WEISSBIER: BAVARIA'S ROYAL BEER & THE MOST FAMOUS PUB IN THE WORLD
Here’s a sub-chapter which didn’t make A Brief History of Lager and it looks at the history of Weissbier in Munich and beyond from around 1600 until the end of the 1800s. For some background: Braunbier was the general beer of the day and it was one of the earliest kinds of lager, whereas Weissbier was, in the context of this story, a beer made with wheat. There were two types of Braunbier: Winterbier and Sommerbier. Both were essentially similar in how they were made, and they were both made during the allowed brewing season of 29 September to 23 April (no brewing could take place over the summer), the difference was that Winterbier was brewed in the winter and then drunk young, with one to three months of lagering, whereas Sommerbier was brewed in the winter months and drunk over the summer, getting up to eight months in the cellar. Both adhered to the Reinheitsgebot’s purity law and used only malted barley, hops, water and yeast, with wheat being an ingredient reserved for bakeries. There was one exception to that and one brewery had historic rights to use wheat. That is until the ruling family, the Wittelsbachs, decided to change that.
At the beginning of the 1600s, there was a problem: the House of Wittelsbach was running out of money.
They’d just built themselves a brewery in the middle of Munich to produce Braunbier for their own household and staff, but lavish spending from previous generations had left little money in the big royal pot. The unlikely saviour would turn out to be beer. But it wasn’t common Braunbier, it was a beer brewed with an ingredient which the Reinheitsgebot didn’t allow: wheat.
Before Bavaria’s purity laws, many beers were made with wheat in the south of Germany; travel north and most German beers were brewed with wheat. When wheat was banned from Bavarian breweries in 1516, one solitary Bavarian household retained the exclusive rights to make wheat beer.
Hans VI, Duke of Degenburg, had set up a brewery in the early 1500s in Schwarzach, near what is now the Czech border, and he was given (or somehow acquired) the perpetual rights to brew with wheat – it was a right which superseded the Reinheitsgebot. Not that Albrecht V, the Duke of Bavaria (from the Wittelsbach family), cared too much, because in 1567 he'd declared wheat beer to be 'a useless drink that neither nourishes nor gives strength, but only encourages drunkenness.'
In 1602, the Degenburg family line ended with no heir to take on their Dukedom, meaning their Weissbier brewing rights defaulted to the House of Wittelsbachs. It’s hard to know what Albrecht V’s son Maximilian I, the Duke of Bavaria, thought of this new privilege, because no one in Bavaria drank wheat beer. They had their Braunbier and that was fine. But the Duke now owned the only rights for brewing with wheat in the whole of Bavaria. What should he do with it?
One benefit was that Weissbier, unlike Braunbier, could be brewed in the summer months because it’s a top-fermenting beer and works in warmer temperatures. And maybe, he thought, this wheat beer could be a drink that was a commercial product compared to the Braunbier which was, at that point in time, just drunk in his own household (albeit a household of over 600 people).
Max I had recently taken charge of the brewery his father had built and “the first thing he did – and this is remarkable for 1600 – he got the brewmaster [from Degensburg] to Munich, and made a trial brew to see if they could reproduce the beer,” explained Prince Luitpold, descendent of the Wittelsbach family and brewer of König Ludwig Schlossbrauerei beers. The following year, a brewer called Hans Amann was hired to brew wheat beer in the royal court brewery – the Hofbräuhaus. In 1607, as the Weissbier brewing expanded, Max I built a second royal brewery in Munich, the Weisses Brauhaus, in a small square at No.9 Platzl. This brewery ran alongside the Braunbier brewery – they’d work like this for almost 300 years.
One important side-note here: at this time there was Weissbier and Braunbier. Today Weissbier is a beer brewed with wheat, but centuries ago that’s not necessarily true: weiss means ‘white’ not ‘wheat.’ The distinction was the colour of the beer, which was determined by the malt, with white beer made with air-dried malts, which were pale in colour, whereas brown beer was brewed with kilned and roasted malts which would’ve been darker. It was cheaper and easier to produce the dark malts and they could be stored for longer than the air-dried malt. It’s assumed that the Weissbier brewed by the royal family was made with wheat, given the brewing laws, but it likely also contained air-dried malts.
Weissbier was about the same strength as Braunbier (let’s say something like 4% ABV); Weissbier was a top-fermented ale which contained very few hops, was probably a little tart, and was drunk within two weeks of brewing; Braunbier would’ve been more bitter and sweeter and it was stored for several months in underground lager cellars; Weissbier was more expensive than Braunbier, and in the beginning of the 17th century, a litre of Braunbier was seven pfennig in summer and six in winter, while Weissbier was 10 pfennig; and, as we've seen, anyone could make Braunbier but only the brewery owned by the royal family could make Weissbier. (Andreas Krennmair has written more detailed historic brewing information on Weissbier here. He has also written a great book about historic German and Austrian beers.)
