It starts today and continues until the end of the first weekend in October. Anyone with the slightest interest in beer should visit the Munich Oktoberfest once, but the experience need last only a few hours. Far better to use the festival as an excuse to explore an elegant city and its Alpine hinterland, in search of local beers and hearty meals.

Those accustomed to British beer festivals will find a surprising lack of choice at Munich's. The city boasts no fewer than six famous breweries, but only a few of their beers are available at the Oktoberfest - and Bavaria's 700-odd rural brewers are not allowed to show their wares there.

After the first couple of litres, even the tastiest beer can become monotonous, and the festival's throng of swaying celebrants can induce claustrophobia. But elsewhere in the city, the labyrinthine beer halls, pavement cafes and beer gardens have quite the opposite effect. So do the rural inns that make their own beer.

One of the festival's great tastes is a style of beer that used to be made in March for summer drinking, in the days before refrigeration when the warm weather made brewing impossible. So the last of the summer beer would be festively drained in September-October to make room in the maturation vessels for the new season's brews.

Brews meant to last the summer were made with plenty of barley, yielding sufficient malt sugars to ferment slowly in icy Alpine cellars. Even today, a Marzen-Oktoberfest lager will have a nutty malt character, a full brass or copper colour and a robust alcohol content of about 5.5 per cent. The finest example in Munich is made by the Spaten-Franziskaner brewery, now secular but still owing part of its origins to Franciscan monks.

These brews, sometimes identified simply as Festbier, have just that touch of sweetness to accompany the spit-roast chicken or pork in crackling that is the stock-in-trade of the Oktoberfest. The same combination can be found at this time of year in scores of beer gardens within easy reach of Munich. Instead of driving, take the commuter railway, the S-Bahn.

In November, December and January, some breweries begin to produce stronger styles, under the general heading Bockbier. The first syllable is a corruption of the last in Einbeck, a town in Lower Saxony famous for strong beer. Today, Bavaria is even more widely know for Bockbier. A Bock is a strong (more than 6 per cent) lager, often dark brown in colour.

By February or March, the Doppelbock, an extra-strong (about 7.5 per cent) dark lager, is available. It is intended to warm the first souls to brave the spring in the beer gardens. The most famous Doppelbock is the Salvator (Saviour) of the Paulaner brewery, also founded by monks. Its new season's beer is introduced festively three weeks before Easter at the brewery's beer cellar and garden at the Nockherbeg, a hill overlooking the city.

Spring's arrival is confirmed in the last week of April by the introduction of the Maibock (May Bock). Munich's classic example is tapped at the Hofbrauhaus, the most famous beer hall and garden, on the city-centre square known as the Platzl. Elsewhere it will be readily available, though the everyday Helles (pale lager) is a safer bet if more than a half-litre is to be consumed at one sitting. Enjoy its light biscuity maltiness and delicately appetising hoppiness, and you will wonder why lagers have to be so lifeless in Britain.

In warm weather, lagers made exclusively from barley malt face competition from the fruitier, sharper-tasting, more quenching beers produced with a proportion of wheat and a yeast closer to that used in a British ale. These are known as Weizen (wheat) or Weisse (white) beers.

Bavarians ritually drink wheat beer with a mid-morning snack of Weisswurst (veal sausage), but do not ask for this after noon unless you want to be in a Bateman cartoon.

For lunch, the beer may be accompanied by Leberkase, a beef and pork loaf served hot. In the evening there are endless versions of pork knuckle, dumplings and noodles, and some terrifyingly edible organ meats.

Themost famous place for wheat beer is the Schneider brewery's restaurant in the street called the Tal (Dale). I had suckling pig (Spanferkel) there, in a sauce of Schneider's Aventinus Weizenbock, and on more adventurous days I have chosen Kalberfusse (calves' feet) or Kuheuter (udder tripe).

Without doubt, my favourite place to drink in Munich is the Forschungsbrauerei (Research brewery), at 76 Unterhachinger Strasse, among the market gardens in suburban Perlach. It was founded in the Twenties as a research facility for the industry, and now functions as a conventional brewery and beer garden.

Rightly renowned for its wonderfully hoppy Pilsissimus (5.2 per cent) and rich 'Blonde' Bock (7-7.5 per cent), it opens only from early March to mid-October and, like many German taverns, closes on Mondays.

Some of the beers discussed here are being featured at the White Horse, Parson's Green, London. The Campaign for Real Ale has recently published a Good Beer Guide to Munich and Bavaria (pounds 8.99).

(Photograph omitted)