Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Weihenstephan - world's oldest brewery

During a recent road trip through Germany, I spent a few nights in the town of Freising in Bavaria, about 40 km north of Munich. The plan was to use Freising as a base for taking daytrips into Munich, it made more sense this way because most Munich hotels were fully booked due to Oktoberfest. But Freising itself also has something unique to offer: The oldest existing brewery in the world - Weihenstephan.

The modern bar in the tasting room at Weihenstephan
- the oldest existing brewery in the world.

Freising and Weihenstephan
The history of the town of Freising is intertwined with the history of the Weihenstephan brewery and predates the founding of nearby Munich by many centuries. According to the chronicles of Bishop Arbeo (723-784), Pope Gregory II had sent out the Frankish monk Corbinian, ordained a Bishop, to evangelize Bavaria. In 724 the future Saint settled on a berg (a small mountain) in what is now Freising, where there already was a shrine. Here he established a monastery and a school.

While crossing the Alps from Rome, or so the myth goes, a bear had killed Corbinian's pack horse, but Corbinian knew how to solve this problem: He made the bear carry his luggage the rest of the way to Bavaria! The saddled bear has become a popular Bavarian legend and is today displayed in the coat of arms of Freising.

When Corbinian died in 730, his brother Erembert took over the governing of the monastery and school and in 738, when Saint Boniface regulated the ecclesial structure in the Duchy of Bavaria by creating four dioceses to be governed by the archbishop of Mainz, Erembert was chosen the first Bishop of Freising. From then on Freising became an important religious center in Bavaria.

The symbol of Freising, a saddled brown bear,
this one by the Weihenstephan brewery.
In 996 Freising received city rights from Emperor Otto III of the Holy Roman Empire and a couple of decades later, in 1020, a group of Benedictine monks settled on the Weihenstephaner Berg in the south of Freising. Here they built a Benedictine monastery and started brewing beer.

In 1040 the City of Freising gave the Benedictine monastery license to brew beer for sale to the public, which is why that year has been claimed as the foundation date by the Weihenstephan brewery, making it the oldest existing brewery in the world. But only ten years older than another Bavarian brewery, Klosterbrauerei Weltenburg.

For the next hundred years Freising remained an important city in Bavaria. In 1158, after having destroyed the episcopal bridge, custom houses, mint and salt works in Freising, Duke Henry the Lion moved the custom house and erected a new bridge in the village of Munich, which he had just founded. From then on Freising started to lose its economic significance while Munich grew to become the most important city in Bavaria.

With the rise of the French republic, which by definition was against all established religions, monasteries were closed all over Europe. First in France and Belgium, but in 1803 monasteries were closed in Bavaria too. Thus, after almost 800 years the Benedictine monastery on Weihenstephaner Berg closed and its buildings were taken over by the Bavarian state.

The brewery, which had been run by the monks, now became the property of the Bavarian state but it continued to make the Weihenstephaner beers. In 1865 a technical brewing school was established at Weihenstephan and since 1923 the brewery has been known as Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan or Bavarian State Brewery Weihenstephan, operated in conjunction with the Technical University of Munich as both a state-of-the-art production facility and a centre for learning.

The Bavarian State Brewery Weihenstephan.

Bavarian State Brewery Weihenstephan
Bavarian State Brewery Weihenstephan is located in the buildings of the old Benedictine monastery on top of the Weihenstephaner Berg in the south of Freising. It facilitates a research laboratory for the study of yeast and other beer related topics, as well as an educational program for new brewmasters. The brewery is open for public tours and tastings, and about a dozen types of beer are brewed here.

I joined a tour in September and was guided around the brewery by future brewmaster Daniel. Each tour starts in the tasting room, watching a short movie about the history of Weihenstephan. Then the visitors put on orange vests, to make them stand out, and are then led into the brewery proper, to see the large mash tuns and brewing kettles - all fully automated and run by computers from the control room.

We were told that Weihenstephan will brew around 320,000 hectolitre (hl) of beer in 2012, which is small by international standards but still sufficient for export to many countries in Europe and America.

