Friday, March 8, 2013

World's Oldest Breweries

     Back in 2000 I spent eight months living in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, on a long project.  The hotel we stayed in had a bar/restaurant right next to it, so it was a common destination for we “alkyologists” as we’re sometimes known.  One of the beers the bar always had on tap was Yuengling, out of Pottsville, PA.  Unlike many of the other beers on tap (i.e. Budweiser, Miller, all “light” beers), Yuengling was both cheap ($4 a pitcher!) and tasty.  It was a fun time.  Yuengling, of course, makes a point of advertizing itself as “America’s Oldest Brewery,” since 1829.  Over the years I’d wondered--which are the oldest breweries in the world?  Given the United State’s relatively recent history I was sure there’d be many older ones, especially in Asia and Europe.
     Obviously beer is an ancient beverage.  Chemical analysis of clay containers shows that it was being made in what’s now Iran 7,000 years ago.  The Egyptians were enjoying it at least 5,000 years ago, as were the ancient Europeans.  Some folks even postulate that beer production was the catalyst for many important types of technology, and even more broadly, for the start of civilization itself.
     I should explain that what I’m interested in is the oldest breweries in the world that were continuously operated up until the present day.  Clearly thousands or more started centuries ago, but stopped operating for one reason or another.  For example, the first North American brewery was Alonso de Herrera’s in Mexico, in 1544.  John Smith recorded two breweries in Virginia in 1629.  And the first North American name brand beer, Red Lion, was produced by Isaac de Foreest (or Forest) near Wall Street in Manhattan from 1660-1675.  Robert Hare’s brewery (whose porter type of beer was a favorite of George Washington), had a good run, too, lasting (albeit with name changes) from 1774-1939.  For the record, Yeungling isn’t lying—they are the oldest, still operating American brewery.  Rounding out the rest of North America, Victoria is the oldest in Mexico (1865), and Molson (1786) is Canada’s elder statesman.
     Let’s jump around a little.  Here’s a list of the oldest breweries in some other countries, but still not among the world’s oldest:
1)      England—Shepherd Neame, 1698.
2)      Ireland—St. Francis Abbey (makers of Smithwicks), 1710.
3)      Russia—Stepan Razin, 1795.
4)      South Africa—Newlands, 1820.
5)      Austalia—Cascade, 1824.
6)      India—Dyer Brewery, incorporated in 1855, but known for producing Lion beer for decades before that, perhaps as early as the late 1820’s.  Now Mohan Meakin.
7)      BrazilBohemia, 1853.
8)      JapanSpring Valley, 1869.  Closed for a year, but bought by Kirin in 1885.
9)      ChinaHarbin, 1900.

An Aside about Stella Artrois
    Stella Artois is one of the world’s older, but not oldest, started in 1366.  Since tariffs on this Belgian import made it more expensive than local English beers, the company came up with the odd ad campaign “Reassuringly Expensive” from 1982-2007, which used snob appeal to get across the assertion that pricier meant higher quality.  Alas, Stella Artois was nicknamed “Wife Beater” in England, as people thought that its higher alcohol content and possible chemical makeup made consumers more aggressive.  (For the record, its alcohol content is 5.2%, which is on the higher side for a lager, but not spectacularly so.  Also, there’s no proof of weird chemicals in it that cause aggression.  Any perceived effect must be psychological in nature, similar to people claiming that certain types of liquor “make them go crazy.”)

     But back to the focus of this article.  Here’s the list of the world’s 10 oldest breweries.  Bear in mind that this is a blog post, and not a doctoral dissertation.  I did the best that I could, but it’s entirely possible that I missed a particular brewery, or something.  If a reader can correct me, I’d welcome any information.  (In case anyone's rereading this, in the year or so since I wrote this originally I've gotten to try a few more offerings from the various breweries.)

