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The monastic brewing heritage of Germany is typically overshadowed by that of the Belgians and goes forgotten despite being an essential piece of the country's brewing history. There are some hints hiding in plain sight, the simultaneously cheery and grumpy monk on the label of Augustiner Helles, the beers made by the Benedictine monks of Kloster Andechs and other monasteries, and even in the recent past, Mariawald, one of Germany’s monasteries were a founding member of the International Trappist Organisation in 1997 (sadly no longer brewing).

The Augustiner Monk on every bottle of Helles

One of the most fascinating relics of German monastic brewing is the Starkbier tradition. This tradition has its roots in the nutritional needs of 17th century monks during Lent. Monks were expected to fast during this time, but were still allowed to drink. To stay nourished, but respect the rules, the monks of the Paulaner monastery came up with ‘Starkbier’ (translates to Strong beer) in 1629. Although these beers were strong in ABV, the aim was to create a highly calorific beer with plenty of nutrients and dissolved solids. Fans of the trappist tradition will note that this tale is pretty similar to the development of Dubbel in Belgium, and even got the same nickname from the monks ‘Liquid Bread’. Historically the Starkbier had to pass a peculiar test to see if it was nutritious enough. A bench would be soaked with the beer, and it would be deemed of quality if the amount of dissolved solids in the beer were enough to make the bench stick to someone’s lederhosen when they stood up.

The Starkbier test as illustrated by lithographer Joseph Puschkin

Initially Munich’s brewing monks were prohibited from selling or giving away their wares, until 1751 when Bavarian Elector Maximillian III Joseph granted an exception for public sales on the feast of St Francis of Paola (2nd of April), his successor Karl Theodor then granted the Paulaner monks the right to sell beer year round on the 26th of February 1780. This original beer was marketed by Paulaner as ‘Salvator’. Towards the end of the 18th century many of these monastic, or small town breweries began the process of commercialisation and privatisation, and several other breweries also began to produce their own Salvatorbier. The Paulaner brewery eventually took the matter to court to stop other brewers using the term. As is always the case, beer is a deeply passionate issue in Germany, and one brewer arguing against the case exclaimed that ‘if officials allow a single brewery to register the name Original-Salvator, if courts punish those who use the designation and seize their stocks, it shows how little expertise the courts possess." Despite this compelling argument, Paulaner were successful in their case, but rather than give up brewing the style entirely, the other brewers decided to adopt a new naming convention using the suffix -ator (as you’ll see from the list of Starkbiers we’re importing) and the style thrives to this day.

It eventually became tradition to invite the Bavarian Elector to the tapping of the first keg of Starkbier on the feast day on the 2nd of April. This tradition was carried on by Franz Xavier Zacherl after buying the Paulaner brewery in 1813, who eventually moved the tapping to March and lengthening the party to a full 12 day run, adding in entertainment from local singers and performers in 1858. It was in 1891 when the most curiously Bavarian traditions were added, the Salvator speech, and the Derblecken.

Effectively a comedy roast, the Derblecken originated as a tongue in cheek greeting between landlords and their guests where they’d only be invited in for a beer after bearing the brunt of a couple of gags at their expense. The Derblecken continues today with the landlords of local taverns saving up all of the best rumours and jibes of the year for the day. This evolved into a pre Starkbierfest show with noted actors of the day taking a pop at politicians

The beers have evolved a little too, in line with improvements in malting and brewing technology. Ironically today’s beers would fail the bench test as today’s malts are better modified, and more fermentable extract is gained. Although the flavour profile has not changed much, they’re still full of beautiful bready aroma, and a nourishing dusting of coffee and chocolate bitterness on the palate. Contemporary Starkbiers will also more likely be labelled as ‘Doppelbock’, weirdly this includes Paulaner’s Salvator despite fighting for and holding the claim to be the original Starkbier. This contemporary style notation also brought us one of the most joyful trinkets in the entire beer world, the Ayinger Celebrator goat.

Every single bottle of Ayinger Celebrator is adorned with a little plastic goat thanks to a peculiar German play on words. Despite the Starkbier tradition being proudly Bavarian, Bock beers were originally produced up North in the Lower Saxony town of Einbeck. When pronounced in the Munich accent the City's name sounds like ‘Ein Bock’ which is the word for a male goat. This connotation stuck, and now on most doppelbock beer labels there’ll be a depiction of a goat.

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