Mark Dredge explores the roots of this strong, flavoursome German style, and braves the annual festival celebrating its monastic heritage.
Friday 25 May 2018
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Have you ever finished the last mouthful from a litre stein of 8% ABV Doppelbock, thumped the heavy maß mug down on the table, and then immediately ordered another one? If you haven’t, then let me tell you a bit about it.
To begin, a litre stone mug is big. About double the size, in fact, of your regular beer mug. And Doppelbock is about double the strength of most regular lagers. That’s a dangerous double scale-up.
Initially a stein of this beer is fearsome and then very quickly – within, like, two or three gulps – it becomes wonderful and moreish, adding deliciousness into the strength-multiplied-by-size danger equation.
Luckily everyone here is drinking the same beer, the same way. Everyone goes from thirsty to tipsy in the first maß and then from tipsy to swinging their stein and standing on the benches singing with the second maß (don’t ask what happens after the third one). That’s the pure celebratory joy of Munich’s Starkbierzeit – the Strong Beer Season, a crossover in the calendar which heralds spring via one last heave of heavy lager – when the Doppelbocks are tapped and drunk at a half-scale Oktoberfest with twice the hangover.
Beer in the stonework
Doppelbock is not a beer you drink for refreshment. It’s drunk for nourishment (historically literally so), the kind of shared social nourishment that comes with the pleasure of a cheerfully strong beer drunk with thousands of others, a unique feeling of rising moods and lowering inhibitions. Yet while today it’s a beer of celebration and (over-) indulgence, its origins are closer to self-discipline and abstinence.
The Paulaner brewery is the originator of what we now call Doppelbock, a stronger version of the Bockbiers which had been brewed in Munich since the early 1600s. Towards the end of the 1620s, monks from the order of Saint Francis of Paula arrived in Munich from south Italy. The Paulaner monks settled to the east of the city, on the banks of the Auer Mühlbach, a branch of the Isar, and beneath a hill now known as Nockherberg.
The monks gained brewing rights in 1634 but it was only to be for their own consumption, something they clearly ignored because in that same year a letter of complaint was written by Munich’s brewers saying how the Paula Monastery was giving away or selling its beer. It was something the monks would continue to do for 150 years, when they’d eventually be allowed to legally sell their beer year-round.
In spring 1651 the monks served a special version of a Bockbier, one of Munich’s popular styles, during an eight-day Holy Father Feast celebrating their founding father. It was called Sankt-Vaters-Bier (Beer of the Sacred Father) and the name was eventually corrupted to become ‘Salvator’. Today, Paulaner’s Salvator is still held up as the original Doppelbock.
In the same way that ‘strong and hoppy to survive the sea journey’ has become IPA’s origin story, it seems like Doppelbock has a similar much-repeated story that retro-fits the idea of the beer. The celebrated story calls the beer ‘liquid bread’ and says how the monks made a strong beer as a delicious and nutritious meal replacement during their Lent fast.
It’s hard to say whether that’s totally accurate or not. The beer may have been stronger than a regular Bock, or at least it had a higher original gravity (and therefore greater sweetness and calorie content), but it likely wouldn’t have been much more than 5% ABV, so high in residual sugars.
What we do know is that Salvator started a yearly tradition on 2 of April when people visited the monastery gardens next to the brewery to drink this special seasonal beer at the Holy Father Feast. And despite the Paulaner monks still not having the rights to actually sell their beer, it soon become their main source of income (one other questionable thing here is that if the feast was always on the 2 April, how did that work in terms of the ever-changing Lent period? The first year, 1651, had Easter Sunday on 9 April. Anyway, never let the reality get in the way of a good 400-year-old story – or a good party with good strong beer).
In 1751 the monastic brewery was permitted to sell its beer for the first time, but only for the eight-day period every April at the annual feast. That year, the first barrel of Salvator was tapped and the first mug was offered to the Bavarian Elector as a thank you for giving them sales rights. In 1773, Valentin Still, otherwise known as Brother Banarbas, refined and modernised the recipe for Salvator; Paulaner says the current beer can trace itself back to this brew. By 1780 it could finally sell beer year-round and by the last year of that century, the Holy Father Feast of 2 April had grown into the city’s largest public folk festival.
However, before the end of 1799, the monastery brewery was first secularised and then shuttered, remaining closed until 1806 when it was taken on by local brewer Franz Zacherl, who soon reintroduced the tradition of the strong beer tapping on 2 April. Later, he’d bring that forward to March and extend the celebrations. By that time, the name ‘Salvator’ was known as a type of strong beer and many other breweries made their own version of this popular style, which led to Zacherlbräu (the name would revert to Paulaner in the future) filing for a trademark in the 1840s, which they eventually got, leading those other Salvator beers to change their names – all kept the ‘-ator’ suffix as a way of distinguishing the stronger beer.