“Since nobody else was allowed to brew wheat beer, it became a monopoly,” said Prince Luitpold. “Out of that monopoly, during his [Max I] rule he multiplied it, and he ended up doing about 25 breweries, and later it would get up to about 40.” That’s 40 royal breweries making all the wheat beer in Bavaria and it became a big commercial enterprise for the Wittelsbach family, with all the breweries centrally managed and administrated and run as a separate business from their Braunbier brewery.
Brewing in summer gave them the sole control on beer production through the warmer months and, crucially, they added a law which said every tavern had to also stock their Weissbier.
“Ok, maybe not terribly fair,” said Prince Luitpold, “but you have to understand that Bavaria as a country had no raw materials. We had no iron, we had no gold, we had no silver, we had nothing. So what do you do? We had to live from the things which are growing in the country and we had to live with what we manufactured out of them. Beer was an extremely good example of that.”
“The [wheat beer] brewing was basically private income to the king, or at that time the Duke Elector,” explained Prince Luitpold, who adds that some of the income was used to run the state. “It became by far the highest income of the Bavarian ruler. [Weissbier] production basically financed the state out of bankruptcy into being a very well-off state.”
Because it was a monopoly, it was an accepted fact that every tavern would buy it. “From the point of creativity, the [Weissbier] monopoly was fantastic,” says Prince Luitpold. “Maximilian I was really masterminding a business and he did very well with that.”
WEISSBIER & THE THIRTY YEARS' WAR
Wheat beer also had an impact towards the current religion of Bavaria. The Thirty Years' War started in 1618 and by 1629 the Catholics of South Germany were almost able to unite the divided country, but the Protestants fought back and then the Swedes got involved, fearing the encroaching spread of Catholicism.
In response to the slaughtering at Magdeburg which saw the city’s population reduced from 20,000 to just 450, Gustavus Adolfus, the King of Sweden, is said to have told his troops to ‘turn Bavaria entirely to waste and ashes.’
On 17th May 1632, the plundering Adolfus charged into Munich but before knocking it down he paused to look around and he liked what he saw. He then started wandering around and doing some sight-seeing, declaring Munich ‘a golden saddle on a very scrawny horse.’
He decided to spare the city, but in doing so ‘the Swedes demanded money – and beer.’ The Swedish King wanted 300,000 thalers, which the city struggled to raise, so they supplemented the cash with (depending on your source) somewhere between 22,000 litres and 195,000 pints of beer from the Royal Court breweries, which was made up of Braunbier, Weissbier and possibly Bockbier.
The Swedes stayed for a couple of week and then left, taking a few extra barrels of beer with them. The beer, and the money made by the beer, helped protect Bavaria and their religion.
WEISSBIER FOR ALL
“In the 1800s the taste changed towards lager beers,” says Prince Luitpold. By now the Braunbier and Weissbier production was all taking place in what had been the Weissbier brewery at No.9 Platzl in Munich. With people drinking less wheat beer, and the royals refocusing their priorities towards running a country and a constitutional monarchy (and eventually giving their breweries to the state), some wheat beer breweries were leased out, some were sold off and others were privatised.
Georg Schneider was one of the Weissbier brewmasters at No.9 Platzl and he leased the rights to continue brewing it from 1855 until 1872 when it was decided that the royal brewery (which was by now state-owned) would stop making wheat beer altogether and fully focus on lagerbier.
Schneider negotiated the wheat beer brewing rights for himself, taking over a recently closed brewery called Maderbräu, where he proceeded to make the beer. Today, Schneider Weisse is one of the world’s foremost wheat beer brewers and claims to still be using a recipe from the 19th century. In 1927, Schneider moved the brewery to Kelheim, north of Munich, and converted the old brewery into a tavern which you can still visit today: the Schneider Brauhaus (it’s situated in a part of Munich where there was once a lot of breweries as they sat just outside the inner-city walls with wider streets which allowed horses and carts to easily manoeuvre. Maderbräu was also the dubious starting point for a famous Beer Riot in Munich in 1844, which you can read about in A Brief History of Lager).
The brewery at No.9 Platzl continued to make lager until 1896, when they ran out of space and built a large brewery further out of town, turning the original brewery building into a large tavern. You can still drink there today and it’s arguably the most famous pub in the world: Munich's Hofbräuhaus.
And if you buy A Brief History of Lager then you can read all about the Hofbräuhaus and much more about Braunbier and the Wittelsbachs and a whole lot of other interesting stuff!