That story you’ve heard about Doppelbock – a strong beer brewed by Bavarian monks to sustain themselves during their Lenten fast – is nonsense. In fact, it was brewed for the exact opposite reasons: it was a beer for a feast, not a fast, and it helped create a festival that was the Oktoberfest of its day. This is the real story of Doppelbock, an out-take from my book, A Brief History of Lager.
‘In the early Middle Ages, Europe knew virtually nothing other than household production’ of beer, writes Richard Unger in Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where for the average working-class domestic situation, beer was brewed at home, while some larger estates – like monasteries, royal residences, and the homes of noblemen – had breweries where they produced beer for their household and staff.
It was common for Bavarian monasteries to have breweries in the Middle Ages (the name Munich, or München, means something like ‘near the monks’ in old Bavarian) and it was the brewing monks who were among the first to professionalise brewing, with many of the processes used today dating back to that period – old images depict brewing and give an insight into what it was like.
Monastery-brewed beer was made for pilgrims and for the nearby secular population, but it was mostly just for the monks themselves; like the rest of the population, they drank beer throughout the day. That beer, like most Bavarian beer hundreds of years ago, was malty-sweet, probably smoky and perhaps sour, and it was low in alcohol at around 3% ABV. They might have drunk all day long, but it wasn’t to get drunk (I think it’s true that for most of the history of beer, and only up until the 1800s, you didn’t drink beer to get drunk – there were way more efficient drinks to do that, like schnapps).
There was one particular monastery in Munich in the 17th century which has since became renowned for a special kind of double-strength beer and there’s an often-repeated story which says that during Lent, when the monks (or friars) were fasting but were still allowed beer, they’d brew an especially strong ‘liquid bread’ kind of beer which they could drink to sustain and fortify themselves through the 40-day fast.
Just imagine it: a whole monastery of mischievous, rosy-cheeked brothers were knocking back mugs and mugs of strong beer for 40 whole days, filling their empty bellies with strong beer. It’s a brilliant story, an evocative one, but it’s not a true story, and it hangs on the mis-understanding of the word ‘strong’ or ‘stronger’ and ignores quite a few other important pieces of information.
The real story of what became known as Doppelbock – a strong, malt-sweet lager – is worthy of attention because while it might not be about hungry monks, it does involve mischievous friars and a heavenly beer, plus the brewing and serving of that beer started a great tradition and a very big party, one which has taken place for almost 400 years. It’s also the story of one of Munich’s – and the world’s – most-famous breweries: Paulaner.
BEER OF THE SACRED FATHER
Towards the end of the 1620s, Minim friars (not monks) from the order of Saint Francis of Paola arrived in Munich from the south of Italy. They settled to the east of the city, on the banks of the Auer Mühlbach, a branch of the Isar river, and beneath a hill now known as Nockherberg. It was a poor part of town where the small population mostly farmed and fished.
The Paulaner monastery gained brewing rights in 1634 but they were only supposed to brew for their own consumption, something they clearly ignored because in the year they began brewing, a letter was signed by some of Munich’s private brewers complaining how the Paula Monastery were giving away or selling their beer. It didn't stop the monastery and they continued to sell their beer illegally for 150 years, though this does contradict their specific aims of financially supporting themselves by brewing beer, which was important to a hospitable friary.
Brewing was important for the Paulaner monastery, as it was for all monasteries, as beer supplemented their limited diet with extra calories and nutrition: malt and alcohol both contain calories; the sweet malt is nourishing; fermented beer gave B vitamins, zinc, potassium, calcium, and more; beer was a tastier source of hydration than boiled water; and being a sweet, smoky drink, the beer also provided extra flavour to otherwise bland bread-heavy meals.
Diets were simple in monasteries and the variety was especially limited during Lent, when the monks fasted during the day and then took a small meal in the evenings. This part is important: they weren’t on a complete food fast, which is often part of the misunderstood Doppelbock story. The foods they were allowed to eat at that time were typically restricted to bread, smoked fish, herbs and oil, while alcohol didn’t break the fast, meaning they could sip beer all day.
What was unique about the Paulaner friars is that to become part of that fraternity they had to keep to the Lenten diet all the time. Even stricter than that, the Paula friars were a special order and their founding father, Saint Francis of Paola, advocated a complete absence of cruelty and followed what we’d now call a vegan diet, limiting their food options to bread, herbs and oil. It’s no wonder they wanted their own beer, of which they are said to have drunk up to four litres a day.
