Europe 1999 – The Hunt for Starkbier, Part One

Possibly as a result of getting a new car, one perfect for cruising the interstates, we made a number of trips in the fall of 1998.  One long weekend we went to Yosemite along with Irene Thomas Johnson to meet up with Norm Benson for a one-day assault on Half Dome.  Getting overnight accommodations in the park is near impossible, so we stayed at the Best Western Yosemite Gateway in Oakhurst, about an hour from the Valley floor.  We’ve used this motel many times for Yosemite visits, as it is a nice reasonably priced facility in a lovely setting with a number of decent restaurants close by.

I cannot begin to describe how arduous this day was.  It is a little under an 18-mile round-trip hike from the valley floor to the top of the dome and it involves 4,000 feet of elevation gain.  That turns out to be one of the factors that make it so tough; you start out early in the morning at Oakhurst at a little over 2,000 feet in elevation, drive into the park and start the hike at the John Muir trailhead near Happy Isles at 3,996 feet, and top out on Half Dome at 8,800 feet.

So, by the time fatigue really starts to set in, say right about mile 6 of your ascent, your now also starting to suffer from the effects of being at altitude, having had no chance to adapt as you would if you had more time.  But make it we did with striking views of the valley and beyond, then a rapid descent (funny how you can make so much better time going down hill), each step of the steep slope reminding your tired feet of how out of shape you were to tackle such a grueling hike.

The real reward comes when you’re back in the parking lot at Curry Village, the hike done, sucking down a beer you’ve stashed away in a cooler, playing back the events of the day with those you’ve shared it with.  You know the drive back out to Oakhurst will seem much longer than it did driving in, but a meal awaits you there, with a few more beers, and then a great nights sleep, your bone tired body drifting away in the glow of a job done well.

In the early 1990’s, prior to becoming the Director at ASUCLA, I began what has been a long association serving on Credit Union Boards.  At the time ASUCLA had oversight for a student run branch on campus, the Westwood Students Federal Credit Union (WSFCU).  Margaret Snow asked me to play a role on their board and help advise them as they served the campus.  Although we would eventually have to close the branch (that is a whole other story, one best saved for another posting), it did provide me with the opportunity to get to know to remarkable individuals, Alex Hultgren and Harry (Hap) Blaisdell.

I first met Alex when he served as the 1990-91 UCLA Facilities Commissioner, an elected officer in the Undergraduate Students Association (USA), the campus undergraduate student government.  Later he would work for us in the executive suite, serve as the chair of the student credit union, and then after graduation, become the Executive Director of the Campus Credit Union Council (CCUC), a support organization for student run credit unions.  Along the way he completed an internship in Germany (he studied the language in school), met his future wife there, and developed a lasting fondness for good beer.

Harry was a resource we relied upon with the student credit union given his extensive experience in the field, with many years served at the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) the regulatory body for all credit unions.  As the founding Executive Director of the CCUC, he was a champion for credit unions and students in particular.  When WSFCU began to run into the financial troubles that would eventually seal its fate, Harry made a number of trips to the west coast to provide advice and assistance, and I shared a number of memorable meals with he and Margaret as we attempted to develop a strategy keep the credit union afloat.

Later, Harry would mentor Alex when he ran the CCUC, and we would connect whenever Alex would come to town to visit the credit union, especially after it was absorbed by a larger Los Angeles based firm and operated for a few more years before eventually leaving campus.  It was with this backdrop that I eagerly responding to Alex’s suggestion in the fall of 1998 that we plan a beer based adventure to Munich to attend the not so well known Starkbier Fest that occurs each year for seventeen days in March.

After a bit of planning and much discussion by phone and email, the three of us met up at the Airport in Frankfurt (as you know by now a familiar gateway for me) on March 3rd, picked up our rental car (I recall it as a four door Jetta Diesel) and made our way to Wurzburg, about ninety minutes away.  Parking at the center of town, we hit the tourist bureau there (almost every good sized European town has one located inside or just outside of its main train station) and quickly secured a triple room at Pension Spenfuch for a little under $90.  We walked around town a bit, had a nice meal at the Grenedier and then made a discovery that would shape our time in Wurzburg, Wolf Braustube where we had our first taste of their remarkably good country pils.

We spent the next day sightseeing around town, taking in the local castle, Fortress Marienburg, and eating twice (lunch and dinner) at the Wurzburger Hofbraukeller, an adjunct of the local brewery by the same name.  They were celebrating an anniversary that month and had rolled back their prices to the year they started the restaurant.  The combination of low prices with their excellent food proved to be irresistible to us.

We returned that night to the Wolf Bierstube, this time being asked to join a group at the Stammtisch or the regular’s table.  Generally, it is a table in a bar or restaurant that is reserved for the same guests at the same time every day or every week.  It is also sometimes referred to as the owner’s table.  If you don’t belong to this table or are not specifically invited to sit there, don’t attempt to do so.  In the most traditional German beer halls there is a large brass plaque above the table with the word Stammtisch printed on it in bold lettering.

A very pleasant evening passed, as is often the case when traveling, particularly with friends. If I recall correctly (Alex may have a better recollection) the other folks at the table were locals and they gave us a bit of the history of the place and some tips for touring the area.  We mostly talked about being Americans, and our lives in the States, the places we’d traveled to and the experiences we’d shared.  This is really the common thread of all good trips and all good stories.  Those people you meet on the road, who enrich your experience far beyond the monument or museum you’ve spent time visiting.

So the next time you’re in Germany, loiter around the Stammtisch and see if you get an invite.  You won’t regret it.


Best Western Yosemite Gateway:

Half Dome:


Harry Blaisdell:


Wolf Bier:

Wurzburger Hofbrau:

Fortress Marienburg:




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