You may not immediately recognize the Weihenstephan name, but it has one of the most storied histories in beer across the ages and has been responsible in some of the most important landmarks in brewing history.
Now, before we begin this tale a quick note; while it is incredibly hard to confirm all of these statements, either through lost documentations or just general historical knowledge, for the most part this is the agreed upon history of Weihenstephan. While there is some conflict over exact dates, forged documents, etc. overall there is no concrete evidence to dispute the claims below. This means, that by the best of humanity’s recollection, Weihenstephan is the oldest continual brewery still in production today.
Now, let’s start at the beginning:
The Weihenstephan brewery can trace its roots all the way back to 724; this was the year when St. Corbinian gathered together twelve companions and founded a Benedictine monastery atop the Nährberg Hill in Freising. That monastery was the early foundation of the brewery, as the monks began brewing within the walls of the monastery practically from the start. How do we know this? As far back as 768 there are historical records that show a nearby hops farmer was paying a tithe in the form of hops directly to the monastery, an assumption that those hops were being used in the production of beer.
Weihenstephan wasn’t officially considered a licensed brewery until nearly three hundred years later, when in 1040, Abbot Arnold received the right to brew and sell beer from Otto I, the bishop of Freising. This is the contested forged document we mentioned at the start. Some people believe this was a forgery completed in the 1600’s, but for our sake, we’re going to believe it to be legitimate.
You’d think that it would be smooth sailing after that, but in reality the brewery saw its fair share of trouble. Between 1085 and 1463 the monastery burned down four times, each time having to be rebuilt from the ground up. In addition, they dealt with three plagues, various famines, several wars and a great earthquake just to round it out.
An important milestone for brewing came in 1516, when the Bavarian Purity Law was announced. For the unaware, the Bavarian Purity Law was designed to ensure that all beer production adhered to a strict standard. The law says only water, barley and hops may be used to brew beer. Yeast was added to the list, because we had yet to discover the fermenting agent that is essential to beer production. Where was this milestone proclamation made? On the steps of Weihenstephan of course by the Duke of Bavaria, Wilhelm the IV.
If that wasn’t enough to solidify Weihenstephan as a historical landmark, several decades later, the state set out on a path that would elevate Weihenstephan’s significance in brewing history to this day. In 1852 it moved the Central Agricultural School from Schloßheim to Weihenstephan and with it the school’s brewing students. The institution was eventually incorporated into the TU-München in 1930 and has been one of the single most prominent brewing schools ever since.
Today, you’ll mostly recognize Weihenstephan as one of Germany’s biggest exporters of wheat beers. Their hefeweisen can be found practically all over the globe, and despite the broad distribution remains one of the best examples of the classic hefeweisen style. However, Weihenstephan does more than just wheat beer. They have a collection of more than a dozen classic styles including Dunkel, Festbier, Kellerbier and Helles lager.
While the monastery may be long gone, the brewery remains an important landmark for the city of Freising today. If you ever get a chance to travel to Germany, and want to see one of the most important locations for beer making in our modern history, there’s no better place to start than at Weihenstephan.
But since we can’t travel at the moment, at least you can watch their video below.