More to Oktoberfest
> Munich is not the only place to seek out Bavaria’s finest brews in a once-in-a-lifetime beer pilgrimage
IT WAS one of those heaven-sent moments: on a holy mountain sitting under the horse-chestnut trees; in front of me rolling, forested hills veiled in a thin, ethereal mist, and beyond them the frieze of distant Alps.
Beside me was a half-litre of ‘liquid bread’, made all the more spiritually intoxicating for having been brewed by my hosts – the monks.
And yes, sitting there on the terrace of the monastery gasthof, I’d already had a beer or two.
But by drinking beer and waiting for my roast pork and dumplings, I was merely a modern manifestation of a long tradition.
Pilgrims to the monastery of Andechs, south of Munich, have been experiencing the heaven-sent pleasure of re-vittling here for hundreds of years.
And they continue to do so, although the true pilgrims (those who had set out on foot from Munich on the first stage of a journey to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela) were hard to pick out among the large, international crowd on the holy hillock that evening.
As far as I could see, the rest of us were only here for the beer.
This year is the 500th birthday of the Reinheitsgebot, the German beer purity law, which remains the oldest nutrition law still in use in the world. It insists that beer should only be made from the simple ingredients of barley, hops and water, and is the reason why German brews are still so lipsmackingly good.
The Reinheitsgebot originated in Bavaria, home of the Oktoberfest, which kicked off its frothy festivities recently. But I’d decided to dodge the six million-strong crowds and come here for my own little pilgrimage.
And I was making it all the more spiritual by doing my drinking at two Benedictine monasteries with a fine tradition of home-brew hospitality, and in two great locations accessible from Munich: Andechs, on its own hill between the lakes of Starnberg and Ammersee; and Weltenburg, which lies on an almost comically scenic section of the Danube near Regensburg.
Weltenburg, my first stop, also happens to be in the Holy Land of hop gardens, the Hallertau, which is among the world’s largest hopgrowing areas.
So before I visited the monastery, I had a couple of hoppy diversions.
One was an excursion out into the Hallertau itself, a rolling landscape patched with standing hops up to seven metres tall, which makes driving between them like passing through canyons of green. An enormous 98% of it goes into making beer.
Elisabeth Stiglmaier, a hop farmer’s wife and self-proclaimed ‘hop ambassador’, was my guide here.
She took me out around the typical Hallertau village of Attenhofen to show me how the vines are tended and harvested. One hectare of these fluffy green cones is sufficient hoppiness for a mind-boggling nine million pints.
Some of the Hallertau’s hops end up in the oldest monastic brewery in the world at Weltenburg, where the brewing habit – since 1050 – is 500 years older than even the Reinheitsgebot.
Just downriver is the elegant, Italianate imperial city of Regensburg, and many of Weltenburg’s visitors make the journey upriver through a spectacular high-walled limestone gorge.
Most come to sit in the big treeshaded courtyard, which has enough space to seat a couple of hundred people, all tucking into lunch and drinking the monastery’s famous dark beer.
This Benedictine tradition of hospitality stems from St Benedict’s requirement that monasteries should provide both food and accommodation to pilgrims and the poor.
During long periods of Catholic fasting, only liquid could be consumed by the faithful, so the monks brewed a high malt content beer as a bread replacement.
To this day, beer in Germany is still referred to as ‘liquid bread’.
In fact, the monks themselves (there are just seven left) are pretty partial to a glass or two, brewmaster Ludwig said as he showed me around.
Ludwig is proud of the fact that the Weltenburg brewery has won the ‘best dark beer in the world’ prize three times in recent history.
The success, he said, is partly down to the quality of water in the monastery’s own spring. And, of course, partly down to brewing expertise.
At Andechs, on the other side of Munich, the monastic order is Benedictine too, but the setup is slightly different.
Here, the 17 monks in the community combine ‘Ora et Labora’, work and prayer, and that means that all the brewing, maturing and bottling, is done on site, under their supervision.
Andechs’ history is patchy, and the monastic church less ethereal than Weltenburg, but the location and the views are enough to bring large cheerful crowds to the Bräustüberl, the main monastic biergarten, particularly on summer weekends.
Andechs gets a million visitors a year, and on many days, the curse of the selfie means it is impossible for the monks to be able to wear their habits in public without incessantly being asked to pose.
Last orders at the Andechs Bräustüberl are at 8pm, to make space for prayer time.
By 9pm, those of us who were staying in the monastery’s guestrooms – large, light and comfortable, and with a couple of free bottles of Andechs beer thrown into the bargain – were surrounded by peace, and had the cobbled pathways and the views to ourselves.
Next morning, I hopped in a taxi back to the nearest railway station, my pilgrimage done.
The driver turned out to be an enthusiast for monastic beer, telling me that Andechs also does an alcohol-free version, which apparently perks him up after the gym.
It is, he said, “just like liquid bread”. I’ll drink to that. – The Independent
Celebration of a great brew ... some of the older breweries in Bavaria can be found in (top row, from left) the Andechs monastery; the Weltenburg monastery; and the imperial city of Regensburg.