Now we get to the part of the story which links to the ‘strong’ beer. On April 2nd 1651 the Paulaner friars celebrated the Feast Day of their founding father, Saint Francis of Paola, and served a Sankt-Vaters-Bier (Beer of the Sacred Father). They drank the beer themselves and also served it to local citizens. At the following year’s Feast Day celebration they served a special beer again. And again the next year, and it continued every year after that, with the Feast Day becoming an important local event.
Saint Francis’s Feast Day happened annually on April 2nd, whereas other Feast Days, like, for example, Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, had moveable dates: between 1651 and 1700, April 2nd came after Easter Sunday on 13 occasions, and twice it was on Easter Sunday, meaning on all the other occasions, the Feast Day was still during the Lent fast.
There are gaps in the knowledge, but this is what we (think we) know: the friars made a Sankt-Vaters-Bier (which later became known as Salvatorbier) for Saint Francis’s Feast Day on April 2nd every year. That date was often during the fast but not always, though if it was a fasting day then they likely overlooked that and prioritised the feasting instead (at least in the evenings once the fast could be broken). The special beer was served to local people who clearly liked the taste of it and in time the Feast day turned into days, and they held an eight-day celebration, soon losing any potential religious connotations as it became a volksfest, or folk festival.
There are several questions for which we don’t know the answers: Did they only drink the Salvatorbier on the feast day (or days) or did it last for longer? In the first year, was it a way to use up leftover beer from their fast (unlikely) or did they brew the beer just for the feast day (more likely)? Why did they come to celebrate for eight days instead of just one? Was there any decent food at the feast? (which was often held during Lent and by friars on a vegan diet...)
There’s another question that we think we know the answer to: was the beer strong in alcohol? And no, it wasn’t, not by modern standards or even really by the standards of the day, though it was slightly more alcoholic than a regular beer. The beer was brewed with more malt, perhaps double the malt, and was therefore richer in flavour and sweetness than regular beers, with that extra malt sweetness giving it a liquid bread quality. What's important to know is that while it had lots of malt sugars, not all of them fermented into alcohol, and that left a residually-sweet drink. The early Salvatorbiers were likely around 4% ABV (and that had increased to 5%-6% by the 1890), so only a little stronger than normal beers and nothing like the 7%-8% ABV Doppelbocks we see today. The difference is the amount of attenuation in the beer. That is: how many of the malt sugars turn to alcohol. Looking at old recipes, the original gravity back then is similar to today, only way fewer of those sugars turned into alcohol (some were under 50% attentuation compared to over 70% today).
Another thing we can almost certainly tell about the beer is that it was a winterbier. These were shorter-lagered lagers (two or three months) which were often lower in alcohol than the sommerbiers that were sold between May and October (for more on this you’ll need to read A Brief History of Lager). Less lagering time and more residual sweetness likely left a robust and probably quite rough-tasting beer.
The reality is that the actual specifics of the beer probably weren’t that important. Instead, the feast day attracted locals year after year and it ultimately turned into a festival. Germany is famous for these festivals and the ‘Salvatorfest’ celebration predates the more-famous Oktoberfest by almost 200 years. And this, I think, is the real importance of this story: it’s not about drunk monks or fasting or strong beer, it’s about the celebration and coming together of people, and a party that’s happened for hundreds of years and has always served a once-a-year beer. It was the tradition which mattered.
FROM FEAST BEER TO FESTBIER
Beer was the Paulaner monastery’s main source of income despite the friars not actually being allowed to brew commercially. In 1751, the monastery was permitted to sell their beer for the first time, but only for their feast celebration, which was now an eight-day event, and the first mug of beer served that year was offered to the Bavarian Elector as a thank you for letting them sell the beer.
In 1773, Valentin Still, otherwise known as Brother Banarbas, who was a Paula monk or friar in Augsburg with a good reputation for brewing, was transferred to the Munich monastery where he refined and modernised the recipe for Salvator (Paulaner say that the current beer can trace itself back to this brew, though it’s been ‘continuously refined over the years’ according to their website – in reality, the beer today is nothing like it would’ve been 240 years ago, but we can probably trace some lineage from then).
