When it comes to beer, Munich’s enormous Hofbräuhaus and the city’s annual Oktoberfest celebration loom largest on the traveler’s map. Of course any annual party that attracts millions of people is difficult to miss. In a country where archaeologists have discovered evidence of some of the earliest alcoholic beverages though, Bavaria’s golden- and amber-colored Märzenbiers and Oktoberfestbiers are far from the only beer styles available to the thirsty visitor. From the light, subtly fruity Kölsch of Cologne and Bamberg’s smoky rauchbiers, to the rare yet refreshing Berliner Weisse and the hoppier Düsseldorf Altbier, Germany is a place to let your taste buds lead the way. Beer trails abound, but for a deeper sense of Bavarian history with scenery to spare, follow this winding route between a handful of abbey breweries, beginning in Ettal and finishing 120 miles north in Weltenburg. Because besides exceptional beer, each of these places offers dining, tours, affordable lodging and in some cases, all three.
Founded in 1330 in the southernmost part of the state, the Ettal Monastery moved its brewery from Oberammergau in 1609. Today it is one of a handful of Bavarian abbey breweries still operated by monks, a fraction of the number that existed before the Napoleonic period of secularization. Start the day by sampling unfiltered beers in the lagering cellar, see old brewery equipment, coopering tools and historical documents in the museum, wander through the herb gardens, and then, as the sun begins to dip behind the horizon, return to the Klosterhotel Ludwig der Bayer to freshen up before your evening meal. Ettal brews each of its five traditional styles according to the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, which forbids the use of anything but malt, hops and water (yeast wouldn’t be understood until several centuries later). Any of their beers are worth sampling, but Ettaler Heller Bock with its fragrant, herbal nose, soft bitterness and bright gold color, begs to be consumed outdoors in the beer garden.
+49 (0)8822 74-6450; ettaler.info/klosterbrauerei-ettal
Overlooking the shimmering blue waters of Lake Ammersee, the Andechs Klosterbrauerei atop Holy Mountain might fairly be considered one of the most scenic in all of Bavaria. Accessible from Munich by public transit, this popular pilgrimage site includes a 17th-century Gothic church with an onion-domed tower and a variety of religious relics, a modern brewery, a small distillery, two taverns, a beer garden with views of the Alps and 17 simple rooms in the guest wing for overnight stays. To try more than one or two of the seven beers brewed by the Benedictine monks at Andechs, allow plenty of time after a tour of the facilities. And whether you order the tangy, straw yellow Vollbier Hell or the stronger, darker Doppelbock Dunkel, which balances mild hoppiness with a chocolaty sweetness, there are numerous items on the menu to pair with each of their fine beers. Find a shady spot under a chestnut tree and admire the landscape below.
+49 (0)8152 3760; andechs.de
Well over a thousand years ago, on a hill north of Munich, Benedictine monks founded a monastery in the town of Freising. According to church records, they began making beer here in 1040. A strong beer was brewed for the monks, a small or weaker beer went to peasants and pilgrims, while the abbot and other church dignitaries enjoyed the best batches. Transferred to state control in 1803, Weihenstephan is no longer a monastic brewery (or a place of worship), although centuries later, it can nonetheless claim to be the world’s oldest brewery. Now part of the Technical University of Munich, it has since become one of the most respected brewing schools in Europe. Get your own crash course on German beer during a two-hour guided tour that includes a tasting, a pretzel and a souvenir glass. But don’t leave until you’ve tried an award-winning wheat beer, like the effervescent Kristall Weiss, with its suggestion of cloves in the aroma.
+49 (0)8161 5360; weihenstephaner.de
Located in the rolling hills of Hallertau, the world’s largest hop growing region, Scheyern is one of the oldest Benedictine abbeys in Bavaria. After leasing the brewhouse for several decades, beer making resumed within the walls of this sprawling Rococo complex in 2006, and today Scheyern weiss, helles, dopplebock, pils and dunkel flow from the taps behind the bar in the Bräustüberl restaurant. Beer might bring you to this medieval town in the Ilm River Valley, but it’s not the only reason to visit. Manicured courtyard gardens, the family tomb of the Wittelsbachs, the dynasty that ruled Bavaria for more than seven centuries, and the Art Deco ceiling frescoes in the basilica are a few of the many things to see here. Before moving on, quiet your grumbling stomach with a bowl of beer-braised beef stew, or stay for dessert and get adventurous by matching a creamy banana parfait with similar characteristics in a half liter of Kloster Weissbier.
+49 (0)8441 2789-0; klosterbrauerei-scheyern.de
Like its neighbors to the south, the Weltenburg Abbey boasts an impressive history. Although members of the clergy no longer manage the process, the on-site brewhouse makes it the oldest monastery brewery in the world. Documents indicate that the first beer produced at this narrow bend on the Danube River took place in 1050. Today visitors often arrive by boat, beginning their weekend tour in a cavern that once held wooden fermentation vessels. A small exhibit provides information about the Benedictine abbey and the life led by its monks. No matter how much you enjoy the crisp, malty Asam Bock or the rich and roasty Barock Dunkel, don’t forget to poke your head in the 18th-century church, a prime example of late Baroque architecture. After your tour, nosh on smoked sausage and cheese from the monastery’s dairy in the beer garden, and if you’re not in a rush, spend the night in one of the 16 rooms at the St. George guesthouse.
+49 (0)9412 0010; weltenburger.de
–Ben Keene is a beer journalist and travel writer. He is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Great Northeast Brewery.