Holy brews

Abbey breweries are regarded as the pioneers of a centuries-old beer culture. Some abbeys still produce special beers brewed to age-old recipes that are considered among the best in the world. Now, several German convents and monasteries have joined forces to maintain this heritage.

A unique world where tradition is more than just a promise, abbey breweries are some of the oldest in the world. Behind the venerable walls, nuns and monks still nurture a beer culture dating back over a thousand years. Two hundred years ago, there were around 300 such breweries in Bavaria alone. Twelve remain today.

Abbey breweries: The guardians of brewing tradition

Now, on the sacred Kreuzberg Mountain in Franconia, eight of them have announced they have joined together to form an association: The abbey breweries of Kreuzberg, Aldersbach, Weltenburg, Andechs, Baumburg, Ettal, Scheyern and Weißenohe comprise this holy alliance that aims to promote the cloister brewing tradition through joint projects. “We are bound not only by the historical and cultural importance of the individual breweries but above all by our shared values,” said the acting chairman, Father Lukas Wirth, from the Benedictine abbey of Scheyern.

Abbeys are still considered to be the guardians of the holy grail of brewing tradition. Abbey beers first rose to prominence in the 11th century. The details lost to the mists of time, it’s believed enterprising Cistercian monks were the first to recognize the market value of beer and turn it into a lucrative source of income for monasteries and convents. After years of producing solely for their own consumption, the abbey breweries obtained licenses from the nobility to sell their beer and increasingly began to serve their brews in their own taverns. Hops and brewing grain were grown on local fields and water came from the abbeys’ own wells. By the 19th century, almost every abbey had its own brewery. Today, some breweries retain the names of old abbeys, such as Augustiner, Paulaner and the Bavarian State Brewery Weihenstephan. Founded by monks, Weihenstephan claims to be the oldest brewery in the world.

“Holy breweries” have international cult status

Germany is not the only country where brewing happens within hallowed walls. Trappist monasteries in particular are known around the world for their specialties. There are still 11 Trappist breweries worldwide: six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands and one each in Italy, Austria and the US. Trappist beer is produced by the monks themselves, and the proceeds support social causes. The monasteries have designed a special logo for the bottle labels that bears the statement “Authentic Trappist Product.”

Westvleteren in West Flanders is one of the oldest Trappist breweries in the world, and the beer produced by the monks in this Belgium abbey has achieved cult status. Not sold through traditional retailers, this Trappist beer can only be purchased from the abbey itself. Only small quantities are produced—just 6,000 hectoliters a year—and as a result, not all three varieties are available at the same time. Anyone interested in purchasing the beer can call the brewery to reserve a maximum of two wooden crates, each containing 24 bottles. Lines are only open for a couple of hours a day and the beer must be collected on a date specified by the abbey. Given the enormous demand, it practically takes divine intervention to simply get through on the phone. The Westvleteren 12 variety, with an alcohol content of over 12%, is one of the best beers in the world according to the online ranking platform RateBeer, where it scores 100 points.

Every tradition has its origin

There’s a plausible reason why nuns and monks have maintained their beer tradition for centuries: During fasting, “liquid bread” had to replace food. A daily ration of five liters of beer was nothing unusual. Abbey residents are also not averse to special celebrations; so when the Bavarian abbey breweries founded their association, they decided to host a wooden barrel festival in Ettal Abbey as part of the 2018 Bavarian state exhibition.




Mareike Hasenbeck

Mareike Hasenbeck is a freelance journalist with her own craft beer blog (Feiner Hopfen), she is also a beer sommelier and an international expert for beer sensory certified by the DLG (German Agricultural Society).