1)      Weihenstephaner, 1040, located in Friesing, Bavaria, Germany.  Like many of the world’s oldest, this started as an abbey.  The monks started it in about 720, and there are records of them buying hops by at least 768, suggesting brewing was taking place.  However, it didn’t become commercial until 1040.  Fortunately their beers are relatively easy to find in the places I’ve traveled to.  Their lager is good, and their Hefeweissbier, Korbinian, and Vitus are very good to excellent.
2)      Weltenburger, 1050, Weltenburg, Bavaria, Germany.  The abbey dates to 620, so it could be argued that brewing took place here first, instead of at Weihenstephaner.  However, it wasn’t commercialized until 1050.  Haven’t found this beer to be as available as Weihenstephaner, but I was able to recently try a bottle of their Kloster Pils.  And it was decent.  Alas, their Kloster Barock Hell (a Munich Helles Lager) was rather unpleasant--too sweet, too malty.
3)      Affligem, 1074, Belgium.  Their Tripel was okay, but I thought a tad overrated.  Their Noel Christmas Ale I found to be pretty bad.  Not a typical nicely spicy Christmas brew.
4)      Grimbergen, 1128, Belgium.  The Grimbergen Dubbel (Double) was all right, but nothing special.  Their Blonde (a Belgian Pale Ale) was odd.  At first I thought it was strangely sweet, but it grew on me, and I ended up really enjoying the last couple of bottles.
5)      Tongerlo, 1133, Belgium.  I was disappointed in their Blond.  It was overly light and kind of bland.  Drinkable, though, and it hides its alcohol content well.
6)      Bolten, 1266, Germany.
7)      Aldersbach, 1268, Germany.
8)      Hirter, 1270, Austria.
9)      Furstenberg, 1283, Germany.
10)  Aktienbrauerei Kaufbeuren, 1308, Germany.  Had their Tanzelfest Bier (a Marzen/Oktoberfest) and really disliked it.  Way too sweet, in a bad way.  Although, to be fair, Oktoberfests aren't my favorite style.
Note:  Zatec Brewery in the Czech Republic claims a date of 1004, based on a tax record.  However, records of it being continuously operated since then are extremely questionable.  I found possible start dates of 1261, or (more definitively) 1801.  For Rhanerbrau brewery, in Germany, I found notice of it in lists of the world’s oldest companies, starting in 1283.  However, I couldn’t get good evidence of it still producing currently.  Kuchlbauer Brewery, also German, was similarly dated as starting in 1300.  The substantiation for this seems weaker than the others, and it’s probably younger.
     So there you have it.  It’s amazing that some breweries have almost lasted a millennium, through fires, earthquakes, economic system changes, world wars, etc.  I’d love to try numbers #6 though #9, but haven’t had the chance yet.  They’ve been added to my “Beers to Try” list.
     Finally, as any American knows, Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser is truly “The King of Beers” in availability (definitely not in quality, in my opinion)—it’s tough to find a drinking establishment that doesn’t have it on tap, and often it (and its even worse sibling Bud Light) is the only tap choice.  Therefore, I was amused to learn that it can’t be found, sort of, in most of Europe.  To back up, Adolphus Busch was inspired by, and named the beer after a town in Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic), Budweis (the added suffix “er” means “of”), and started brewing it in 1876.  The brand quickly became huge here in the U.S.  Meanwhile, though, there were many breweries in the actual town of Budweis, including at least two that called their beer “Budweiser,” and at least one of these was imported into the U.S. beginning in 1871.  The American Budweiser didn’t like the confusing competition, so in 1938 they came to an agreement with two Czech breweries.  The U.S. version was labeled “Bud” in most of Europe (excluding the U.K. and Ireland), and the actual Budweis breweries could use their name there.  But the larger one, Budweiser Budvar, agreed to call itself “Czechvar” in the U.S.  It kind of reminded me of an article I read on the Cracked website about the singer Katy Perry.  Briefly, that’s a stage name—she was born Katheryn Hudson, but adopted the stage name Perry to avoid confusion with the actress.  However, she sought to oppose the trademark of an Australian fashion designer who was actually born Katie Perry.  How dare she use her real name!  (Katy Perry later withdrew her opposition.)
     Oh, and in case anyone was wondering, the oldest continuously operating winery in the world is France’s Chateau de Goulaine, which started in 1000.


  1. Amazing post that is the most definitive I've found. Thanks for all the research you put into this!

  2. Appreciate that, John, and thanks for stopping by. Since I'm kind of obsessed with beer facts and trivia, doing the research for this post was entertaining, and didn't feel like work.