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Monday, 05 May 2008

Beer-less in Bavaria

Written by Sarah Jane Shangraw
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You love traveling. You love peeking in on other cultures. And you try to participate—not merely observe—by joining the locals in their customs, eating the food, drinking the drink. So what is it like when an allergy prevents you from partaking in full?

Beer-less in Bavaria, Bavarian brews, Bavarian beer, Andechs, Bavarian monastery, Benedictines of AndechsLet me tell you: When the region is Bavaria and the drink is beer—in fact the best beer in the world—it ain’t easy to say no.

Sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, means most beer is off-limits to me. A few brewers in pockets of the world where wheat and barley are not cultivated produce beer using rice or sorghum instead, but this is simply not allowed in Bavaria. The Reinheitsgebot (Bavarian Purity Law) of 1516 established water, barley, and hops as beer’s sole acceptable ingredients. (Early brewers were unaware of the presence of yeast in their open-air vats, so its role in fermentation and inclusion as a key ingredient was, for centuries unrealized.)

While popular wheat beers are new and obvious exceptions to the rules, traditional Bavarian brews continue to be composed of the original ingredients only. Some claim continued adherence to such laws is more marketing ploy than anything else. Either way, history, it seems, has shut me out.

Bavarians’ love for beer runs deep. While archaeological evidence indicates humans have been brewing beer at least since Sumerians farmed the Fertile Crescent, ninth-century Bavarian monks were the first to seriously organize its production. These pioneering brewmasters sold their commodity on holy days and sent the proceeds to associated abbeys in nearby municipalities.

Beer-less in Bavaria, Bavarian brews, Bavarian beer, Andechs, Bavarian monastery, Benedictines of AndechsIn this region, the pre-Alps rise up from the Isar River Valley, their white-laced rock summits stretching up steeply to sharp peaks that, upon further inspection, are dwarfed by the Alps themselves, steadfast if faint in the crisp skies beyond. The views from the medieval monasteries tucked into the southern Bavarian hills and forests are sometimes sweepingly grand. That, along with the notion that for centuries monks have gazed outward from the walls, to the fields, up the slopes, to the heavens themselves is disarming.

Beer-less in Bavaria, Bavarian brews, Bavarian beer, Andechs, Bavarian monastery, Benedictines of Andechs

Historic monastic records reveal that beer was not only a commodity to be produced and sold to better establish the greater glory of God; it was coveted by the monks themselves, who received daily rations and were rewarded for pious behavior with additional portions. Did the monks mentally escape their grueling chores and worship schedule through intoxication? Did the alcohol enhance their spiritual experience and propel them beyond the earthly realm of fields and farms to the skies above the nearby mountains?

Escaping, enhancing: Aren’t these the very reasons we imbibe? (And travel?) Alas, there was no spiritual stupor in my future the day I hiked to Andechs, a Bavarian monastery that’s been brewing beer since the Middle Ages. Forgoing the shuttle bus and road route, my travel partner and I took a five kilometer walk through the wooded hills above the lakeside town of Herrsching to its walls, which surround a church, historic royal apartments, living quarters and administrative buildings, a brewery and distillery, warehouses, and more. This is not just a place of worship. It is a thriving economic enterprise. And the liveliest piece of the hilltop complex is…the biergarten. Indeed, today’s Benedictines of Andechs produce some of Bavaria’s most popular beer. On the weekends, Munchners by the thousands flock to the countryside for Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel.Beer-less in Bavaria, Bavarian brews, Bavarian beer, Andechs, Bavarian monastery, Benedictines of Andechs

Having traveled to Herrsching by early morning train from Munich to find the shops still closed and no way to fill my water bottle, I arrived at Andechs with a thirst that mere water could no longer quench. Who craves water when there is beer at the end of the trail?

Tempted, but not willing to risk the sickness the beer’s barley would create, I had to settle for sticky-sweet German white wine in the raucous beer garden. I longed to stick my nose into one of the sweating steins that passed me by as dozens of families trailed in and out between the interior service counters and the sunny patio crowded with picnic tables. Beer-less in Bavaria, Bavarian brews, Bavarian beer, Andechs, Bavarian monastery, Benedictines of AndechsTrays heaped with white sausage, pork belly and knuckles, pretzels, and cheeses—many things not safe for me to ingest—passed by at eye level, but it was the beer, sloshing about in enormous quantity, which I craved. An oom-pah band pumped out traditional beer-hall tunes in one corner, and children ran about as, now and then, their parents slapped their thighs and sang along. Across from me my companion, forgetting my situation, took a gulp from his stein and smacked “This is the best beer I’ve ever tasted.”


Contrary to my guidebook’s explanation that the trails we followed were maintained in various grades to ensure the safe journey of all sorts of religious pilgrims to the site, it seemed only beer enthusiasts crowded the complex. I wondered: Was anyone here for the church?


Beer-less in Bavaria, Bavarian brews, Bavarian beer, Andechs, Bavarian monastery, Benedictines of AndechsAndechs boasts a baroque chapel dripping in gold ornament and statuary, with bright frescoes splashed across the ceiling. The first Andech pilgrims, drawn to see relics brought from the Holy Land in the tenth century by Saint Rasso, arrived at what was likely a more humble structure, the St. Nikolaus Chapel of Andechs Castle. Over the centuries, political wrangling among the region’s royals saw regicide, departures to the Crusades, and a mysterious 150-year disappearance of the relics. The church was improved, only to get moved, or burn, and built again. Today’s Rococo flagrancy hails from a rebuilding, in 1755, in honor of Andechs Monastery’s 300th year.

The visitors and tourists in evidence this day clearly didn’t care too much about the historical or religious aspects of the church one way or the other, their visit to the chapel a mere penitential obligation paid out of a vague sense of duty before heading for the beer. Once up the hill and inside the walls, they ducked into the church nave, looked up and around in one sweeping turn of the head, and left to join the crowd proceeding down the cobble toward the brew pub. Their steps, full of purpose, convinced me that theirs is a pilgrimage every bit as religious as the medieval worshipers of the holy relics. And although I didn’t taste any of the famous brews, amidst the throngs of Andech beer pilgrims enjoying the music, the company, and the views, I caught the buzz nonetheless.

© Sarah Jane Shangraw

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012