A Pilgrimage To Meet Germany's Last Beer-Brewing Nun

Aug 23, 2021
Originally published on August 30, 2021 4:13 pm

MALLERSDORF, Germany — The village church bells chime 11 in the morning and Hermann Zausinger has decided he needs more beer. He's a farmer, and by midday, he has worked up a thirst.

"My farm has vegetables, a fish pond, a herd of sheep," he says. "I grow everything for myself, except for beer."

He's just emerged from his village brewery and he plops four crates — 80 bottles — into the trunk of his car, smiles, and proclaims an oft-repeated phrase from these parts. "Beer is Bavarian bread."

A view from the cloister of Mallersdorf to the Laber-Valley.
Lena Mucha for NPR

It seems that every town in the southern German state of Bavaria — no matter how small — has a brewery, and beer is brewed by all sorts of people. And before you judge farmer Zausinger for his morning beer run, consider who he bought it from: Sister Doris Engelhard, a 72-year-old Franciscan nun. She claims to be the world's last nun brewmeister, and woe unto anyone who would argue that title.

Sister Doris has strong opinions about her beer and when people should drink it. In short: Always, especially during the 40-day penance period leading up to Easter. "During Lent, fasting is difficult for me," she says. "Eating one meal a day is tough. But beer is liquid — it doesn't count as food when you fast. A strong beer gives me strength!"

Sister Doris has strong opinions about her beer and when people should drink it. In short: Always.
Lena Mucha for NPR

For 50 years, Sister Doris has been master brewer at the Mallersdorf Abbey brewery in northeastern Bavaria. The cloisters were founded in the 12th century and are home to 400 nuns. In the late 19th century, the nuns were caring for hundreds of poor children and they decided to open the brewery in 1881 to raise money to help fund their mission.

Sister Doris' typical day begins at 5:30 a.m., when she attends morning prayers, then attends Mass before she begins work at the brewery at 7 o'clock. Dressed in a simple gray apron and wearing a white coif over her gray hair, Sister Doris takes me into her brewery, a vast cellar filled with stainless steel tanks beneath the cloisters, and she fiddles with a pressure valve on the side of a tank full of beer that towers over her.

Top: Sister Doris in the brewhouse. Together with one employee the nun runs the small cloister brewery in Mallersdorf. Bottom: Work utensils (left) and pressure gauges in the brewery.
Lena Mucha for NPR

She brews two types of beer: bock, a stronger kind of lager, and a lighter lager known as helles. When asked about other varieties, she waves the idea away with a flick of her hand as if she's heard this question before. "I only brew beer that I drink myself, so if the other sisters want to drink a wheat beer, they'll have to buy it themselves," she says.

She also waves away any question about the intersection of her faith and her beer. "Beer is part of the Bavarian soul. If you're not happy with yourself, you won't be happy in a cloister," she says. "And eating and drinking are part of that life. It's not about being pious. All I need to do is believe in a higher power that accepts me as I am."

Part of the Franciscan cloister of Mallersdorf in the Laber-Valley in Bavaria.
Lena Mucha for NPR

She says she drinks, on average, half a liter of beer a day. When she has company, though, she'll drink a full liter. Bavarian beer, she explains, has around 5% alcohol content — it's different from north German beers, which have more alcohol and, she says, more calories. "Beer has the least calories of all alcoholic beverages," insists Sister Doris. "A nice glass of red wine is the equivalent to a liter of my beer."

When she says this, she notices a puzzled look on my face. I'd heard that beer is more caloric than wine due to its concentration of carbohydrates. "Beer makes you thinner!" she says, patting her belly. "I only look like this because I eat too much chocolate."

In her brewery's outdoor veranda that's dedicated to her predecessor, Sister Lisana, Sister Doris pours a glass of her helles lager. It is dark golden, has a fresh, malty taste, slightly hoppy, and it goes down smoothly; a fantastic beer. She tosses back a glass for herself, too.

