Continuously Operating

Crack Open an Old One

A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.

Bayern Munich’s midfielder Xabi Alonso grabs a Paulaner on arrival for the traditional visit of the football club to the Oktoberfest beer festival on the Theresienwiese in Munich, on Oct. 5, 2014
Bayern Munich midfielder Xabi Alonso grabs a Paulaner during the traditional visit of the club to the Oktoberfest beer festival on the Theresienwiese in Munich, on Oct. 5, 2014.

Photo by Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

It makes sense that some of the world’s oldest continuously operating businesses are breweries: Demand for beer is almost as sure a thing as death and taxes. And in Europe, “continuously operating” has a different meaning than it does in the relatively youthful New World. But that doesn’t make the staying power of Germany’s oldest breweries—most of them originally housed in monasteries—any less breathtaking. The oldest brewery in America is Yuengling, founded in 1829. The oldest brewery in Germany (and the world) is Weihenstephan, founded in 1040. 1040. That’s 26 years before the Norman conquest of England, 175 years before the Magna Carta, 477 years before Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, 736 years before the Declaration of Independence.

And Weihenstephan is not some freakish anomaly. The second-oldest brewery in Europe, Weltenburg, was founded in 1050. Germany has breweries founded in 1302 (Gaffel), 1328 (Augustiner), and 1397 (Spaten). The Bundesrepublik is crawling with breweries that predate the Columbian Exchange.

There’s something comforting about sipping a brew that’s been around longer than the Mona Lisa (even if the recipe for that brew has evolved over the centuries). It feels like raising a glass to—and finding common ground with—your ancestors (even if, being monks, the brewers are probably not literally your ancestors).

But longevity alone is not reason enough to drink a venerable German beer. Like all worthwhile beers, it must possess enough visual flair that you don’t feel like a doofus holding the bottle and enough taste that you want to keep drinking till the bottle is empty. Rather than presenting a guide to very old German breweries ranked by oldness, I am awarding each brewery 0 to 10 points in each of three adjudicative categories: age, style, and flavor. For the age criterion, one point will be given for each century of continuous operation. (The age of each brewery will be rounded to the nearest century.) Style will be judged based on how pretty the label is, how intelligent the company’s marketing is, and other superficial considerations. Points for flavor will be awarded according to how much Slate’s New York office staff enjoyed each brewery’s product(s) at an informal tasting last week.

This is not an objective ranking. Nor is it comprehensive: The selection of brands is limited to those obtainable in the United States, and, more specifically, in the West Village on a weekday afternoon. But I hope that this unscientific competition will be of service the next time you find yourself in a biergarten trying to remember the difference between Franziskaner and Paulaner. (The answer: 271 years.)

Made since: 1040

Description: Like most Bavarian breweries, Weihenstephan specializes in hefeweizen, or weissbier. (Weizen refers to wheat; its near-homonym weiss means white and alludes to the beer’s light color.) Weissbier is malty, fruity, and spicy, and Weihenstephan’s offerings are a fine example of the form. Weihenstephan’s Vitus, a slightly higher-alcohol bock beer, was praised by Slate’s staff as “smooth, lemony, caramel-y, but in a good way” and “very delicious and drinkable.” For a 974-year-old brewery, Weihenstephan is surprisingly social-media savvy, with a hashtag- and retweet-laden Twitter feed. However, style points were deducted because “the world’s oldest brewery” is printed right there on the label, which seems unnecessarily self-congratulatory.

Points for age: 10
Points for flavor: 8
Points for style: 5

Total: 23—WINNER

Made since: 1678

Description: A relative rarity in the U.S., Schlenkerla is best known for its smoked beer, or rauchbier. Rauchbier is a specialty of Bamberg, the city about 40 miles north of Nuremberg where the Schlenkerla brewery is located. The bold flavor of Schlenkerla’s Märzen was summed up well by one of our tasters: “Tastes like BBQ. I loved it. Some hate it.” Schlenkerla gets extra style points for its burly half-liter bottles and its un-self-consciously old-school labels, whose ornate calligraphy makes the brewery’s name look like it’s spelled “Ochlenferla.”

Points for age: 3
Points for flavor: 8
Points for style: 9

Total: 20

Made since: 1589

Description: Hofbräu, located in Munich, claims to use “the original recipes handed down by Wilhelm V, the Duke of Bavaria,” who founded the brewery in order to slake his thirst for suds more efficiently. Hofbräu’s flagship brew is a session lager, but we tried its hefeweizen and deemed it the hefeweizen for people who think they don’t like hefeweizen: light, refreshing, not cloying. (“Could drink a giant boot of this,” wrote one reviewer.) Hofbräu gets points for the stylishly conjoined H and B on its logo; it loses points for using too many photographs of hot blonde chicks wearing dirndls on its website.

Points for age: 4
Points for flavor: 6
Points for style: 6

Total: 16

Made since: 1302

Description: Gaffel is one of the few widely known Germany breweries that’s not located in Bavaria (instead, Gaffel calls Cologne, in North Rhine-Westphalia, home). The specialty of Köln, as Cologne is called in German, is, naturally, kölsch (also the name of a regional dialect). Kölsch is crisp, clear, and mild, and it’s traditionally served in elegant little cylindrical glasses called stangen. Gaffel’s kölsch is passable, not exceptional, but I have to hand it to Gaffel for coming up with a guide to drinking kölsch that includes this excellent tip: “Keep calm.

Avoid shaking up the beer at all costs. You have to be careful not to get too excited about drinking it.”

Points for age: 7
Points for flavor: 5
Points for style: 7

Total: 19

Made since: 1363

Description: Franziskaner is another Bavarian brewery housed in a monastery and specializing in wheat beer. Our critics were not fans, judging Franziskaner’s Weissbier as “tasty but watery” and “unremarkable but drinkable.” However, Franziskaner’s logo—a Franciscan monk bearing a beatific smile as he peers into a stein of beer—is a thing of beauty.

Points for age: 7
Points for flavor: 4
Points for style: 8

Total: 19

Made since: 1634

Description: Paulaner’s yeasty, fruity “natural cloudy” wheat beer is a perfectly solid hefeweizen. But Paulaner’s greatest contribution to civilization is not its beer but its endorsement deal with soccer team Bayern Munich, currently (and usually) on top of the Bundesliga. This corporate partnership has resulted in a series of photos of several recent World Cup winners—including Thomas Müller, Philipp Lahm, and Bastian Schweinsteiger—looking very silly in lederhosen. Ten out of ten for style.

Points for age: 4
Points for flavor: 7
Points for style: 10

Total: 21