Friday, 19 September 2014

Heavenly Brew - Part One

Kloster Weltenburg's spectacular setting, on the Danube

Whenever there is talk of monastery brewing, one country always springs to mind, especially in the minds of beer lovers. Belgium of course, has a rich tradition of monastic brewing, particularly as the country is home to six of the seven Trappist monasteries. It is also a country where so-called “Abbey Ales” (beers produced in a secular brewery under licence from a monastery), are relatively common. However, neighbouring Germany also has a heritage of monastic brewing which, despite being less well known, in many cases pre-dates that of Belgium.

During my travels in southern Germany over the past 10 years I have come across quite a number of largely unknown breweries either directly attached to a monastery or with still visible former links to one. Their relative obscurity may well be due to the fact that they haven’t marketed themselves as vigorously as their Trappist brethren; with most of their production destined mainly  local consumption, and precious little in the way of bottles finding their way into overseas export markets. Also, unlike the Trappist Breweries in the Low Countries, there is no umbrella organisation to look after their interests, fight their corner or to promote their wares as a whole. This however, makes tracking them down all the more exciting and rewarding.

A glass of monastery-brewed beer
One fairly obvious clue when it comes to looking for monastery breweries in Germany is the use of the word “Kloster” in the brewery name. Similar to the English word "cloister” the word means monastery or convent. However, as in Belgium, there are quite a number of breweries which style themselves as “Kloster”, but closer inspection reveals either a very tenuous link with a monastery or abbey, or even a link which may have existed in the past, but which is no longer there. Most surviving monasteries whether brewing or not, are located within the state of Bavaria. This is hardly surprising when one considers that this part of Germany is a staunchly Catholic region. However, even here many monasteries were secularised during the early 19th Century, partly as a result of the Napoleonic wars and the determination of Bonaparte to stamp his authority on territories that he’d conquered. Even when these institutions were handed back to their rightful owners, any tradition of brewing which may had existed had often been lost during the intervening years, and in many cases  did not resume.

For the purpose of this post though I am including all those German breweries which use the name “Kloster” in their title, as in the vast majority of cases brewing still takes place in the original monastery buildings irrespective of whether there are monks, or nuns, living there now!

The Bräustüberl at Kloster Andechs
Kloster Andechs is almost certainly the best known and most widely available German monastic brewery, and to anyone who has been to Munich requires little in the way of introduction. Having undergone considerable expansion in recent years, Andechs beers are now available in other parts of Germany – they have a flagship pub in Nuremberg and I have drunk them in Berlin. Their website states they are now available in the United States. 

Andechs brew a wide range of pretty decent beers, but to me they never taste as good as they do at the monastery itself, on top of the Holy Mountain, over-looking the Ammersee Lake, just outside the town of Herrsching. My first visit there, back in 2005 was the most memorable, probably because it was all new to me and I didn’t know what to expect. The ride out from central Munich to the end of the S-5 Line was pleasant enough, but apart from reading that there was a footpath up to Andechs, I had no idea of where it started from.  Fortunately the local Tourist Information office put me on the right track, providing me with a photo-copied map, and before long I was leaving the town behind and heading up through the woods to the Holy Mountain. The walk, which was steadily uphill for most of the way, took around an hour, and I was certainly building up a thirst. On the way I had passed a few other walkers, but hadn’t really seen that many other people. When I arrived at Andechs though I just couldn’t believe how busy it was; where had all these other thirsty punters come from?
Enjoying a beer in the sun at Kloster Andechs

The answer of course, was they came by road; either by bus or car, and since that first trip all subsequent visits we have made to Andechs have also been by bus. However, to get that true monastery experience and to really feel like a pilgrim, make the journey on foot so that you really appreciate your beer!

If journeying by foot appeals to the pilgrim within you, then how about arriving at a monastery by boat? This is exactly how my son and I arrived at the next monastic brewery on the list. Kloster Weltenburg is sited on a bend on the gorge carved by the River Danube as it makes is way north towards the ancient city of Regensburg. The setting for this centuries old monastery must rank amongst the most spectacular in the world, and given this water-side setting journeying here by boat makes perfect sense. Pleasure boats cruise down to Weltenburg along the Danube on a daily basis; certainly in summer when there are several return services each day. 

Sailing down the Danube Gorge towards Kloster Weltenburg
The boats depart from the small town of Kelheim, home to the world-famous wheat beer brewers, Georg Schneider & Co. In order to make the trip, Matt and I travelled to Kelheim, from where we were staying in Regensburg, via train and then bus and, after locating the waterside departure point, booked ourselves a return ticket. The boats which ply up and down the river are similar to the ones on the Thames. Being a pleasant June day, we sat outside on the top deck in order to make the most of the scenery which we would soon be passing through. This being Germany, we could have had a beer or two as we travelled down, but it was rather too early in the morning for me and, besides, we’d had a pretty heavy session the night before! Our journey took us past the  impressive Walhalla Monument, before we approached the entrance to the steep-sided Danube Gorge. The boat made slow, but steady progress against the fast flowing river, and before long we were surrounded on both sides by high limestone cliffs, topped with trees. It wasn’t quite the “Lost World” but it certainly felt like we were cut off from civilisation. 

We witnessed some rather rash local youths jumping off the rocks and then swimming back to shore; it all looked rather risky given the swiftly moving current, but presumably they knew what they were doing. Then, as we rounded a bend we could see Kloster Weltenburg ahead on the left-hand bank. The ship’s captain slowed our vessel down to enable us to approach the landing stage and moorings, which were a few hundred yards away from the monastery, and a five minute walk. Making a careful note of the departure times, we made our way to the monastery which sits on a spit of land made up of fine white pebbles, which juts out into the river. Being sited in such a picturesque setting is not without perils though, as was demonstrated in 2005 when the monastery was inundated by the disastrous floods which occurred on the Danube that autumn. Weltenburg's flood defences were also severely tested in 2011.

Monastery church - Kloster Weltenburg
The monastery itself is constructed in Baroque style, but there has been a monastic community based here since the 11thCentury, and a continuous tradition of brewing ever since In fact Kloster Weltenburg lays claim to being the oldest monastery brewery in the world. These days, in order to meet increased demand, the brewing of Weltenburg’s paler beers is contracted out to the Bischofshof Brewery in nearby Regensburg, and the company also provide technical and sales assistance to the brothers. Weltenburg’s darker beers though, such as Barock Dunkles and Anno 1050 are still brewed at the monastery. We were able to sample a few of their draught offerings in the shaded, courtyard beer garden, where we joined quite a throng of people enjoying their lunch. We sat and chatted over our lunch of Leberkaas and potato salad, with a group of cyclists who had travelled all the way from Bonn.
Beer garden - Kloster Weltenburg

Afterwards I had a brief look inside the impressive monastery church, which has ceiling frescoes painted by the renowned Asam Brothers, before catching the mid-afternoon boat back to Kelheim. The return journey took half the time of the outward one, as we were now travelling with the swiftly moving current; rather than fighting against it.

To be continued....................

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