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Classic Beer of the Month May 2010: Weltenburger Asam Bock

Weltenburger Asam Bock, 6.9% (Germany)

Think of beers brewed at monasteries and images of Trappist monks in Belgium and the Netherlands spring to mind. It is all too often overlooked that religious breweries exist elsewhere in the world, too.

Weltenburger AbbeyOne of the most prominent abbey breweries outside of the Low Countries stands on the River Danube in Bavaria.

Here, at Weltenburg, back in the 7th century, followers of St Columbanus founded a community that has been seriously blown and buffeted by the winds of war and the forces of nature during its 1,400-year life, but remains resilient and vibrant today, much to the delight of hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

St Columbanus is thought of as one of the ‘beer saints’. His connection with our favourite drink relates to various miracles he performed involving beer, including a ‘loaves and fishes’ moment when he supplied enough bread and beer to satiate his growing band of followers.

Not surprisingly, therefore, when some of these followers set up home alongside the Danube, they made sure they brewed beer as part of everyday life, a practice continued when the abbey was later taken over by Benedictine monks, whose devotion to good beer is well exhibited in the work of their Trappist brothers further north.

When Napoleon raged across Europe, the monks fled their home, only to return when peace was restored. Similarly, the rising waters of the Danube have seen them jump ship on various occasions. Visit the abbey today and you’ll see high water marks inked onto its pastel pink walls.

Fabulous Sight

Weltenburg Abbey is a fabulous sight as you make your way by pleasure boat up river from the town of Kelheim. Majestically crowning a bend of the olive green river, it is a place of pilgrimage, not just for holy worshippers but also for their beer-loving fellow travellers.

Through the archway lies a tree-shaded courtyard, generally bustling in summer months with tourists who have done the tour of the spectacularly Baroque church and now are washing away the dust of summer with a beer or two from the in-house tavern.

Weltenburger AbbeyThe brewery here – which features in records as early as the year 1050, making it 'the oldest abbey brewery in the world', according to its slogan – is no longer run by the monks themselves.

Back in the early 1970s, their brewhouse needed urgent investment and, as a solution, they leased out control to Bischofshof Brewery in neighbouring Regensburg.

As Bischofshof is actually owned by the Bishop of Regensburg, it’s not such a secular cop out.

Beers are now produced on two sites. Those bearing the label Marke Weltenburger are brewed in Regensburg and are generally the lighter-coloured lagers.

They are very fine beers in themselves, but perhaps do not have the kudos of the dark beers labelled Weltenburger Kloster, which are created in the small brewhouse just off the abbey’s courtyard.

One of these beers is Asam Bock, the sort of beer you would use as an example if you ever needed to justify beer as a source of nourishment. This is the liquid bread that fasting monks survived on for centuries, a big, deep, rich and malty beer that truly justifies the description ‘a meal in a glass’.

The name of the beer derives from the Asam brothers, two successful artists, sculptors and architects who decorated numerous religious establishments in this part of the world during the 18th century and here contributed the aforementioned, ludicrously ornate church.

I wish I could tell you exactly how the beer is made. I have made various enquires but met a very holy silence in most respects. The malts are a combination of pale and dark – not really that difficult to discern, given the ruby hue of the beer – while the hops are Hallertauer, grown only a matter of miles from the abbey. But which strains they are remain confidential.

Weltenburger Asam BockThe significant point, however, is that the beer is thoroughly lagered, spending 12 full weeks slowly maturing in the chilly caves cut into the hillside behind the monastery.

At 6.9% ABV, and packed with malt, you expect a fair amount of sweetness on the palate and you’re not disappointed. Soft, smooth, creamy chocolate, nut and crispbread notes fill the mouth, along with raisin and prune fruitiness.

Just when you begin to consider that the sweetness may just be too dominant, the finish kicks in, thick but drying. Chocolate raisin flavours hang around but are joined by bitterness from both roasted grains and hops.

I’d like to think of Asam Bock as the perfect choice when you’ve only time for one bottle in the evening – a half-litre of high quality, totally satisfying, genuinely flavoursome beer that can set the seal on a hectic day. The trouble is, it’s really very hard to stick to just one.

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