The grounds of Weltenburg Abbey include a restaurant with an outdoor beer garden that is known as the home of Barock Dunkel, the oldest dark beer in the world. // © 2016 Creative Commons user andymcgee
Feature image (above): Maisel’s Bier Erlebnis Welt in Bayreuth, Germany, was named the most comprehensive beer museum in the world. // © 2016 Creative Commons user andymcgee
If there’s one thing Germans have perfected, it’s beer. From pilsner and altbier to kolsch and weissbier (and a few dozen more), there’s no denying that Germany has the secret for brewing a truly perfect pint. And it’s all thanks to 500 years of uninterrupted beer purity, a concept that is literally mandated by law.
The German Beer Purity Law, or “Reinheitsgebot,” is the name of a series of laws that limit the ingredients that go into German beer. According to the laws, the only ingredients that can be used in the production of beer are malt barley, water and hops. The law was adopted in Bavaria in 1516, and not much has changed since, save an amendment that expanded the ingredients list to include yeast. In honor of the law’s 500th birthday, I took to the birthplace of German beer to celebrate as you might imagine: a veritable brewery crawl across Bavaria.
I started my beer-soaked celebration in the small town of Bayreuth, about two hours north of Munich. In addition to being the final home of composer Richard Wagner, Bayreuth is also lauded for its rich beer-brewing traditions. One of the most historic and well-known breweries in the region is Maisel’s Bier Erlebnis Welt (Maisel’s Beer Adventure World), a 48,500-square-foot wonderland. “Guinness World Records” named the site as the most comprehensive beer museum in the world. Maisel also has a workshop, where I was introduced to the world of German beer brewing.
I wound my way through the process, from sniffing raw hops and tasting malt to watching the final fermentation in wooden barrels. Also within the museum are rooms devoted to beer paraphernalia; one room has more than 5,500 beer glasses and beer mugs, as well as a collection of 400 rare enamel signs showcasing different breweries and beer brands of Germany.
But the best part of touring any brewery, no matter how big a history buff you may be, is sampling the finished product. Adjacent to Maisel is Liebesbier, a restaurant and bar serving more than 100 beers, including those produced at the brewery. The waitstaff is well-versed in all things brewed and more than willing to help guests pair up food choices with the perfect potion.
To start, I sampled the trout filet topped with apple horseradish, paired with the Maisel & Friends Pale Ale. The second course was a sirloin steak made from Franconian Charolais beef, which I washed down with a hoppy Maisel & Friends Stefan’s Indian Ale. To finish with something sweet, I skipped food entirely and went right for chocolate — chocolate beer, that is, with the Maisel & Friends Choco Porter.
Maisel, and other craft breweries across Germany, have been experimenting lately with the purity law by stretching the limits of the basic ingredients. Several craft breweries have found that by tweaking ingredients, all while adhering strictly to the law, they can bring out a whole range of flavors — including coffee and chocolate — without swaying from the original mandate.
My brewery crawl continued the next day in Kelheim at Weltenburg Abbey. This Benedictine abbey is the oldest monastery in Bavaria, founded in 600 A.D. by the monks of St. Columbanus. The grounds, which sit on the banks of the Danube River, include a baroque church, a small hotel and a restaurant and outdoor beer garden.
But the abbey’s real claim to fame is the Barock Dunkel, claimed to be the oldest dark beer in the world and winner of the golden World Beer Cup. When the weather is warm, the outdoor courtyard is packed with locals and tourists knocking back pints of the resident brew. But in chillier months, it’s just as picturesque to dine inside the restaurant, where barmaids decked out in dirndls serve gigantic salted pretzels and steins of dark and stormy Dunkel.
From Kelheim, our caravan made its way west about 10 miles to Riedenburg, where we encountered one of Germany’s unique organic breweries. Organic Brewery Riedenburger Brauhaus is one of the breweries in Bavaria shaking up the purity law. While the site itself dates back to 1866, today the brewery combines ancestral recipes with sustainable practices using exclusively local, artisan and organic ingredients that are even purer than the law originally intended. Riedenburger Brauhaus is best known for its Bavarian-style wheat beers, which it has been brewing since the 1950s, but lately, the brewers have been experimenting with different types of ancient grains, such as einkorn, emmer and spelt. Here, visitors can also sample typical Bavarian-style helles (lagers), as well as pilsners, seasonal and even non-alcoholic brews.
Three days of Bavarian beer-guzzling is no small feat, but neither is 500 years of existence. After sipping and savoring dozens of varietals, it was time to hang up my stein and bid farewell to Bavaria. Whether you prefer a classic German brew or one of the newer, craftier variations sweeping the scene, one thing remains clear: The Purity Law isn’t going anywhere — and for good, delicious and perfected reason.