Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Some of you may have gathered from my posts that one of my all time very favourite brewers is the one which is considered – at least by themselves – as the oldest brewery in the world and which makes some of the gosh-darned best beers a man can sip or skol. Or skull. Or scoll.

Weihenstephaner is a brewer of German origin and is situated on a hill called Nährberg in the south of the country at Freising in the region of Bavaria. Just north of Munich. Map 175, G6. The former monastery lays claim to the title of ‘oldest working brewery in the whole wide world ever’ and can trace its brewing origins back to 1040.

The whole monastery movement was founded in Italy by St. Benedict and, as it spread north into what is now Germany and Austria, it saw the removal of grapes and wine in favour of barley and beer. The alpine snows wend their way down into the Munich basin and it is here that the good Lord has seen fit to provide a great source of brewing water and a perfect spot for barley cultivation. Nice job, Lord.

The naturally defensible terrain lent itself as the perfect site for a monastery. The naturally natural nature of the hops, water and barley lent itself as the perfect site for a brewery.

Around 725AD a Benedictine monk named Korbinian founded a little chapel on a little hill called Weihenstephan. This means ‘sacred Stephen’ and its significance in this story is really cool and will be revealed shortly. By 1040AD the chapel had graduated to the status of abbey and was granted the right to sell its beer. This was a big deal because the retailing of beer was strictly controlled by the government and it wanted to protect its tax revenue and to ensure that the beer sold was of a good quality.

The dude who bestowed upon the Weihenstephaner brewery the right to sell beer was none other than the King of the day, Wenceslas. As in ‘Good King Wenceslas’. As in ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen’ – you know, the Christmas Carol? When he was looking out he was probably downing a large glass of Hefe Weissbier or maybe a Bayerisch Tradition or even a hoppy Pilsner*. Next Christmas when the kids start singing that one, smile knowingly and raise a glass to the church song about beer. Cool.

Hops have been grown in this area since around 700AD and so it made sense that Weihenstephan would enjoy a long and rich association with the region and with beer. Its beer history continues to this day. The brewery is now state owned and there is also a kind of Beer University attached as well as a restaurant and a library. Not the book kind, but the yeast kind. A veritable Aladdin’s cave of every conceivable strain of brewing yeast. I think that they may even do a kind of mail order yeast service for the big brewers.

Today, Weihenstephaner makes and distributes some ripping beers around the world. I have hosted a few beer dinners at restaurants and at nearly all of them I have managed to sneak in a ‘Steph. They range from the Original which is lagered for an extended time and is pale golden and refreshing, to the naturally cloudy and revitalising Hefe Weissbier and the dark, strong Korbinian, a double bock made for matching with roasts and smoked meat or fish. They make one of the finest Pilsners I have had the pleasure of downing as well as an award winning Kristallweissbier, made using a secret fermentation process, and an aromatic and malty Tradition.

The brewery/monastery has gone through a bit in the last thousand years. It was burned to the ground completely on four occasions between 1085 and 1463, was depopulated by three plagues and crumbled under an earthquake. Despite furious devastating raids by the Huns, the Swedes, the French and even their own Emperor Ludwig the Bavarian, those tenacious Benedictines not only refused to be beaten, but they also managed to perfect the art of brewing and improve their techniques each time they rebuilt. Good on them!

But in 1803 the State did what a thousand years of pillaging and raiding could not. With a flourish of a quill, the Weihenstephan Monastery was secularised, or religiously decommissioned. Every brewery possession and brewing right was transferred to the Bavarian state. Fortunately the brewery was taken over as a working brewery and not sold to a cheesy moustached developer with non-pleated slacks and carved up into a thousand pokey little lots with pissy two storey townhouses on them. The tradition was to continue because the drinkers of Bavaria deemed the beer too good to lose.

In 1852 the brewery the Central Agriculture School moved to Weihenstephan and all the brewing students came with it. In 1895 the school became an Academy and in 1919 was elevated to a University. It became incorporated into the Technical University of Munich in 1930 and soon developed into the world centre for brewing and brew technology.

So, if you are out and about and happen upon a friendly retail outlet with a friendly shopkeep who is a purveyor of the finest malted beverages, stride to the counter and confidently request a Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel or a Festbier and give them a try. If you can only find a Dan Murphy’s just go with an Original, a Pilsner or one of the wheat beers. Then go home and drink them and wish your companions a Merry Christmas from Good King Wenceslas.

(You will know from these pages that Weihenstephaner also pulled off the title of Grand Champion at this years beer gongs, the Beer Awards. I mentioned then that the reviewer who wrote the little piece on the awards referred to the beer as Weihenstephan – perhaps I even had a little crack at him – well, I stand by it. Yes, there is an overseas version bearing this moniker in some markets, but I don’t see how that would be any different from the one judged by Australian judges in Australia where the label contains the ‘er’ ending bit.)

*Well, not a pilsner probably, as this style was not invented until October 5, 1842 but you get the drift?

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