The large 300 hl mash tuns at Weihenstephan.
A typical batch at Weihenstephan is made from 5,000 kg malt, which is mixed with 250 hl water in the large mashing tuns to create the wort used for brewing most of their beers (though I assume the stronger bocks have a different ratio of malt and water).

Our guide informed us that Weihenstephan currently brew 13 types of beer - including both top and bottom fermented beers.

Their top fermented beers, mostly wheat beers, ferment at 20 degrees Celsius for a couple of days and is lagered for five weeks before they are ready for consumption. Their bottom fermented beers ferment at 7-8 degrees Celsius for a week and are lagered for 7-8 weeks before kegging or bottling. We were also told that the brewers reuse the yeast many times, the bottom fermenting yeast 3-4 times and the top fermenting yeast up to 20 times.

Like most German breweries, Weihenstephan prefer German or Czech noble hops - more precisely Tettnanger, Hallertau and Saaz. The hops are mainly used in the form of pellets but the brewery also uses hop extract when brewing beer. To keep the full flavor, none of their beers are pasteurized or filtered (with the exception of the Kristall which is filtered).

The last stop on the tour, before returning to the tasting room, was in the large and very modern bottling plant where a robot handled the kegging of beer and another machine bottled up to 36,000 bottles per hour. To save the environment, the brewery reuses a bottle up to 60 times before it gets recycled.

After the tour of the brewery and bottling facility we were led back to the tasting room where we were given tasters of several types of beer - from their low alcohol alternatives and weissbiers to their high gravity bocks, including the delicious Korbinian doppelbock, named after the Saint mentioned at the beginning of this blog post. It was a nice way to end a great brewery tour.

The tasting of Weihenstephaner Korbinian
- a delicious 7.4% abv doppelbock.

Weihenstephan bräustüberl and biergarten
After a visit to the brewery, I highly recommend making a stop in their biergarten - if it's a warm and sunny day - or in the cozy bräustüberl. Both are located right next to the brewery, on top of Weihenstephaner Berg, sharing a very good Bavarian kitchen and offering the freshest Weihenstephaner beer found on tap anywhere.

Bräustüberl Weihenstephan is separated into several charming beer halls and rooms. The largest room is the Stephanskeller, on the ground floor, where up to 230 guests can be seated on heavy wooden furniture under the old, vaulted brick ceiling. You can almost feel the ghosts of long gone monks pass by your table.

The food at the Bräustüberl is top notch, on my visit I enjoyed the very tasty and filling Brewmaker's Frying Pan - with medallions of pork and beef in a rich mushroom sauce. The service was fairly quick and good, despite several large groups being served at the same time. The downside is the acoustics, it can get a bit noisy when Stephanskeller fills up.

A big attraction at the Bräustüberl, if you're into beer, is the unfiltered Weihenstephan Edel-Pils which is served only at this location. And draft only. You really don't need any other reasons for a visit, this is a smooth and very tasty pilsener.

The Stephanskeller beer hall in Bräustüberl Weihenstephan.

The biergarten is located at the back of the Bräustüberl building. About 500 guests can be seated under the open sky, enjoying the view of Freising and its green surroundings while indulging in good local beer and food.

At the end of September, not many of the tables in the biergarten were taken. But the sun was out so I decided to enjoy the view and a couple of beers outside. The schänke offered hot brezn, leberkäze, chicken and other food stuffs. And, of course, several beers on draft - including:

* Weihenstephaner Original Hell (5.1%)
* Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier (5.4%)
* Weihenstephaner Tradition Bayrisch Dunkel (5.2%)

On bottle I could also order their two bock beers, the 7.7% abv Vitus weizenbock and the 7.4% Korbinian doppelbock. The biergarten is small by Bavarian standards but has a lovely view and is absolutely worth a visit if you should happen to be in Freising.

The 5.1% Weihenstephaner Edel-Pils Unfiltriert
- only sold at Bräustüberl Weihenstephan

More photos from the Weihenstephan visit can be found at Flickr.

No comments:

Post a Comment