Welcome to October. The celebration of Oktoberfest is in full swing. Ever wondered where the party started?
On Oct. 12, 1810, Bavaria’s crown prince Ludwig (late King Ludwig I) married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. Everyone in Munich was invited to attend festivities held in the fields outside the city. They liked it so well that they did it again the next year — and every year since. It soon became “Oktoberfest.”
Beer is a large part of Oktoberfest, but the frothy brew has church ties going back centuries before Ludwig and Therese ever met. (The royal Bavarian couple was Catholic, but Ludwig was not the best at following his marriage vows.)
Beer first appeared thousands of years ago, probably concocted by the Sumerians in the Middle East region of Mesopotamia. Ancient Egyptians also brewed beer, as did imperial Romans. But most of this early beer was not any sort of beer we would recognize today. Instead, it may have been made from barley while others could have been more like a Slavic drink known as kvass — low in alcohol content and brewed from stale bread. (This is probably part of the reason beer has often been called “liquid bread.”)
Modern beer, or technically ale as it started out, owes a lot to ancient church monasteries. And while most monastic breweries trace their roots to Germanic regions, beer brewing has Irish ties as well. It seems that when Irish monks, led by St. Columban in the early seventh century, headed into Europe, they brought beer-making skills with them to their newly-founded monasteries. In turn, these monasteries later built breweries in Switzerland, France and Bavaria.
Weihenstephan Brewery, now a state-run Bavarian brewery, traces its roots to an eighth-century Benedictine abbey. It claims to be the oldest continuously-running brewery in the world. Nearby Weltenburg also claims that title and, while now secularized, it does trace its roots to a seventh-century Benedictine monastery. (Their current style of beer has been brewed since 1050.)
Whoever had the first modern beer brew — Benedictine, Trappist and Cistercian (which all follow the Rule of Benedict) abbeys have been especially noted for brewing for centuries — it is clear that monasteries followed the patterns of German home brewing of the time. Because water was not considered healthy to drink, since it was not purified, families brewed their own beer for the necessary daily liquid consumption. Processing beer includes steeping at hot temperatures.
This concern about healthy water was noted by St. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century Benedictine abbess, healer and scientific writer. In her nine-volume work, Physica sacra (1150), Hildegard wrote that it was better for a sick person to drink beer “because it has been boiled.”
Hildegard, declared a Doctor of the Church in 2012, is also credited with the first recording of the process of how hops were used in monastery breweries — even though hops added to ale was documented in Benedictine abbeys dating to the eighth and ninth centuries. Until hops were added, what was called “beer” was more accurately called “ale.” Besides adding the familiar bitter tang to beer, the oil in the hops flowers also act as a preservative and allows the brew to be kept longer and shipped farther.
Another technique monastic brewmasters developed was that of multiple “runnings,” which resulted in three different strengths of beer in one complete brew cycle. Progressive runs of water passed through the brew mash produce a progressively weaker beer. The first run — the highest in alcohol and flavor — generally went to the monastery’s sponsors, to visiting pilgrims and to the abbot. The second run was used by the monks themselves and lay brothers. The third run, along with bread, was given to the poor. (Feeding the poor was a monastic tradition long before the serving of beer.)
What began as both a means of self-support and of charity, soon became a thriving business for monasteries — both of monks and nuns. The German Beer Institute notes that “the 10th and 11th centuries were the heyday of monastic brewing in Germany. In a country of perhaps nine or ten million inhabitants, there were some 500 monastery breweries (300 of which in Bavaria alone).”
Trappist beers remain highly popular to this day. There is even a Trappist brewery located in the United States: St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass., which was awarded the right to use the “Authentic Trappist Product” logo in 2013.
The International Trappist Association sets the rules for monastery products that carry the official “Trappist product” labels. There are only 12 breweries in the world allowed to carry the title today. Among the rules are that the beer must be made within the wall of a Trappist monastery, brewing must be of “secondary importance” to the monastic way of life and the income from the beer or ale must never exceed what is needed to maintain the monks and the abbey: Everything else must go to the poor.
What a better way to serve the King of kings than to serve the poor? It’s a good way to celebrate Oktoberfest all year long.
Sources: trappist.be; Ithinkaboutbeer.com; spencerbrewery.com; beerhistory.com; npr.org; history.com; stpeterslist.com; Germanbeetinstitute.com; oldcook.com; drunkenhistory.com; zythophile.co.uk; washingtonpost.com and muenchen.de.