The Brewing Nun
                                       by Earl Smith Jr.


You've likely heard about flying nuns and singing nuns but the odds are you've never
encountered a tale about a brewing nun.  Until now: say hello to Sister Doris, a long time, real
nun whose job is to make beer. Quietly, hidden behind monastery walls, she's been turning
water into beer at Mallersdorf, a 12th-century abbey in the Bavarian highlands, for more than
40 years. Yes, that's 4 decades of crafting beer. And it's great beer after all, Sister Doris is a
certified master brewer, the only Franciscan nun to hold that distinction and one of only a very
small handful of women who commercially brew beer in Bavaria. Like many monasteries back in
the day, Mallersdorf Abbey became a magnet for pilgrims seeking blessings from saints' relics
on display in the abbey church. With droves of visitors in need of sustenance and an often
contaminated water supply from pathogen-laden streams and wells, beer was one of the few
drinks that was safe in the Middle Ages. And that is the basic reason why beer-making
gradually became an important sideline at monasteries throughout Europe. It flourished at
Mallersdorf, as well, but was sidelined by the growth of secular breweries and not revived until
1881, when the current brew house was built.

What sets Mallersdorf apart from the handful of other surviving abbey breweries is that Sister
Doris is the only remaining nun brewmaster -- in all of Europe. On brewing day, she's excused
from morning prayers and makes her way to the abbey brew house by 3:30 a.m. Catholic nuns,
by tradition, are destined for a life of prayer and service from the moment they enter the
convent. However in that context the abbey asked more of Sister Doris. In conjunction with
taking the veil they asked her to become a brewmaster, succeeding an elderly Franciscan
sister who had been operating the abbey brewery since the 1930s. The abbey depended on
revenue from the beer and their fate was placed in the hands of one of their youngest
members.  “She looked me up and down like a farmer eyes an ox” Sister Doris wrote. Then
they gave me the job.  And she's had it ever since.

Doris Engelhard came to Mallersdorf in 1961 as a student in a school run by the abbey. Her
mother was ill, and the nuns took care of her.  “The sisters made a real impression on me. And
I knew early on that I wanted a religious life”, she explained.  Sister Doris began her
apprenticeship in 1966, under the careful watch of another sister who had been brewing beer
there since 1931. The abbey then sent her to get intensive training in brewing. Immersing
herself in the rigorous course work her dedicated study allowed her to pass the master
brewer's exam.  By 1969, she had become a master brewer and it was then she decided to
take her vows and join the convent.  In 1975 she was given total control of all brewing. “Beer
brewing is women's work” she says, adding that female brewers were common in the Middle
Ages. It was so common that there's a word for those women- Brewster, which is the feminine
form of the brewer.  

It is likely that a woman presided over the birth of beer some ten thousand years ago. This
most ancient of women's skills was probably learned before the first baking of bread and
certainly before the appearance of wine. Indeed, four thousand years before the birth of Christ,
women brewers enjoyed great prestige making dozens of kinds of beer in Babylon and
Sumeria.  It is in that context that Sister Doris operates at Mallersdorf in splendid isolation, far
from famed German brewing hubs like Munich, Bamberg, Hamburg and Berlin.  Measured by
volume, scale, efficiency, size of ad budget (zero) or any other metric, the abbey brewery is
100% old school. Just how far under the radar it operates becomes clear when you realize that
Sister Doris brews only 3,000 hectoliters (just under 80,000 gallons) a year. Global giants
Coors and Anheuser-Busch/InBev turn out the same amount of beer every eight minutes,
proving over and over again that quantity doesn't mean quality. For Sister Doris quality is all
that matters. It is that mantra that has made her an iconic brewmaster who produces truly
exceptional beers that are loaded with character and complex flavors.

If it was only about the beer sales would bring wide fame and money to Mallersdorf.  The
Franciscans, however, are apparently not inclined to expand or leverage the beer's local
following into something bigger. It seems, for a long set of reasons, they have no ambitions
beyond selling their beer around the proverbial church tower. This means beer lovers in the
United States, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand and other countries experiencing the craft
beer revolution won't be tasting Sister Doris's beer locally anytime soon.  Drinkers need to
travel to Germany, but even then, they may not have an easy go of it.

For 45 years, Sister Doris, 65, has dedicated her life to God and beer. Brewing is her service
to the convent. There are 490 sisters in the abbey.  Some work as teachers in schools, in
children’s homes, and nursing homes. “We also have cooks and pig farmers and a baker. We
do everything for ourselves” said Sister Doris. Of her own job she said “I love the work, and I
love the smell when I’m making beer. And I love working with living things, with yeast, barley,
and with the people who enjoy the beer.”

Sister Doris sees no link between beer and sin. Brewing beer certainly is a unique profession
for a woman today and especially a nun” she acknowledges. “But I love to drink beer. Beer is
the purest of all alcoholic beverages. It is a very healthy drink, as long as you do not pour it
down senselessly” According to Sister Doris “there’s no secret” to her recipe, and that “every
batch is different. The main ingredients are barley, water, hops, and yeast.  It is up to the
brewer how to get along with these raw materials.”  

She went on to say it’s a myth that the beer made in abbeys nowadays is based on medieval
recipes. “I cannot imagine that anyone would drink this beer if it was made with old and
traditional abbey recipes, as advertisement often suggests. That’s ridiculous. Every year the
barley is different and has to be treated and processed differently. We do not even have the
same sorts of barley today that existed back then.”

The abbey makes a different beer for each season, including maibock, a doppelbock, a dark
zoigl, and a copper-hued lager. But given that the beer is made with natural ingredients and is
not treated with preservatives it’s a fresh product.  Sister Doris firmly believes that “beer is not
supposed to be left sitting. It changes the taste. It should be enjoyed as soon as possible”.  

She never expected that her call to serve God would lead her to brewing beer, but states she
loves her work and will do it until her health prevents her from doing so. “You can serve God
everywhere, no matter what profession or job you have.  As Saint Benedict wrote ‘in all things
God may be glorified’, and that is also true of beer.”
beernexus.com - SPECIAL REPORT
Abbey Brewing Nun Style