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Pilgrims to the black gold– a steep and stony climb to get a beer.

There are hordes of them flocking up the hill, people arriving from all point of the compass. They have handcarts with them, they’ve got up earlier than on any other Sunday of the year, and in the chilly morning temperatures they are shivering in their dirndls and lederhosen. That each and every one of the buses they arrive in is completely overcrowded, and that once they disembark they still have a stony path to climb on foot before reaching journey’s end, does not appear to bother the multitudinous pilgrims at all. What’s it all about? Quite simple: beer. But not any old beer. And not on any old Sunday.

Because on Palm Sunday, at the Prösslbräu tavern on the Adlersberg hill near Regensburg, the high-strength beer is ceremonially tapped. Or more succinctly: “It’s Palmator time!” And Palmator is here not just the name of the dark Lenten bock beer, it also stands for a centuries-old Regensburg tradition. It was a Prioress of the former Dominican nunnery at the Adlersberg who decreed that on Palm Sunday every guest should receive a Palmator and every child a pretzel. This tradition has endured, and is meanwhile a fixed date in Regensburg’s event diary. The brewery starts making the bock beer months beforehand, using five different types of malt. They supply the typical roast aromas, and ensure the beer’s high original gravity. With its original gravity of 18.8 per cent, the Palmator ranks among the doppelbock beers, which is why it’s allowed to tack the “-ator” suffix onto its name – just like its brothers Salvator, Animator, Triumphator and all the others. Talking of the name: historically speaking bock beer has nothing whatever to do with Ziegenbock (goat). The name in fact comes from the town of Einbeck in Lower Saxony, the birthplace of bock beer. Yes, you read that correctly, bock beer does in fact originally come not from Bavaria, but from the north of Germany. However, it was soon to be transported southwards, and in order to render it capable of surviving the long journeys involved, it was brewed back then with a very high original gravity. And the result was the heavy alcohol-laden beer that we nowadays know as high-strength beer. It was not until the 16th century that the art of brewing bock beer came from its birthplace to Bavaria, to the court of the Wittelsbachs. They not only imported the beer, but also fetched the brewmaster from Einbeck to Bavaria. Gradually, the “Ainpöckisches Beer” was abbreviated to a succinct and simple “Bock”. In the 20th century, the term “high-strength beer” was then coined, which is nowadays used as a synonym.

The beer in the mugs of the Palmator guests is almost pitch-black, with a creamy, fine-pored head, not quite as snowy-white as you get with a pilsner, and it tastes full-bodied, does the Palmator, malty and sweetish. With its 7.4 % ABV, It has truly earned its appellation of high-strength beer, as also becomes markedly obvious after a few hours at the most among the tavern’s visitors, not least the more youthful among them.

Tapping the high-strength beer during Lent, however, is by no means a phenomenon exclusive to Regensburg. Throughout all of Catholic Bavaria, various bock beers are brewed, and ceremonially tapped, predominantly during Lent. Why of all times in abstemious Lent? Because even the most frugal of monks found it hard to cope with the meagre fare of this period, and the nutritious bock beer helped them to get through it. “Liquids don’t count when you’re fasting,” but the beer tastes great and also makes the hunger pangs easier to bear. And even if hardly any of the Palmator pilgrims would willingly embrace the asceticism of a 16th-century monk, perhaps a few of them have resolved to do some fasting. Which means a Lenten Palmator in the beer garden on the Adlersberg has definite potential to alleviate the cravings for chocolate or jellybabies. And even without fasting, the Palmator tastes just great! In fine weather, particularly, the beer garden offers a magnificent view of Regensburg and an opportunity to meet friends, old acquaintances, and new contacts – because apart from beer there’s one thing that’s never in short supply at the Adlersberg on Palm Sunday: sufficient guests from near and far. Namely the Palmator pilgrims.

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