The Renaissance of Monastic Beer Brewing
There’s no doubt that the Czech Republic has a long and proud history of beer, claiming the title of highest beer-consuming nation per capita. Local hops have even had a modern makeover, finding their way into spa and beauty products such as Czech cosmetic brand, Manufaktura. But what is perhaps less known is that beyond the country’s drinking abilities lies a centuries-old tradition of brewing beer — and in the most unlikely of places: monasteries.
Examples of monastic breweries abound all over Europe, like the Trappist beer-brewing monks in Belgium. The Czech Republic is no exception, having preserved some of the earliest traditions (and even recipes) of the age-old craft. Its boozy beginnings start in the country’s oldest-documented brewery at Břevnov Monastery.
Founded in 993 by St. Adalbert, the second archbishop of Prague, Břevnov Monastery is the second oldest monastery in Bohemia (after St. George’s Basilica in Prague Castle, which included both men and women). While there is no original record, the first mention of the Břevnov brewery was uncovered in a 13th-century document stating Pope Innocent IV’s order to lift a 250-year ban on brewing. The monastery’s Benedictine monks did not operate the brewery itself, but rented it to various brew masters for set periods of time.
It begs the question: why did beer brewing flourish in monasteries of all places? Michael Výborný, a shift manager at Strahov Monastery’s 14th-century brewery nearby, explains.
“It was a good income-generating business,” he says. “Church properties were also better for brew masters living there because they didn’t have to pay high taxes compared to other parts of the city.”
Perhaps the tax incentive for Břevnov monks was free samples of beer. In between tastings, they were focused on their charitable work, not to mention dealing with the destruction of their monastery during the Hussite Wars in the early 15th century. The brewery itself was also severely damaged and underwent reconstruction three centuries later. Its foundations would have been hard to track if it weren’t for a tarnished 14th-century map, deep in the bowels of the brewery’s cold cellars, indicating the three original sites where beer would have been brewed on the premises. The only vestige of a brewing recipe dates to 1585 and included a filtration system using wooden barrels.
Beer making continued to thrive throughout the 19th century, until it was interrupted by the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. After World War II, and the Communist takeover, the monastery and brewery closed in the 1950s. The site was partially used by the secret police, who prohibited monks from continuing their monastic life.
The current brewery, which resides in the former stables, was reconstructed in 2011 and only officially opened a year later.
“It’s ironic because we have the oldest tradition of monastic brewing, yet our current existence is young in many ways,” says Aleš Potěšil, beer brewer at today’s Břevnov Brewery (Břevnovský Pivovar, in Czech).
Visitors to the brewery can also see a small exhibition of different types of beer glasses. From wooden steins to glass goblets, each vessel is best suited for various styles of beer. Where lagers require a taller glass to best contain carbonation, round snifters lock in the aromas of an IPA (India Pale Ale). Even more, the glassware tells the history of its era.
“Under Communism, all beer glasses were the same shape,” says Potěšil, pointing to a line of identical glasses. “The only differences were in the logos.”
The monastery brewery is privately leased to today’s brew masters — a humble team of five people, churning out 3000 hectoliters of Břevnovský Benedict beer per year. Everything is done by hand, with no automatic machinery.
“We are a true craft brewery,” says Potěšil, proudly. In case you forget, its beer label will remind you: a monk holding a long ladle, likely filled with holy ale.
The smell of hops fills the air of the brewhouse. It looks like a science lab, where stainless steel equipment replaces glass beakers and test tubes. Navigating its slippery floors, Potěšil points out the copper kettles where milled Pilsen malt is mashed and lautered: the first of its three-step process. Next is the boiling. This is when bitter hops are added to balance the sweetness of the beer (and determine its expiration date). Conveniently, the brew masters don’t have to travel far for their ingredients: some of the hops they use are harvested in front of the monastery. Yeast is added during the fermentation process to consume any residual sugars that are not turned into alcohol. This stage is very controlled, for if the yeast eats all of the sugar, the result is a watery, more alcoholic product. The beer is then transferred into a maturation tank to cool. A lower temperature helps to slow down the fermentation process.
The brewery produces up to 20 different kinds of beer per year, including imperial stout and IPA. But their classic lager is the most popular, representing 65 percent of their production. They also produce “beer champagne,” a French style of brewing using wine yeast. Their beer is either bottled, kegged or stored in barrels from old whiskey distilleries in Scotland, which apparently helps with the aging process.
Since the beer is unfiltered and unpasteurized, it only has a one month shelf life. While this preserves its many healthful benefits (like vitamin B12, proteins, and antioxidants) it poses a challenge when selling the beer to pubs in the city. To monitor the proper storage facilities, the brewery delivers their beer in person and on a weekly basis.
In the Middle Ages, beer was safer to drink than water. Today, it’s simply cheaper. When it comes to the relative prices of beer, however, Brevnovský Benedict is in the higher average.
“We are not the most expensive, but we are also not the cheapest,” admits Potěšil.
Unlike Strahov’s Brewery (where visitors can taste St. Norbert beer served exclusively on site) Brevnov’s never risked shutting down on account of locals unable to afford their prices. This is in part due to the budding craft beer movement in the country, which saw an influx of microbreweries in 2012. Today, there are an estimated 450 in the Czech Republic, and the number is growing: roughly fifty new microbreweries emerge every year. This revolution has created a new market of local consumers eager to taste (and pay a higher price for) new beer styles.
“Czechs and tourists alike are now wanting to discover these kinds of places,” says Potěšil
While the ingredients and methodology have evolved, the tradition remains the same: mastering the art of beer making in the original monastic site of its humble beginnings. So the next time you are sipping on a crisp pint, toast the people who are taking a long-lost tradition and bringing it back to life.
Ileana Lobkowicz grew up in Prague. She was managing editor of The Gavel, Boston College’s online student publication, volunteered at a magazine written by Boston’s homeless community, and has published marketing content for two travel service companies and a non-profit organization. She is on a quest to share the hidden stories of Prague.