Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Weltenburg: A “pilgrimage” to the shrine of beer

You can go there on horseback, or on foot like the ancient Romans did –this is where the Via iuxta Danuvium, the most important Roman road on the northern frontier of the Empire, began. A boat can also take you there, as the river crosses the impressive Danube Gorge, near Kelheim. And if the weather is nice, spending some time in the biergarten in the old cloister, leisurely sipping a Kellerbier or a Barock Dunkel, is almost mandatory.

As Oktoberfest begins, the biergarten of the Weltenburg monastery becomes one of the most popular destinations in Germany. And whereas claiming that the Weltenburger is the best beer in the world might be an exaggeration, it is also true that this beer has won six medals (three of them, gold ones) in the World Beer Cup, three European Beer Star awards, and around another 50 gold medals in other gastronomic competitions.

Weltenburg is synonymous with tradition. This is the second oldest active monastic brewery in the world, with almost a thousand years of activity –it’s been actively brewing since the year 1050. And whereas it is common knowledge that the oldest one would be Weihenstephan, (which was founded just ten years earlier), some historians have their doubts: the annals of the Weltenburg monastery explicitly say its first brewmaster died in 1035. But that’s another (quite heated) debate.

Weltenburg monastery, by the Danube river.

A thousand-year-old monastery

Archaeologists who have worked in the beautiful meander of the Danube in which the Benedictine abbey of Weltenburg stands claim it has been inhabited since Neolithic times. In the ancient era, because of its proximity to the limes (the border dividing the Roman Empire from the barbarian peoples), it was a heavily militarized area –in fact, the remains of an ancient fort have also been found there.

Weltenburg Abbey

Tradition has it that Eustasius and Agilus, Irish disciples of St. Columbanus, founded the first monastery here as early as in the year 617. That is, Weltenburg is historically related with the very first evangelization of Germany –the noted Hiberno-Scottish mission. The colossal religious and cultural feat carried out by the Irish monks in the early Middle Ages cannot be ignored: they built an imposing network of monasteries all over Europe, especially the German Schottenklöster. Most of these monasteries are connected by pilgrimage routes that go all the way back to Ireland, to the birthplaces of these adventurous monks.

In short, Weltenburg has been around for over fourteen hundred years. As expected from such a long history, the monastery has had its share of vicissitudes, including its expropriation in 1803 –and its happy reopening in 1842, again as a Benedictine abbey. And whereas the actual building was fully renovated in the 18th century (almost nothing of the 6th century foundation remains) its brewery has been there since the very early days of the monastery –and has kept on brewing until today.

The monastery also offers pilgrims an inn, since it is quite close to the Munich pilgrimage path that connects with the Way of St. James.

The art of brewing beer

The Germans did not invent beer, but they certainly made it a national treasure. And if there is one place in the world that can be considered the Mecca of beer, that’s Bayern –or, even more specifically, the Bayerische monastery belt that includes Ettal, Andechs, Weihenstephan, and Weltenburg.

Oktoberfest might be the most internationally known beer festival, but another Bavarian festival is directly related to these monasteries: the Starkbierfest. Stark bier literally translates as “strong beer” –the kind of malty, caloric beers also known as “liquid bread” that monks used to brew to cope with the rigors of the Lenten fast.

Although German monasteries began brewing ales, nowadays they mostly Märzen-style lagers –the kind of beer one begins to brew in March, Märzen. But Weltenburg’s beer portfolio also includes wheat beers and its noted mild, reddish Barock Dunkel, which has already won three world prizes. For many beer experts, the key to its quality is Bavarian water, one of the least alkaline in Europe.

But Weltenburg is much more than a trendy biergarten: it is an active monastery, with an active community of Benedictine monks and a great tradition of hospitality. It is well worth a visit to learn not only about brewing, but also about monastic life.

This post is also available in: Español Italiano

Leave a Comment