Beer Secrets from a Bavarian Abbey

Florian Huber of Ettal Monastery, one of Europe's oldest breweries, talks hops and history

By / January 2014

In 2009, the Ettal Monastery in southern Germany celebrated 400 continuous years of brewıng “the liquid bread of Bavaria.” Situated within the walls of one of Europe’s largest and oldest Benedictine abbeys, the Klosterbrauerei originated to serve the needs of monks and pilgrims alike. Today, their award winning brewery and spectacular Baroque basilica at the foot of the Alps attract thousands of visitors annually.

This winter I took a tour of the monastery and facilities along with current brew master, Florian Huber. A 36-year-old with stubby blonde hair and stout stomach, he’s been overseeing production since July 2012. As we concluded our time in Ettaler’s newly-remodeled cellar, Florian helped himself to a taste of Ettaler’s bestselling Edel Hell from a 2-liter glass tankard. He rinsed the stein with a splash of unfiltered beer then dumped it through the floor drain. “For all the dead brew masters,” he quipped, with a nod to the past.

Photograph by Brian McKanna

The Ettal Monastery Brewery was founded in 1609. When did the monastery first begin to sell beer?
The monastery originally had a brewery in the neighbor village of Oberammergau. In 1609, the brewery was rebuilt here in Ettal. By April, 1618, the monastery received official permission from the duke of Bavaria to brew and distribute beer.

What can you tell me about the brewing history of Ettaler?
The monastery itself was founded by the Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig “the Bavarian” in 1330. The brewery, however, wasn’t founded until 1609. Until the year 1803, the brewery was in sole ownership of the monastery. Then came the Bavarian secularization and a lot of monasteries went into the ownership of the Bavarian state, as was the case with Ettal and its brewery. Throughout the 19th century the brewery changed hands a number of times. Then again in 1900 the monastery was rebuilt and the monks regained ownership. Just this last summer the new fermentation and storage cellar were finished.

Who works here at the Ettaler brewery?
At one time all of the brewing was done exclusively by monks. Now we only have one monk from the monastery who works as a brewer. The last time a brew master was a monk was something like thirty years ago. But you probably have to go back two or three centuries to find a time when only monks worked here.

What makes Ettaler beers different or unique?
It’s a difficult question. Because I don’t think anyone in Bavaria really produces bad beer. Today you have to aim for exceptionally high quality. No one’s producing poor quality beers. There’s a really strong market in Bavaria, so if you have bad quality, even if only for a couple of weeks or months, then that was the last time you produced beer. German beers can only be produced with four basic ingredients: water, malt, hops, and yeast. But with those four we can create myriad flavors.

Is Ettaler your favorite beer?
As the brew master (long sigh), I have to say, “Yes” (eruption of laughter). But actually, I see it as a little bit my duty as a brew master to drink different beers from different breweries. I would say that I don’t have any favorite beers. Some wheat beers are really good. Some lager beers, some dark ones are good. But there’s no such thing as the best beer.

Take, for example, a Bavarian who has been drinking the same brand for the last thirty years. If he’s drinking Ettaler, no doubt he thinks it’s the best beer. If he drinks another Bavarian classic like Paulaner, he’ll likely say, “No, it’s no good.” But that’s just a normal beer drinker. He’s acclimatized. But I think as a brew master I have to work to prevent becoming acclimated to one taste over another. I need to make sure my beers are of a high quality. So I want to test and smell products from other breweries and think, “Oh, what hops is he using?”

Photograph by Brian McKanna

What do you think of American and import beers?
I’m really encouraged by the growing trend in America toward micro-breweries or micro-craft brewers. Smaller breweries, like Ettaler, are capable of producing some high quality brews with different palates. However, when a Bavarian like myself drinks a standard American or Canadian beer, it all tastes a little like water. And Germans don’t like beer that tastes like water.

Does Ettaler export?
Yes, we export our beers mostly to Italy and Austria, primarily strong and wheat varieties to Italy. We also have a Bavarian lager that we send to the US, to a distributor in Redding, Massachusetts. And, interestingly enough, we send a lot of dark wheat beers to China.

