atlantic and our climate is different than Munich,” he says. “We’ve moved it up by a month just to keep it in the dead of winter when people need something fun to celebrate, to get them through those winter doldrums.”
With U.S. brewers, even the names can differ. In Bavaria, a doppelbock almost always has a name that ends with an “-ator” suffix, following the lead of Paulaner Salvator. Augustiner brews its beloved Maximator, Löwenbräu has Triumphator, and Airbräu, the brewery at Munich Airport, serves the perfectly named Aviator. Silver Branch calls its version Branchiator, but many U.S. producers don’t see the naming tradition as a requirement.
Joining Two Cultures
Not every U.S. craft brewery has been able to make a starkbier festival work. Following an initial event in 2014, Wisconsin’s Capital Brewery discontinued its Starkbierfest after just a few years, instead focusing on its better-established Bockfest, which coincidentally takes place at about the same time of year.
Other brewers have found that it helps to get back to basics. At the 9-year-old KC Bier Co. in Kansas City, Mo., earlier starkbier celebrations included different types of doppelbock released over several weeks. But the brewery’s 2023 Starkbierzeit sounds a lot more like an event in Munich, featuring a golden doppelbock called “Carolator,” in memory of Carol Crawford, sister of brewery founder Steve Holle. After receiving a blessing from a local priest, Carolator was released to the public on Ash Wednesday.
For Holle, the beer showcases the flavor of traditional German ingredients and techniques, including an old-school, double-decoction mash, whereby part of the mixture of malted barley and water is removed to a second vessel and boiled. Though that centuries-old process largely disappeared as breweries switched to more modern methods, aficionados say that it produces more flavorful lagers.
“It’s 100 percent pilsner malt, it’s all German hops, as all of our beers are,” he says. “It’s lagered for a tremendously long time, naturally carbonated, and it just has a smoothness. It’s this crisp, bready, honey-like maltiness that I find totally delicious.”
That rich deliciousness, he says, has even inspired locals to attempt the fast of the original Paulaner monks and try an all-beer diet for Lent. Two years ago, he says, that included the pastor who delivered the doppelbock’s blessing.
“We gave him a bunch of beer, and he made it about halfway through, then he had to give that up,” he says. “It’s one of those beers where you don’t want somebody to ask you how many calories are in it. There’s protein, so it’s a complete food source. But I’d probably take a vitamin or some fiber along with it.”
To finish off the season in style, a small amount of this year’s Carolator doppelbock will be chilled below the freezing point and made into the brewery’s König eisbock, with a special release scheduled for Holy Week, right at the beginning of April. That might not be the typical grand finale of the starkbier season in Bavaria, but it does count as another traditional German style that hasn’t really caught on over here.
“We make German-style beer,” Holle says. “We try to embrace the culture and traditions as much as we can.”