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Sister Doris: Europe's last beer-making nun

By Tom Conrad for CNN
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 0539 GMT (1339 HKT)
Franciscan nun Sister Doris took over as brewmaster at Mallersdorf Abbey in Bavaria in 1975, succeeding an elderly sister who'd been brewing since the 1930s. Franciscan nun Sister Doris took over as brewmaster at Mallersdorf Abbey in Bavaria in 1975, succeeding an elderly sister who'd been brewing since the 1930s.
Europe's last beer-making nun
Early start
Historic hospitality
Sisters are brewing it for themselves
A keg for all seasons
Brand Doris
Thirsty work
Small beer
  • Franciscan nun Sister Doris is one of only a handful of women working in Bavaria's beer industry
  • Sister Doris is excused from morning prayers so she can get an early start on her daily brewing routines
  • She's reckoned to be the last in a long line of nuns engaged in traditional beer making in Europe

(CNN) -- Seriously endowed, dirndl-straining blonde waitresses at risk of a major wardrobe malfunction ferry armloads of steins from table to table in a sloshy blur.

Manly, thigh-slapping hunks in clingy lederhosen, pound down torrents of weizen beer.

Teutonic endorphins are on parade.

This could only be summer in Bavaria.

Look at any beer ad or wander into any beer garden and you'll realize that Bavarians absolutely revel in the traditional cliches about beer and go to great lengths to live up to them.

Then there's Sister Doris.

A quiet sensation 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.

She's a certified master brewer.

She's also a Franciscan nun.

The local beer culture notwithstanding, Sister Doris is living proof that women are destined for a higher calling than simply serving beer and starring in Germany's retrograde beer ads.

Germany's beer scene is seriously dude-centric.

And Bavaria's is even more so.

The regional trade association doesn't have a single woman in its ranks.

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'Ladies who lager'

Only a small handful of women brew beer in Bavaria.

And the notion that "women don't like beer" still holds sway.

Beer-making flourished at Mallersdorf Abbey after it opened in the 12th century.
Beer-making flourished at Mallersdorf Abbey after it opened in the 12th century.

Which is why Sister Doris is so important.

She's one of a tiny group of "ladies who lager" -- female brewmasters who are charting their own course and debunking stereotypes about women and beer.

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 iffy water supply from pathogen-laden streams and wells, beer was one of the few drinks that was safe in the Middle Ages.

This is 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.

Depending on the season, she can be found crafting a copper-toned vollbier (lager), a dark zoigl, a contemplative doppelbock or spritzy maibock.

It's the stuff of gods.

She gives a thumbs down to Bavaria's favorite weizen beer and doesn't bother to brew it.

In Bavaria, this borders on apostasy.

Sister Doris doesn't care -- she's a woman of decided tastes and firm opinions.

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'Women's work'

Catholic nuns, by tradition, are destined for a life of prayer and service from the moment they enter the convent.

In what must be the most unusual career move ever made by a nun, when Sister Doris took the veil she became a brewmaster instead, succeeding the elderly Franciscan sister who had been operating the abbey brewery since the 1930s.

"She looked me up and down like a farmer eyes an ox," Sister Doris tells a visitor about her selection process.

Sister Doris got the job.

Fresh out of training, master brewer's certificate in hand, she took over the brewery in 1975.

"Beer brewing is women's work," she says, adding that female brewers were common in the Middle Ages.

She's proud that northern Bavaria has the largest number of female brewers in Germany.

Among them are Sigi and Barbara Friedmann and the Meinel sisters, who are rocking the Bavarian beer scene with a new line of craft brews.

As any lover of artisanal beer will point out, there's an inverse relationship between size and quality.

Stated simply: the bigger the brewery, the less interesting the beer.

Or to put it the other way around: the smaller the brewery and the closer the brewer is to the brewing process, the more flavorful the beer is likely to be.

Sister Doris proves this maxim.

Mallersdorf operates in splendid isolation, far from 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.

Sister Doris (pictured) is one of only a handful of women working in the beer industry in Bavaria.
Sister Doris (pictured) is one of only a handful of women working in the beer industry in Bavaria.

To say that this is infinitesimal by industry standards is an understatement.

Global giants Coors and Anheuser-Busch/InBev turn out the same amount of beer every eight minutes.

There's a catch though.

Not only is Sister Doris's beer -- luscious as it is -- not exported. It's available only in the nooks and crannies of eastern Bavaria.

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Brand Doris

With an iconic brewmaster like Sister Doris and exceptional beers that are loaded with character, Mallersdorf could grow.

The Franciscans, however, are apparently not inclined to expand or leverage the beer's local following into something bigger.

It seems they have no ambitions beyond selling their beer "um den Kirchturm" -- 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.

The tourist infrastructure in the immediate area isn't well developed.

The brewery doesn't have a website or its own telephone number.

And, while pilgrimages to the abbey and Marian shrine in the nearby village of Haindling are encouraged, tours of the brewery aren't offered.

Those who do make it to eastern Bavaria and Mallersdorf Abbey can sample Sister Doris's brews at the abbey tap (klosterbraustuberl), run by Renate und Heinz Bauer (Nardinistrasse 1, Mallersdorf-Pfaffenberg; +49 772 915470).

The concept of "marketing" would likely fall under its own weight if anybody ever tried to interest the Franciscan sisters of Mallersdorf in it.

Sister Doris carries the brewery on the strength of her reputation, the fiercely loyal following she enjoys and the breakout quality of the beer she brews.

Mallersdorf Abbey has a "brand" and her name is Sister Doris.

Tom Conrad is a Philadelphia-based travel and taste writer.

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