Monday, December 31, 2012

Kloster Weltenburg on the Donau

Known as Donau, in Germanic languages, Danube is the second longest river in Europe, after Volga in Russia. From its source in Schwarzwald (the Black Forest), in south-west Germany, it winds its way eastward for 2860 kilometers before emptying out into the Black Sea. Its historical importance as a border between the Roman empire to the south and the "barbarian" nations to the north and, later, for trade and traffic is obvious from the many famous cities founded on its banks - such as Vienna in Austria, Bratislava in Slovakia, Budapest in Hungary and Belgrade in Serbia. Along its upper reaches a number of old monasteries can be found too, including Stift Engeszell in Austria and Kloster Weltenburg in Bavaria. The latter is home to the second oldest brewery in the world, Klosterbrauerei Weltenburg, and is the topic of this post.

First view of the Weltenburg Abbey from a Donau ferry. 

Kloster Weltenburg
Located 440 km downstream from the source of Danube, near the Donaudurchbruch bei Weltenburg or Danube gorge by Weltenburg, lies the Benedictine abbey of Weltenburg. This the oldest monastery in Bavaria, founded by Irish or Scottish monks in about 620 CE. The abbey has brewed its own beer since at least 1050, which has been taken as the official foundation date for the modern brewery, making it just ten years younger than the Weihenstephan brewery in Freising and thus the second oldest brewery in Bavaria and in the world!

The simplest, most relaxing and scenic way of getting to the abbey is to park your car on the large car parking by the river in old town Kelheim and take one of the Altmühltal ferries going from Kelheim to Weltenburg, some 5 km upstream. During the summmer months (April-September) the ferries leave Kelheim every 45 minutes, between 10 am and 3:30 pm, taking 40 minutes going upstream and half that time going back down.

Weltenburg abbey - the oldest in Bavaria.

On the way to Weltenburg you get treated to some great views of old town Kelheim, the Befreiungshalle on Mount Michelsberg, riverside houses and gardens and of the narrow gorge, with its steep walls, that the ferry passes through just before the beautiful abbey comes into view on a small peninsula on the left bank of the river. The ferry landing is just under the walls of the abbey, a short walk from the main entrance. Some people also opt to walk the riverside trail from Kelheim to Weltenburg, so if you feel sporty that is also a nice way of getting there, and it adds the extra attraction of crossing the rapid river in an unmotored cable ferry - propelled forward by the force of the river water only.

Most of the buildings seen at the abbey today are from the 18th century. The baroque church was built 1716-1751 by the architect brothers Cosmas Damian Asam and Aegid Quirin Asam, who have been immortalized with their own Asam Bock beer at the abbey. Because of the turbulent times in Europe, with wars and conflicts, the abbey was surrounded by a protective stone wall along the river (the other side is protected by a hill) and a large gate at the front.

Like other abbeys in Bavaria, Weltenburg was forced to close and the monks dispelled during the secularization of Bavaria in 1803. However, fourty years later some Benedictine monks were allowed to settle here and re-found the Weltenburg abbey, which is still today operated by the Benedictine order.

The beer garden in the courtyard at Weltenburg abbey.

Today, the Weltenburg abbey provides visitors with a nice beer garden at the main square, art galleries, shops selling religious artifacts and a museum. And the abbey also offers guided tours of its old brewery.

The Klosterbrauerei
You can book a brewery tour by filling out a form on the website, or you can just stop by the abbey museum and sign up for the first available tour - they're usually not full anyway, but you may end up on a German speaking tour (like I did).

The brewery is located in the building on the south-west side of the central courtyard, just a few steps from the tables of the beer garden. The brewhouse is located on the first and second floor and the grist mill on the third floor, so that gravity can be used to transport the ground malt into the mash tun and from there the wort down into the brew kettle.

The building housing the Klosterbrauerei Weltenburg.

In 1973, the last brewmaster at Klosterbrauerei Weltenburg retired and the abbey brewery went into a "Personalunion" with Brauerei Bischofshof in the city of Regensburg. Personalunion means "shared staff", so in effect the abbey brewery is now operated by brewers from the Regensburg brewery and not by the monks of Weltenburg. Today all the Weltenburger Kloster beers are bottled at Brauerei Bischofshof and several are brewed there too, but the classics - such as Barock Dunkel and Asam Bock - are still brewed at Weltenburg.

The deal with Brauerei Bischofshof was not made just to take the workload off the monks at Weltenburg but also because the old abbey brewery badly needed an upgrade, which was duly done in the mid 1970s - meaning that the modern Klosterbrauerei is a fairly modern brewery. It has a capacity of 100 hl per batch and produces 400 hl per week or 2 million liter beer per year.

According to the tour guide, Klosterbrauerei Weltenburg only uses hops from the Hallertau region and local malts in their beer. The hops are added in the form of pellets, usually 20 kg per batch. When I was there, in late September, hop harvest had just ended in Hallertau and the museum at Weltenburg had been decorated with fresh, deliciously smelling hop bines along the walls and under the ceiling. I couldn't help myself but squeeze and smell a hop cone ... hmmmm, euphoric!

Mash tun at the Weltenburg abbey brewery.

Another interesting piece of information from the tour was that the Weltenburg beers are now also brewed in Brazil, a country where beer seems to grow rapidly in popularity (I ran into a group of Brazilians at Weihenstephan a week earlier).

After touring the brewhouse, we were taken up to the third floor exhibition / tasting room, with windows overlooking the courtyard and beer garden. There we were given tastings of the various Weltenburg Kloster beers while the guide described the styles.

Because Weltenburg is a working monastery it closes its gates early, at 6 pm, and the last ferry returns to Kelheim at 4:15 pm so you've basically just got time for lunch in the beer garden before leaving. But it's well worth the trip, since the food is tasty and the draft beer world class. On my visit I enjoyed a dish of wild boar in porcino mushroom sauce accompanied by Barock Dunkel from draft before ending the visit with an Asam Bock from draft in a beautiful ceramic mug.

Asam Bock on draft at the Weltenburger abbey.

More photos can be found in this Flickr set.

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