By Tracy Brown Hamilton
Sister Doris Engelhard begins most days with mandatory choral prayer at 5:30 a.m., along with the other Franciscan sisters of Mallersdorf Abbey in Germany. But on Sundays she is excused, and instead rises at 3 a.m. to craft beer—nearly 80,000 gallons annually.
For 45 years, Sister Doris, 65, has dedicated her life to God and beer. She is now the last nun in Europe who is an active brewmaster, but she was not always alone in her profession. “There is one other sister who is also a master brewer in Ursberg, not far from Augsburg,” she says over email through a translator. That nun no longer runs a brewery, however. “She is a bit older,” says Sister Doris, “and this brewery now employs another master brewer.”
There was also a nun-run brewery in Schönbrunn, close to Dachau, but it closed down about 30 years ago. The sister who had been the brewmaster there, according to Sister Doris, now spends her days caring for the elderly.
Sister Doris started on her own path into the tiny sorority of brewmaster nuns when she came to Mallersdorf—a remote Bavarian village—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 explains.
She always felt that she had an intimate relationship with God. “I have experienced God as a close, constant companion—in fact, I assume this is how every human experiences it, regardless of whether or not they believe in the one God,” she says. “I also think that God receives my prayers and accepts me just as I am, without needing my adoration or worship. Otherwise he wouldn’t be God. I need him, not the other way around.”
But despite having these convictions from an early age, and although she was raised in a Catholic home, her father did not think the convent was the right calling for her. “He told me I could better make a living working with my hands,” she recalls. “I wanted to study agriculture, but that was not possible in the abbey school, so the headmistress asked if I might be interested in the brewery.”
Mallersdorf has been a site for brewing beer since the 12th century. It was originally a monastery housing Benedictine monks, who began producing beer as a safe alternative to drinking unclean water for themselves and for the pilgrims who visited them. The monastery was converted to the current Franciscan convent in 1869, and brewing resumed in 1881.
The abbey now houses a modern brewery with two large copper boilers, cooling pans, and a storage cellar. Sister Doris began her apprenticeship in 1966, under the careful watch of another sister who had been brewing beer there since 1931. By 1969, Sister Doris had completed a course in brewing beer at a nearby vocational school. “I had become a master brewer,” she says. “Then I decided that I wanted to join the convent, and I took my vows.”
Brewing is her service to the convent—her assigned profession. “There are 490 sisters in the abbey,” she says, “and some work as teachers in schools, in children’s homes, nursing homes. We also have cooks and pig farmers and a baker. We do everything for ourselves.” Of her own job, Sister Doris says: “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.”
Monastic brewing has existed since the Middle Ages—monasteries undertook the first large-scale production of beer in medieval Europe—but according to Richard Unger, author of Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, there has not been a specific study of the history of nuns and brewing.
In the secular world, however—particularly when it came to beer for private consumption or small-scale selling—women were the original brewmasters. “It may well be that since the task was classed with domestic chores it was generally done by women,” Unger writes in his book. “But in the high and late Middle Ages, when [brewing] moved from a household industry to a system of [centralized] workshops, you see fewer women brewing.”
The number of women making beer may have declined, but in the late Middle Ages women were predominantly the ones selling it in pubs and taverns. Still, “women who sold beer were long the subject of complaint and even a source for derision,” according to Unger. “The operators of taverns were always suspect in northern Europe because of the problems of drunkenness and disorder which the establishments generated, so the women who ran them had bad reputations.”
Sister Doris, however, sees no link between beer and sin. “Brewing beer certainly is a unique profession for a woman, 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.”
Although there is some evidence that moderate beer consumption could have health benefits, there is no agreement on just how much beer is healthy to consume. Sister Doris, for her part, believes it is beneficial for men to drink 1.5 liters, and for women to drink three-fourths of a liter, per day. She herself enjoys a daily pint.
She says there’s no secret to her recipe, and that every batch is different. “The main ingredients are barley, water, hops, and yeast,” she says. “It is up to the brewer how to get along with these raw materials.” It’s a myth, she adds, 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,” she says. “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 doesn’t travel well—you can only find it in the vicinity of the abbey. “It’s a fresh product,” Sister Doris says. “Beer is not supposed to be left sitting. It changes the taste. It should be enjoyed as soon as possible.”
Sister Doris says she never expected that her call to serve God would lead her to brewing beer, but 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,” she says. “As Saint Benedict wrote, ‘in all things God may be glorified,’ and that is also true of beer.”