Tastings School - Germany - A very stately brewery

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Germany - A very stately brewery

Roger Protz visits German brewery Weihenstephan, the oldest brewery in the world.

We think of lager as a modern style of beer, made possible by the industrial revolution of the 19th century that brought with it pale malt and ice-making machines. But is it possible that lager is almost as ancient as ale and dates back many centuries? This intriguing thought surfaces at a brewery near Munich where at every turn – on bottle labels, dispense founts, and logos in the brewhouse and packaging areas – you are assailed by signs announcing it is the Ältester Brauerei der Welt – the Oldest Brewery in the World.

The brewery is Weihenstephan.

Records show that monks built a brewery at their monastery in Freising close to Munich in 1040 AD but they may have been making beer even earlier, as hops were grown on the site from 768.

A religious community of Irish Benedictines established the monastery on a hill in 724. They called it Weihenstephan or Holy Stephan to commemorate the first Christian martyr.

The hill, with its commanding views of the surrounding countryside and the growing city of Munich – originally Mönchen, meaning ‘the monks’ place’ — was ideal for brewing, as beer could be stored in deep cellars beneath the monastery.

Could it be that the first lager beer may have been the work of Irish monks stationed in Bavaria? Lager means ‘storehouse’ in German – similar to the English word ‘larder’ – and the monks would have discovered that storing their beers in cold cellars and caves beneath their monastery kept them free from spoilage during the long, hot Bavarian summers.

Weihenstephan today is a modern, professional and commercial brewery.

But its history and pivotal role in brewing have not been lost. A new brewery museum, set in attractive cloistered rooms, traces its roots back to the 11th century and the many attempts to sack the monastery over the ensuing centuries.

The monastery was secularised in 1815 and control passed to the Bavarian royal family. When the monarchy fell at the end of World War I, Weihenstephan was taken over by the state and remains a government-owned enterprise, officially known as the Bayersiche Staatsbraurerei – the Bavarian State Brewery.

It’s a long way removed from a Sovietstyle, rigidly-controlled operation. Its management, led by managing director Dr Josef Schrädler, is given the freedom to develop an impressive portfolio of beers that is exported to Brazil, Britain, Australia, China, France, Israel, Japan, Russia, Scandinavia and the United States: around half of annual production is exported.

Weihenstephan is part of a complex at Freising that includes the school of brewing and agricultural science of the Technical University of Munich. A brewing school was opened in Freising in 1865 by Professor Carl Lintners and a pilot brewery for students was added in 1902. Since 1949 graduates – drawn from all over the world — have been awarded the degree of Master Brewer: one holder of the distinguished title is the British brewer Alastair Hook who runs the Meantime Brewery in London.

As well as teaching brewing skills, the faculty organises research into malting barley, new varieties of hops, how to extract the maximum amount of fermentable sugar from malt, and how the moderate consumption of beer can benefit health. The university has made a major study of how the alpha and beta acids in hops – humulones and lupulones – can help prevent cancer.

The Weihenstephan brewery is renowned as one of the finest producers of Bavarian wheat beer, though the total capacity of the plant of 230,000 hectolitres a year is modest by German standards. Wheat beer, which comes in hefeweiss (cloudy), kristall (filtered), or dunkel (dark), strong wheat bock and light and alcohol-free versions, accounts for around three-quarters of production. These are beers made by warm fermentation.

Lager beers include a helles or pale beer, a superb pilsner, a dunkel, a festbier for an annual beer jamboree in Freising – the town’s alternative to Munich’s grander Oktoberfest – and a strong dark beer called Korbinian, named after the monk who founded the monastery.

Korbinian recalls the brewery’s origins, as the first beers made by the monks would have been dark, with malt cured over wood fires. Wheat beers were the preserve of the aristocracy who felt the masses should be left to drink inferior brown beers. But throughout Bavaria, including its northern region of Franconia, home of the famous brewing city of Bamberg, brown beers were stored to keep them fresh. Ice was cut from lakes to help maintain the beers at low temperatures and this would have encouraged yeast cultures to self-select and work more slowly at lower temperatures than the conventional ‘top fermenting’ strains used by English ale brewers.

Weihenstephan’s brewmaster Frank Peifer uses a modern Steinecker plant: the leading supplier of brewing equipment is handily based in Freising. The Weihenstephan equipment is a traditional German kit based on mash mixers, lauter tun, brew kettle and hop whirlpool. The stainless steel vessels are set on tiled floors in a large room where arched windows give a powerful impression of the building’s monastic past.