In the 1850s, folk singers provided entertainment at the annual event, and a few years later actors were hired to entertain the guests. Then in 1891, folk singer Jakob Greis, who’d probably had a mug or two of beer, made a funny speech and sang some songs which mocked local politicians (derblecken is the local term for this and singing mocking songs was supposedly something tavern owners did to welcome their guests…). Everyone laughed along and they’ve repeated it every year since.
Today’s Paulaner Salvatorfest is held in Nockherberg, directly above where the brewery used to be, and it runs for around three weeks in the lead up to Easter (other Munich breweries release their Doppelbocks around this time, during the Starkbierzeit, but Paulaner’s is the most famous and the biggest festival). The opening ceremony begins with a barrel of Doppelbock being tapped and the first maß offered to the Bavarian Prime Minister, and then a satirical political cabaret with singing and acting all directed at current politicians and the recent news (the ceremony and show are so popular that it’s aired on German television and a few million people tune in to watch it). Once that’s done, everyone drinks, and it’s become a major event in the beer calendar with thousands of attendees.
The main event
The hall is huge – it’s the biggest of its kind in Munich – and everyone is drinking from big stone mugs filled with big strong beer. There’s a band playing and there’s the rising laughter and conversation of a couple of thousand people in the transitional hours between Friday afternoon and Friday evening.
I’m with my girlfriend Emma and we find space on a bench and order a beer each. I’m intimidated by this beer before it arrives; I’m wary of it and its potential effects. Do I really want to drink litre mugs of 8% ABV lager? The speed at which the first one disappears suggests I do.
Yes, it’s strong, but it also finishes dry at the end which makes it unexpectedly quaffable. It hits that perfect point of malt-hop-alcohol balance, a rare mark reserved for the greatest beers and typically only brewed by the great volume drinkers of Central Europe who prize that drinkability. Nothing is overly distinctive in the taste and it’s the opposite of a swirl-and-sniff kind of beer – you just drink it.
This isn’t the same beer that those monks made in the 17th century. Old and new both would’ve had a similar original gravity (the sweetness extracted from the malt before fermentation, which is around 1080 or 18º plato), but the older beers did not ferment so completely, leaving a significantly lower alcohol content and much more residual sugar. When the beer’s main role shifted from sustenance to pleasure, the beers were fermented further, producing more alcohol (around 8% ABV) and finishing drier with higher drinkability.
However, when you consider its ‘nutritional’ content, the words liquid bread are still relevant: one maß of Doppelbock is about 700 calories and eight units of alcohol. The second mug will take you over your weekly suggested drinking limit. The third fulfils a day’s calorie need and is the equivalent of 24 shots of vodka. And yet I’d finished my liquid bread and I was eating a solid bread pretzel bigger than my head.
A toast to liquid bread
Inflatable unicorns are floating around the room. Big pink ones. I have no idea why, but I spend several minutes trying to take a nice photo of one as it lines up next to a large inflatable beer-shaped balloon. In the end, I have to stop trying to get a photo because something more important happens: the band starts to play Ein Prosit.
It’s the most-famous of German drinking songs and it plays every 20 minutes: “Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit, Der Gemütlichkeit.” Everyone raises their glasses and cheers: “Oans, zwoa, drei, Gsuffa!” A toast, a toast, to Gemütlichkeit. One, two, three, drink! Every time it plays, conversations pause, you bash the chunky mugs in uncoordinated unison, you sing along, you drink more. The more the song plays, the more you drink, and the sooner you order another beer. It’s the ultimate drinking song; the ultimate make-you-drink song.
Gemütlichkeit is one of those untranslatable German words. It’s a word to convey a feeling, a sense of well-being, of familiar comfort, of acceptance and belonging, and it’s the one word which really defines the Bavarian drinking experience and how everyone is welcome and everyone drinks together. That experience is condensed and uniquely emphasised somewhere like Salvatorfest or Oktoberfest where thousands of people share the same experience and everyone is equal, everyone is welcome, and everyone gets drunk, but not for the end-goal of being drunk, for the pleasure that comes with getting drunk, with the conversations and the music and the food and the fun. That’s what we’re all here for.
As Friday afternoon becomes Friday evening, the party really kicks off. That’s when people stand on the benches, that’s when the sipping turns to swigging, when the talking turns to singing. ‘Neunundneuzig Luftballoons,’ Robbie Williams’s ‘Angels,’ ‘Que Sera, Sera,’ and then the repeated rounds of ‘Ein Prosit’ are the big sing-alongs. They raise the whole room, the whole huge hall of thousands of people. The songs raise us onto our feet, onto the benches, beers raised above our heads. Everyone knows the words. Everyone sings. There’s no inhibitions, no need to worry, just sing loud and drink deep, deep, deep into the most gulpable 8% beer you’ll ever have.
“I’m going to get one more beer,” I say to Emma. “I want to know what happens after the third one.”
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