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Much sought-after Westvleteren Trappist Beer is brewed at the St. Sixtus Abbey by monks in Belgium.
Much sought-after Westvleteren Trappist Beer is brewed at the St. Sixtus Abbey by monks in Belgium. (iStock)

Aside for the odd Easter egg market and celebrations welcoming spring, the Lenten season tends to be rather sedate across much of Germany. In ordinary times, Munich bucks the trend with a festival city residents treasure as something they keep largely to themselves.

Starkbier fests honor a strong beer with its roots deeply planted in Bavarian tradition. Centuries back, monasteries were the major players in the practice of brewing beer. During Lent, the pious monks largely stayed away from solid foods, gaining their calories instead from Fastenstarkbier, a dark, strong beer with a malty flavor and a typical alcohol content of 7% or above. A daily ration of five liters of the potent stuff was not unheard of.

This style of beer, a double bock, was first brewed in 1629 by Paulaner monks in a monastery on the outskirts of Munich. But the production of strong beer could only take place with the consent of the pope. A barrel of this special beer for fasting was dispatched to Rome, but its long journey over the Alps did it no favors. When the Holy Father tasted the now-spoiled beer, he saw no reason to forbid the consumption of such a dubious treat, and permission to brew was granted.

Although the annual strong beer festival that's opened each year by the mayor of Munich himself won’t be taking place for the second year running, the breweries themselves have no need to break with tradition. In addition to Paulaner's starkbier, which bears the name Salvator, a number of other such beers, whose names also end in the “-ator” suffix, are available for purchase at this time of the year.

Just a few of these fun beer names and the breweries who make them include Animator (Hacker-Pschorr), Maximator (Augustiner-Bräu), Optimator (Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu), Triumphator (Löwenbräu) and Delicator (Hofbräu). Pick up one or several of these very special beers and celebrate at home this year. Dancing on your table is optional.

While beer-brewing monasteries are rightly considered bastions of tradition, several are moving with the times. Here’s a look at some of the latest developments in monastic brewing tradition in Europe.

Germany: Abbey brewers uniteJust a couple centuries back, some 300 abbey breweries dotted the Bavarian landscape, churning out brews made from the grains they sowed and water from their own wells. What they didn’t drink themselves they would sell to the locals or serve to customers in their own taverns.

Today, only 12 such abbey breweries exist, eight of which are still operated by religious orders. In order to guard these precious traditions, they have joined forces to promote brewing tradition through collaborative efforts. The “Förderverein bayerischer Klosterbrauereien” (Association of Bavarian Monastery Breweries) brings the breweries of Aldersbach, Andechs, Baumburg, Ettal, Kreuzberg, Scheyern, Weltenburg and Weißenohe all under one umbrella. The alliance aims to promote the monastic brewing community through the internal exchange of expertise, an enhanced internet presence to promote the art of monastic brewing and inclusion on a list of Europe’s must important cultural assets.

Belgium: Sale of one of world’s most highly prized beers goes onlineFor many beer lovers, a trek to the St. Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren, Flanders, represents the ultimate pilgrimage. Although just three types of beer are brewed here, they consistently garner nearly perfect scores on beer consumer websites. To get one’s hands on these precious drops, one must appear in person at the abbey gates at a previously booked date and time. A maximum of two wooden crates containing 24 bottles each (with so much effort put in, would it make sense to buy less?) can be procured at a time.

For long years, it was the case that ordering the beer meant hours trying to get through to the brewery by phone, a process that led to frustration for the majority of sud-seekers. In the spring of 2019, the brothers stepped into the digital age and began allowing those eager to get hold of the drink to place their orders online. Procuring the beer still means appearing in person (since January of this year, they’ve been experimenting with home delivery within Belgium only), as well as giving out many personal details including the registration number of the vehicle in which the beer will be picked up. The strict measures are in place to combat unauthorized resale and profiteering by middlemen.

Now, the only way to obtain Trappist Westvleteren is via its web store, which has limited opening hours. These are made known on a calendar on the shop’s website. The pick-up time is also indicated. Users must register their personal information, validate details via a link sent by e-mail and set up a password-protected account. Within the context of measures being taken to limit the spread of coronavirus, the abbey is presently limiting sales to customers with an address in Belgium, but hopes to begin serving its European customers soon. Online: trappistwestvleteren.be/en/beer-sales

Italy: Former monastery brewery rises againThe Montecassino Abbey, located in the Lazio region some 80 miles south of Rome, was founded in 529 and began brewing beer in the 15th century. Production ceased when the monastery was destroyed as a result of bombardment during World War II. Following the war, the complex was rebuilt in the same style.

Since 2018, barley sown on land surrounding the abbey has been reaped and used to produce Montecassino abbey beer at a nearby brewing establishment. A small brewery established on one of the monastery’s old farms now offers tourists and pilgrims the chance to sample the output. Beer-making, which takes place in collaboration with Birra Peroni, one of the Italy’s biggest brewers, is just one part of a larger project aiming to restore the ancient agricultural traditions of the region. Online: birramontecassino.it

Italy: Buying beer revives a monasteryIn 2000, a handful of American monks arrived at the site of the Basilica of St. Benedict in the Umbrian region of Norcia, abandoned back in 1810 when Napoleon suppressed monastic orders. Their goal was to re-establish the monastery, which they had done with success until an earthquake in 2016 left most of the place in ruins. One of the few things left standing was a small brewery in which the monks had been making a beer they called Nursia, a reference to the city’s Latin name, since 2012. The newly-minted brewer monks had learned the art of beer-making from Trappist brewmasters in Belgium.

The monastery’s beer has an enthusiastic following. It’s sold in local shops and restaurants, and is available online in both Europe and in the United States. Purchase of Birra Nursia helps ensure that the monks will have a place to sing their old Latin chants and continue to build up their brewing industry. Online: birranursia.it

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