Her beer, Klosterbräu Mallersdorf, is only available for purchase at the Mallersdorf Abbey brewery. And for now, at least, you can buy it from Sister Doris herself; but she says she's going to retire soon and she's looking for a successor. Even so, the beer's label will remain the same: a picture of the world's last nun Brewmeister, wearing her habit, and a broad smile, about to drink her best version of Bavarian bread.

Austin Davis contributed to this story from Mallersdorf and Esme Nicholson contributed from Berlin.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Sister Doris drinks her after work beer.
Lena Mucha for NPR

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to a remote corner of southern Germany where there's a nun who brews some of the best beer in a region that knows good beer. This summer, NPR's international desk is bringing us to overseas destinations we might long to visit. And today, NPR's Rob Schmitz takes us to the foothills of Bavaria. That is where Sister Doris has been brewing her malty concoction for nearly five decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS TOLLING)

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The church bells strike 11 in the morning, and Hermann Zausinger has decided he needs more beer. He's a farmer, and by midday, he's worked up a thirst.

HERMANN ZAUSINGER: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: "My farm has vegetables, a fish pond, a herd of sheep," he says. "I grow everything for myself, except for beer."

(SOUNDBITE OF CRATES CRASHING)

SCHMITZ: He's just emerged from a brewery, and he plops four crates - 80 bottles - into the trunk of his car, smiles and proclaims an oft-repeated phrase from these parts.

ZAUSINGER: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: "Beer is Bavarian bread."

ZAUSINGER: (Laughter).

SCHMITZ: It seems that every town in the southern German state of Bavaria has a brewery, no matter how small. And it's brewed by all sorts of people. And before you judge farmer Zausinger for his morning beer run, consider who he bought it from - Sister Doris Engelhard, a 72-year-old Franciscan nun. She claims to be the world's last nun brewmeister (ph), and woe onto anyone who would argue that title. Sister Doris has strong opinions about her beer and when people should drink it. In short, always, especially during Lent.

DORIS ENGELHARD: (Through interpreter) During Lent, fasting is difficult for me. Eating one meal a day is tough. But beer is liquid. It doesn't count as food when you fast. A strong beer gives me strength.

SCHMITZ: Sister Doris has made her strong beer for nearly 50 years. She's the master brewer at the Mallersdorf Abbey brewery in northeastern Bavaria. The cloisters were founded in the 12th century and are home to 400 nuns.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR BANGING OPEN)

SCHMITZ: Dressed in a simple gray apron and wearing a white coif over her gray hair, Sister Doris takes me into her brewery in a vast cellar beneath the cloisters, and she fiddles with a pressure valve on the side of a tank full of beer that towers over her.

ENGELHARD: (Speaking German).

(SOUNDBITE OF HISSING)

SCHMITZ: "We've got to build pressure by one bar so that the beer has a decent amount of foam," she tells me. Sister Doris brews two types of bock and a helles beer. When I ask her about other types of beer, she waves the idea away with a flick of her hand as if she's heard this before.

ENGELHARD: (Through interpreter) I only brew beer that I drink myself, so if the other sisters want to drink a wheat beer, they'll have to buy it themselves.

SCHMITZ: Bavarian beer, she explains, has around 5% alcohol content. It's different from North German beers, which have much more alcohol.

ENGELHARD: (Through interpreter) Beer has the least calories of all alcoholic beverages. A nice glass of red wine is the equivalent to a liter of my beer.

SCHMITZ: When she says this, she notices a puzzled look on my face, and she pats her belly.

ENGELHARD: (Through interpreter) Beer makes you thinner. I only look like this because I eat too much chocolate.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORK POPPING)

SCHMITZ: Sister Doris pours me a glass of her helles lager. It has a fresh malty taste, slightly hoppy, and it goes down smoothly. It's a fantastic beer, and she tosses back a glass for herself, too. You can only buy her beer here at the Mallersdorf Abbey brewery, where she sells it herself.

But not for long. She says she's going to retire soon, and she's looking for a successor. But after she retires, the beer's label will remain the same - a picture of the world's last nun brewmeister dressed in her habit, wearing a broad smile, about to drink her best version of Bavarian bread.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Mallersdorf, Bavaria.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOVE'S "MY POP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.