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In the beer producing monastery at full speed

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02 January 2021

Sister Doris, brewmaster, with three thousand hectoliters a year


Serving God by brewing craft beer? For 45 years, Sister Doris Engelhard of the Mallersdorf Franciscan abbey, in Bavaria, has been doing just that. The last brewing nunnery in Europe, Sister Doris is a true force of nature. Not only does she produce approx. 3,000 hectoliters of beer per year on her own, this 65-year-old Braumeister (brewmaster) loves her work and does it with a contagious joy, which is the same joy she feels in her love for the Lord. She says, “You can serve God anywhere, no matter what profession or trade you do; it is nice to please God, my sisters and also our customers”. After all, as she recounts, the connection between beer and women, even churchwomen, is ancient. It is said that a woman invented beer, ten thousand years ago. Continuing, “There are many versions”, says Sister Doris with whom I communicated by email. It is thought likely that the ancient beer was made somewhere in Mesopotamia from a piece of bread forgotten outdoors which when moistened, began to ferment. The resulting liquid had amazing properties. This is supposed to have happened about 10,000 years ago!”.

A very ancient beverage, maybe even more ancient than wine. “In the second millennium B.C, in the Epic of Gilgameš, a beer-like beverage made with dates and barley is mentioned. Scholars are of the opinion that the beginning of the development of human culture is closely connected with the art of brewing beer”.

In addition, the first goddess considered to be the matron of beer was the Sumerian Ninkasi, followed by Athor, who were Egyptian, and Isthar, a Babylonian deity. Egyptian, Assyro-Babylonian, Persian, Cretan, Greek and Byzantine women who dedicated themselves for thousands of years to the preparation of this beverage. Until the Middle Ages, beer was made almost exclusively by female hands; “it was the responsibility of the mother of the family to provide sustenance, of which drinks were also considered part. Immediately after bread was baked in the ovens, beer was brewed because in those warm rooms there was a residual of yeast powder in the air that facilitated the fermentation of beer. In Germany there is a saying: ‘Today I bake, tomorrow I brew’. In order to make beer a cereal that contains a good percentage of starch is necessary in order for it to ferment, combined with some spices to flavor it. Sumerians called their beer ‘kasch’. The word still survives today in the Slavic word ‘kas’ which means bread soup”. Even today, in Germany, beer is called “flüssiges Brot” - liquid bread.

It was a woman of many talents -religious, botanist, philosopher, writer, poet, and linguist-, namely Hildegarda von Binden, a saint and declared a Doctor of the Church in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI, who discovered the properties of hops. For it is this ingredient that transformed medieval beer into the one we drink today. Sister Doris Engelhard continues, “I think Hildegarda was an intelligent and wise woman. She had the courage to tell men what was healthy; she certainly did not have emancipation issues! She was self-confident and did what she thought was right.”

In the Middle Ages many monasteries, especially in Bavaria and Belgium, but also in Italy, became producers of this turbid and nutritious beverage. What they produced is not exactly the one we drink today but a more rudimentary and spiced version.  Medieval beer was by far the preferred beverage to the dirty and unhealthy convent waters. Mallersdorf Abbey has been associated with beer production since the 12th century. After a long interruption, brewing was resumed in 1881 and then finally in the 1970s by Sister Doris. Until thirty years ago the Schönbrunn monastery, near Dachau, in Germany, had a brewery managed by nuns. Today, unfortunately, there are very few religious brewers like Sister Doris who tirelessly get up every Sunday morning at 3 a.m. to enter the brewing room left.

“Mallersdorf was founded by the Benedictines of Bamberg in 1109. Since the Benedictines were self-sufficient, they certainly began brewing beer at this time. A bull from 1432 allowed the Mallersdorf Benedictines to sell beer in barrels. I myself have been working in the convent brewery since 1966 and have been in charge since 1975. I am just an ordinary brewmaster and I try, like every brewmaster, to make good beer”. Doris’ story is one of vocation and passion. She would have like to have studied agriculture and do manual labor, but a nun suggested she take charge of the brewery. Therefore, she began her apprenticeship in 1966 at the age of seventeen in the convent’s brewery with Sister Lisana, a master brewer. “In 1974 and 75 I attended a vocational institute for brewing in Ulm and got my diploma. For me, brewing beer represents the work to produce a healthy and good food. It is a pleasure to be able to offer our customers a hearty beverage. I love my job; I love the smell of beer and working with live substances like yeast and barley. I am delighted when people enjoy tasting our beer. In reality, one should be able to take pleasure in everything one does, so that it does not become unbearable. Surely, God does not want sad and unsatisfied people. There really are so many things that make life enjoyable and worth living. For me, it is working in the brewery and being able to drink good beer. Beer is the drink with the lowest alcohol content and because it also contains carbon dioxide, it is digestible. It’s a healthy drink...if you don’t overdo it!”.

by Valentina Pigmei