Humans have been making beer for thousands of years, but the oldest brewery still in existence wasn’t built until the 11th century. The Weihenstephan Brewery was founded in Freising, Germany in 1040 AD and is considered the world’s oldest brewery. So how was this brewery developed, and how has it changed over the last thousand years?
Engraving of Weihenstephan Abbey, home of the world’s oldest continuously operating brewery, by Michael Wening in Topographia Bavariae, about 1700 ( Public Domain )
Monks Brew the Best Beer
The development of the Weihenstephan Brewery is an unconventional one. Weihenstephan’s building was originally built in 725 AD as a Benedictine monastery on Nahrberg Hill. Saint Corbinian, a Frankish bishop, built this monastery and school along with twelve of his followers. A sanctuary was already present nearby on the mountain, making it the perfect spot for the monastery. Like many other monasteries in Europe, the Benedictine monks began to brew beer in the building to offer to visitors and to keep them alert during times of fasting. Since beer contained more nutrients than water alone, it was considered the perfect meal replacement for fasting monks.
Saint Corbinian teaches the people of Freising. He also helped found what is now the world’s oldest brewery. ( Public Domain )
Just a few decades after the monastery’s establishment, the monks began to cultivate their own hops to use in the brewing process. This is one of the earliest pieces of evidence of hops being used in beer production, as hops were not used in brewing before the Middle Ages . Since a wild hop garden already existed on the grounds of the monastery, it is believed that the monks used them experimentally to add additional flavor and nutrients to their beer. Clearly, it was a good choice.
The monks at Weihenstephan mastered the hops brewing process, and their determination created the world’s oldest brewery (JoeFoodie / CC BY SA 2.0 )
Unfortunately, the monks endured some hardships along the way to commercial brewing. In 955 AD, Hungary invaded the region and destroyed the monastery. Though they could not be stopped from rebuilding the monastery, this reconstruction took many years to complete. It wasn’t until nearly 100 years after its destruction in 1040 AD that the monastery converted into a full-time brewery. Abbot Arnold, who ran the monastery at the time, had successfully obtained a license for the monastery to sell beer in the community.
Even Earthquakes Couldn’t Stop the World’s Oldest Brewery
Fate was against the poor monastery brewery. In the 400 years after obtaining that license, the brewery was destroyed nearly a dozen times. Between four fires, three plagues, multiple famines, and an earthquake, it seemed the monastery had little hope of success. The monks, however, refused to face defeat. They continued to rebuild the monastery brewery each and every time it was destroyed. Along with repairing the building, they also improved their brewing with each rebuild, committed to coming back stronger than before each time.
After the 15th century, the monastery brewery began to thrive. It did not face further physical disaster and continued to brew and sell beer, both in the community and afar. In the 16th century, their recipe for brewing changed, after the Duke Wilhelm of Bavaria issued a new regulation called the Bavarian Purity Law. This law required that brewers only brew beer with three ingredients: water, hops, and barley. This ensured that consumers would remain safe while drinking beer, since some brewers at the time used additional ingredients that were sometimes harmful, or even deadly.
The oldest brewery at Weihenstephan suffered numerous disasters. The Catastrophe, Eduard von Grützner 1892 ( Public Domain )
While no further natural disasters occurred to the brewery, it still faced great changes in the 19th century. In 1803, the monastery brewery was secularized. The Bavarian State took control of the brewery and all its possessions, so it could be further regulated. Brewing continued, but the brewery was no longer owned by the monks who had so lovingly cared for it. The monks continued to brew there in the coming years, training new secular brewers as they aged.
In 1852, the Weihenstephan Brewery received a crew of new Bavarian students from the Central Agricultural School, which had just moved from Schleissheim. These students learned the craft of brewing from some of the most experienced brewers in the country and continued to pass on this knowledge to incoming brewing students. By the early 20th century, the school became an academy within the Technical University Munich, called the University for Agriculture and Brewing. This program quickly made Weihenstephan the capital of the beer brewing world , having some of the most advanced brewing technology the world had ever seen. Soon, yearning brewers worldwide began applying to the Bavarian State Brewery Weihenstephan for a chance to become skilled and famous brewers.
The world’s oldest brewery in Weihenstephan, Bavaria, Germany is now owned by the state ( aero-pictures.de / Adobe Stock)
A Brewery Risen From the Ashes
The fame of the Bavarian State Brewery Weihenstephan remains today. It is still sought out as one of the most advanced and elite brewing training centers in the world. The Weihenstephan Brewery, although the oldest brewery, has some of the most modern technology to brew beer in the world, and remains committed to its pure ingredients. Brewers who received their training at the Weihenstephan Brewery have become international ambassadors for the brewing industry. They frequently attend conferences and share their knowledge about brewing with brewers across the globe, only strengthening Weihenstephan’s long-time reputation as the brewing center of the world.
The history of the Weihenstephan Brewery is a long and complex one. In the face of so much tragedy, one would assume that this brewery would have failed countless times in the last thousand years. Instead, fueled by the inspiration of a few dozen Benedictine monks, the famous monastery brewery remained as strong as ever. Like a phoenix, the Weihenstephan Brewery rose from the ashes (sometimes literally) and remains the oldest brewery continuously operating, as well as one of its most famous.
Top image: The world’s oldest brewery is located in Bavaria, Germany, established by Benedictine monks. Cellar scene with happy monks by Simony Jenson, 1904. Source: Public Domain
By Lex Leigh