By 1780 they were finally allowed to sell beer year-round and by the last year of the century the Holy Father Feast of April 2nd had grown into the city’s largest public folk festival – it was the Oktoberfest of its day.
However, before the end of 1799 the monastery brewery was first secularised and then shuttered as part of a mass secularisation forced by pressure from Napoleon Bonaparte. It remaining closed until 1806 when it was bought by a local citizen brewer called Franz Zacherl, ‘who kept on making the brewage, faithfully adhering to the original recipe, to the great delectation of all Munichers.’ There was now no longer an involvement from the friars (quote from Ron Pattinson's Shut Up About Barclay Perkins – Ron's got a lot of great research about Salvatorbier).
The first recorded mention of the name ‘Salvator’ comes from a testimony dated November 10 1835 when Zacherl is (for some reason) forbidden to sell his beer. Because of the local fondness for Salvatorbier, the government let him get away with it, though eventually he was forced to pay a fine of 50 florins for breaking the law but the rich brewer ‘paid the fine and laughed in his sleeve.’ Zacherl went on to petition King Ludwig I to allow him to sell the beer and on March 25 1837 the King issued an order saying: ‘As long as I have no other choice, the district government is to be authorised to give permission annually to pour out the Salvator beer, the bargaining time is to be fixed, but no specific tax, since this beer is to be regarded as a luxury item.’
By the end of the 1830s, Salvator was being sold throughout much of Germany and was known outside of the country. That travel, and the beer’s popularity, led to Salvator being seen as a type of beer, like Pilsner, which many other breweries also made. Zacherlbräu – the name would change to Paulaner in the future – filed for a trademark, though there were still many different Salvatorbiers brewed into the 1890s and early 1900s. When the breweries did eventually change the name of their beer, they kept the ‘-ator’ suffix as a way of distinguishing the stronger beer, and still today breweries keep to that naming tradition.
Around this time, the Holy Father Feast was brought forward to March and extended in duration, and it had definitely now lost any religious connotations and was just a party. From the 1850s, folk singers provided entertainment at the annual event, and a few years after that actors were hired to entertain the guests. The celebration was popular among the locals and a Charles Dudley Warner writing in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser on Monday 26 June 1876 explained how ‘once a year Munich parts with its character for sobriety,’ and he follows ‘streams of people’ to become a ‘Salvator pilgrim.’
The beer is ‘dark and heavy, and has rather a sweet than a bitter taste, and is very smooth and palatable.’ The ‘peculiarity of this beer is its strength, and I should say its deceitful strength’ as the beer appears to ‘work within [the drinker] mightily,’ leaving people very drunk. Warner doesn’t understand why it’s only brewed once a year when the Munich people love it so much – that year the brewery sold 14,000 cask, with 60 maß, or litres, in each, in just eight days.
The celebrations continued to get ever-more popular. In 1891, folk singer Jakob Greis, who’d probably had a mug or two of beer, made a funny speech and sang some songs which mocked local politicians. Because everyone laughed along, they’ve repeated the tradition every year since. This derblecken, as it’s known, is a local custom of singing mocking songs and it was supposedly something tavern owners did to ‘welcome’ their guests.
Today’s Paulaner Salvatorfest is held in Nockherberg, directly above where the brewery used to be, and it runs for around three weeks in the lead up to Easter. The opening ceremony begins with a barrel of Doppelbock being tapped and the first maß offered to the Bavarian Minister President, in a nod to the traditions which started in 1751, and then the derblecken takes place with a satirical political cabaret of singing and acting all directed at current politicians and the recent news – the ceremony is so popular that it’s aired on German television and a few million people tune in to watch it. Once that’s done, everyone drinks.
Paulaner's Salvator is strong at 8% ABV. At Salvatorfest, it comes in litre mugs and it’s lip-stickingly sweet, smooth, rich and warming, yet you’ll happily and easily gulp your way through a few. One mug is great, and you’ll drink it quickly as you take in the music and the party happening around you. The second mug is even better as you’re now fortified with strong beer. You won’t remember the third mug.
Drinking, and the annual festivities, is what made this beer famous. It wasn’t the monks trying to cheat on their sombre diet and it was in fact the opposite: it was brewed for a feast and not a fast. Forget the liquid bread and the hungry drunk monks, Doppelbock was – and still is – a beer for celebration.