What are your bestselling products?
Edel Hell (Noble Light), a typical Bavarian fair beer, bottom-fermented. Most Bavarians prefer export beers, fair beers like lagers, with an alcohol content of about 5%. Edel is mild, somewhat malty and slightly bitter, but with a good hops flavor. We use a special hop for that variety which gives hints of lemon and flower. It’s a little sweeter and less bitter, like a pilsner. Personally, I prefer our Heller Bock, a fair but strong beer, about 7.5% alcohol, and with a solid hops flavor.

What makes a truly Bavarian beer?
It ultimately comes down to the composition of all four ingredients. For a normal beer, 92-93% is water, 5% is alcohol. The rest is a little sugar and flavor. So you can tell that the water is tremendously important. Also, the malt is something like the ground floor, or foundation of a beer. Then you can then use hops to add bitterness or certain flavors, such as flowery, grassy, or lemony. Also, you can really see the importance of yeast in wheat beers. There are a wide range of flavors in Bavarian wheat beers. Some fruity, like bananas or strawberries. Some are spicy, like cloves. All of those flavors come from the yeast.

Where do you get your hops and other ingredients?
We get our hops from Holledau, here in Bavaria between Munich and Nuremberg. It’s the biggest hop-growing region in the world, a little larger than Williamette Valley in Oregon, I think. Holledau produces about thirty different varieties, bitter hops or flavor hops. Here we only use flavor hops, in three different varieties. The barley from the malt also comes from Bavaria, from around Munich.

Our water comes from the region as well, spring water from the Alps. The water itself is, of course, natural with no nitrates or sodium. But Alpine water is very hard water, high in calcium. Which means we have to soften the water. As for the yeast, there are two basic types. Bottom-fermenting yeast, which settles to the bottom during fermentation, is used for pilsner, dark, fair, and strong beers. The other is top-fermenting. Here in Bavaria we only use it for our wheat beers.

Photograph by Brian McKanna

Has the composition, your recipe, changed over the centuries?
For sure. For many centuries only the Bavarian dukes and kings had the right to brew the beer. With the advent of the purification laws in the 1500s, beer in Germany could only be produced with the four basic ingredients. Over time the quality of raw materials changed. Technical achievements changed a lot. As an example, southern Bavaria was traditionally a region with dark beers because the water near the Alps was very hard.

Actually, the whole region south of the Danube is known for having hard water. So for centuries in Bavaria it wasn’t really possible to produce fair beers with hard water. If you try it, they turn out bitter, even scratchy. So to counteract the hard water they used dark malt which is sweeter. In the Czech Republic (north of the Danube), where they have naturally softer water, they developed pilsner beers which are fairer. As I said, over time many Bavarians have come to prefer more of the fairer, milder varieties.

How has the brewing process itself changed across the centuries?
Brewing is a very difficult handcraft. Over the years, a number of changes and advancements have made the process much easier, faster, and more efficient. Centuries ago, brewers didn’t understand the yeast. They knew that there was some “slime” that was important for the fermentation, but how it really worked was a mystery. Also, as I said, only as they began softening the water was it possible to brew fair beers in this region.

A significant revolution came with the invention of the refrigeration machine in the 1870s. After that it became possible to produce beer year round. Over time fermentation tanks also developed from wood to iron to copper to stainless steel, affecting the brewing process and flavor. We have now grown much in our understanding of the composition and science of beer, including the biological process of brewing. Now our goals for the future are on reducing energy consumption, environmental protection, and, of course, reproducible quality.

Is production growing?
It is growing a little. We just built our new cellar and updated all of our storage tanks last year. But that was more a matter of maintenance than expansion. We’re located in a monastery that is 700 years old. The building that we are in is over 300 years old. So we needed some updating.

What can people expect when they visit the brewery today?
We offer different types of tours. For guided groups we can provide a tour through the brewery, beer tastings in the storage cellar with unfiltered beers, a museum tour, or maybe just a cozy time with some beer and Bavarian snacks—it’s up to the visitors. Program and fees depend on the customers’ wishes. The maximum size of a group is 25 persons. For other visits, we have regular tours every Tuesday and Thursday.

It’s a very lovely and historical region of southern Bavaria. The combination of castles, monasteries, the Alps, arts, and winter sports is the drawing point for visitors.


Brian McKanna is an EthnoTraveler contributor.