Weihenstephan Brewery (Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan) in Germany is the world’s oldest brewery. It has been producing beer since 1040, but a taste of the storied brew is probably closer than you think.
What is the World’s Oldest Brewery?
Weihenstephan Brewery holds the title for world’s oldest brewery, but there are a few technicalities. The first records of organized brewing date back to 4000 BCE thousands of years before the buildings of Weihenstephan brewery were even a thought. Therefore, there are many breweries that were built and operated before this German brewery. However, those older breweries did not produce beer continuously. Weihenstephan has been brewing consistently since 1040 AD, so it claims the title of the oldest still producing brewery.
The History of Weihenstephan Brewery
At its inception in 725 AD Weihenstephan was a monastery run by monks. There may have been brewing activities at the monastery from the first day it was founded. Historians have even found notes about growing hops in the abbey garden that date back to the 760s. However, brewing officially began in 1040 AD when the monastery obtained an official license to produce beer from the city of Freising. (It’s worth noting that some historians challenge the origins of this document and believe the “license” to be a forgery from the 1500s or 1600s. Until the discovery of the potentially fake licensing document the origin date of the brewery was believed to be 1146 AD. Still old!)
The time period from 1000 to 1500 AD was unstable and precarious throughout Europe and Freising was not spared its share of disasters. Three plagues afflicted the monastery and its inhabitant, and the grounds had to be completely depopulated. Multiple wars destroyed or partially destroyed the abbey especially the Thirty Years War and the War of Spanish Succession. However, each time war tore through the area, the monks quickly rebuilt the monastery, and its brewing operations. In these medieval eras brewing required open flames and Weihenstephan Brewery had several fires including four that effectively burnt the brewery to the ground. Each time the monks would rebuild and improve their methods.
No Longer a Monastery
In 1803 during the secularization of Germany, the government officially dissolved the monastery. Its assets and operations became property of the Bavarian State. During this change in style and management the brewery continued operations in the same buildings on the hilltop in Freising.
About 50 years later, the State began to use Weihenstephan as a teaching brewery for the national agricultural school. Today that school is part of the Technical University of Munich. The brewery is both an active commercial endeavor and a teaching facility. Because of the research and innovation that happens on University campuses Weihenstephan is both one of the most traditional, and one of the most innovative breweries in the world – a unique position!
If you take a tour of the historic brewery, there is a good chance a University brewing student will be your tour guide.
The seal of the Bavarian State has been part of the Weihenstephan logo since 1921. The logo also denotes the first official year of the brewery’s incorporation: 1040.
The World’s Oldest Brewery Today
Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan brews more than four hundred thousand barrels of beer each year (almost five hundred thousand hectoliters) across more than a dozen different kinds of beer.
The brewery facilities are open for tours and tour groups. There is also a restaurant, beer garden, and gift shop on the brewery premises.
Where is Weihenstephan Brewery?
Weihenstephan Brewery is located just outside of Munich in Freising, Germany. The brewery sits on top of Nährberg Hill in the Weihenstephan area of Freising, about a 20 minute walk from the Freising train station. It is now part of the Technical University of Munich campus with many of the original brewery buildings dedicated to teaching students the science of food and brewing.
What Does the Beer at the World’s Oldest Brewery Taste Like?
The team at Weihenstephan currently makes 14 unique beers and they all taste slightly different because they are different beer styles. One thing all of these beers have in common is that they have just four ingredients: water, malt, yeast, and hops according to the 1516 German beer purity law. This strict adherence to the purity law leads the ales and lagers at Weihenstephan to have subtle flavor profiles compared to modern beers that use ingredients like chocolate, lactose, or the addition of spices. Furthermore, the ingredients brewers use to make the beer at the oldest brewery in the world are from the region. So you won’t get any tropical flavors from hops (usually these hops are from America or Australia/New Zealand) or any exotic malt flavor.
I’ll explain a little about each Weihenstephan beer and how they taste below:
Hefeweissbier, Hefeweissbier Dunkel, Kristallweissbier, Hefeweissbier Leicht, Hefeweissbier non-alcoholic (Alkoholfrei)
All five of these beers have varying degrees of the typical flavor profile of a German Wheat Beer: notes of spicy clove and banana derived from German yeast, a full smooth mouthfeel from the use of wheat, and a bready malt flavor and aftertaste. The balance is toward the malt and yeast flavors with the hops contributing just enough bitterness to balance out these beers. The Dunkle has the most intense flavor while the non-alcoholic has the most delicate flavor. The Kristallweissbier has the same flavor profile but it is filtered clear which makes the wheat beer flavor more subtle than its unfiltered counterparts.
Weihenstephan Original Helles, Original Helles non-alcoholic (Alkoholfrei)
Helles is the classic German lager. It showcases the abundant baked bread flavor of German malts and the ability of German hops to balance that bready richness with notes of herbs, dried grass, and subtle peppery spice.
Weihenstephan Pils (aka Weihenstephan Pilsner)
This is the hoppiest beer made at Weihenstephan (and the hoppiest style at most German breweries!), but don’t expect IPA-like hoppiness. Pils is balanced toward bitterness and the floral, spicy, slightly hay like flavors of Hallertau hops. Crackery pale pilsner malt rounds out the flavor profile.
This is the youngest of the oldest brewery in the world’s beers! The brewery released 1516 Kellerbier in 2016 to commemorate the 500 year anniversary of the German purity law (the Reinheitsgebot). At first it was a “limited edition release” but the people loved this unfiltered lager hopped with grassy, herbal “Hallertauer Record” hops and now it’s on the permanent line up. It is still more limited in availability than other beers though!
Weihenstephan Bayrisch Dunkel
This classic German Dunkel has a slightly toasty aroma and flavor with hints of sweet red fruit. Overall this amber beer has a subtle and complex flavor. Therefore, even though caramel, toast, and fruit flavors are present they are all delicate making this a very sessionable lager!
Weizenbock Vitus, Korbinian Doppelbock
These are the two booziest beers Weihenstephan makes. The Korbinian Doppelbock leans toward malt flavors with dark notes of dried fig and juicy plum accompanying the 7.4% abv. While the Vitus Weizenbock leans on yeast-derived flavors of clove, banana, and apricot along with a healthy dose of herbal hops at 7.7% abv.
Both of these beers are made in the traditional Munich Oktoberfest style. However, since they are brewed in Freising, not Munich, they keep the Festbier name. These golden malt forward beers showcase full flavors of fresh baked bread and enough hops to keep the beer from being too sweet. They fall somewhere between the Pils and the Helles on the hoppiness scale with a little more malt impact as they pack a 5.8% abv.
Where Can I Taste Beer from the World’s Oldest Brewery?
Weihenstephaner exports beer all over the globe, and they don’t charge a premium for their historic status. At my local Whole Foods in New York City a 16oz bottle from Weihenstephan costs less than $3.
The Brewery has this handy tool on their website for finding the closest stores and bars serving their beer. It’s widely available in the United States at typical grocery stores and throughout Europe and Asia.