Frank, who cheerfully admits to tasting his first beer of the day at 7am, pushes six 30-hectolitre brews a day through the brewhouse. The mashing regime is exhaustive and last for nine and a half hours. It’s a double decoction system, which Frank believes delivers more malt sugar for fermentation and gives greater body to the beer. Unlike a simple English infusion mash, where the malt is mixed with hot water in one vessel at a fixed temperature, double decoction means parts of the mash is pumped from one vessel to a second, where it’s heated to a higher temperature before returning to the first vessel.

When the wort or sugary extract leaves the mash mixers at a final temperature of 75ºC, it’s filtered in the lauter, then boiled with hops in a brew kettle. Frank uses Perle hops for his lager beers and Magnum for the wheat versions. They are in pellet form and come from the neighbouring Hallertau, the world’s biggest hop region close to Munich.

Weihenstephan stresses that all its ingredients – barley, wheat and hops – are sourced in Germany. “Our brewery is rooted in the native soil,” Dr Josef Schrädler stresses.

The wheat beers are fermented in two stages, first in horizontal tanks, which Frank Peifer believes are better suited to controlling the level of CO2 than upright conicals. The tanks also avoid too much banana and phenolic flavours, which can be overpowering in wheat beers and which come from the special yeast culture used. The beers are kräusened, which means that wort – sugary unfermented extract – is added to the maturing beer to encourage a strong second fermentation.

The beers are matured for a further three days in conicals, then cooled to 3.5ºC for the unfiltered version and zero degrees for the filtered one. While keg versions of wheat beer are pasteurised, the bottles are not. The two main versions, Hefeweiss – hefe means yeast hence the beer is not filtered – and the filtered Kristall, have 28 units of bitterness.

The yeast culture for lager beers is pumped to the fermenters through different pipes to avoid the risk of cross fertilisation. Pilsner and Helles ripen for six weeks in the cellar, first at 4-5ºC to reduce diacetyl, which gives an unwanted butterscotch flavour to the beer, then 0-1º for final maturation. Pilsner has 33 bitterness units, the Helles 25. They are extremely bitter by Bavarian standards – most pils in the region have around 23 IBUs, helles a mere 15.

The Pilsner is one of the finest of the breed and deserves wider recognition. But the style is in serious, long-term decline in Germany and the Weihenstephan management is concentrating on building sales of its wheat beers at home and abroad.

Weihenstephan, with the uncontested claim to be the world’s oldest brewery, is a place of learning as well as brewing. Its history is fascinating and may provide the key to unlocking the fascinating mystery of the early roots of lager brewing.

Tasting notes ORIGINAL LAGER OR HELLES 5.4% Pale gold beer using Hallertau hops. It has an aromatic, floral and slighty spicy nose followed by a quenching, toasted malt palate balanced by spicy hop resins. There’s a refreshing hint of lemon fruit in the finish balanced by juicy malt PILSNER 5.4% A shade darker than the Helles with a big lemon-citrus aroma from Perle hops, balanced by toasted malt and floral hops The beer is intensely bitter in the mouth – the bitterness coming from the citrus notes and the hop resins. The finish is long and quenching, with an quinine-like bitterness balancing toasted grain and lemon fruit. A world classic HEFEWEISSBIER DUNKEL 5.3% A dark wheat beer made with pale and roasted malts. It has an amber-red colour with a dense creamy head and a pronounced banana note on the nose, with strong hints of roasted grain and chocolate.

The full palate is dominated by rich grain and fruit and is followed by a long finish finely balanced between grain, fruit, chocolate and delicate, spicy hops HEFEWEISSBIER 5.4% A Bavarian classic: the blend of pale wheat and barley malts gives the beer a much lighter, hazy amber colour than the Dunkel. The Hallertau hops give it a unusually peppery hop note for a wheat beer, with banana and cloves in the mouth and a long creamy malt finish balanced by light hop notes KRISTALLWEISBIER 5.4% The filtered version, strawcoloured with an aroma of banana and cloves followed by a refreshing palate dominated by light hops, creamy malt, fruit and spices. The finish is predominately spicy but with good hop, grain and fruit notes Contact Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan, Postfach 11 55, D – 85311 Freising, Germany Tel: +49 (0)81 615 360 www.weihenstephaner.de The brewery museum is not open to casual visitors and tours must be booked in advance Info Freising has small statues of a bear at every turn.

Most shops have plastic versions of the animal while the Bräu-stüberl or beer hall at Weihenstephan greets visitors with a version of the beast carrying two beer casks on its back. The bear is at the centre of a legend that claims that Korbinian, the Irish Benedictine monk who founded the monastery, was en route from Freising to the Vatican when a bear attacked and killed his horse. Korbinian, with some help from above, tamed the bear and forced it to carry his baggage to Rome. This included beer brewed specially for the Pope. The legend has special resonance today as the current Pope, Benedict XVI, was previously Cardinal Ratzinger from Bavaria and he is known to enjoy a beer