The Legend of the First Pope-Approved Beer

By Noah Kaufman |
FWX LEGEND OF THE FIRST POPE BEER

© Bruno Ehrs/Corbis

With Pope Francis’s arrival in the United States, there has been no shortage of items meant to honor (or take advantage of) his trip. And those items include at least three papal beers. But neither the pontiff nor the Vatican actually sanctioned any of these ales. I’m not a Catholic, but I’m pretty sure putting a smiling picture of the pope on a label is not the same as having your beer blessed.

There was a time, though, when a pope did give a brew his blessing. And while today’s pope beers seem to be more about cashing in on what is probably the papal PR event of the year, the original pope-approved beer was more about saving souls.

Back in the 1600s beer was plentiful if a bit inconsistent because so many people elected to brew their own. Monks, though, had dialed in the process and were making the best beer in the world (depending upon whom you ask, they still make the best beer in the world). But the Paulaner Monks from Cloister Neudeck ob der Au wanted to try something different. They wanted to make a beer for Lent. The Paulaners needed the beer to fill them up, because during Lent they fasted for 40 days. But while they couldn’t consume any solid food, they were allowed as much liquid as they wanted. It was a perfect beer loophole. Shortly after their arrival in Germany, the Paulaners brewed the first doppelbock (literally, a double-strong bock) that they called Salvator. You can probably guess who would have been on the label of this one if hip packaging had been a thing back then.

According to legend, in either the late 17th or early 18th century the monks found the beer so delicious (and so much more alcoholic) that they needed to send it to Rome for papal approval, lest they be accused of having too much of a good thing during a time of absention. But during the long, hot trip from Munich to Rome, the beer spoiled. When the pope tasted it, he found it so repulsive that he decided not only was the beer acceptable, it would actually be character-building for people to drink it. He figured that subsisting for more than a month on nothing but vile-tasting beer would make everyone more humble even if it wouldn’t make them more sober.

Fortunately for the monks, that meant they got to drink the excellent, non-spoiled version of their doppelbock every year during their fast.

Paulaner, which today is one of only six breweries allowed to provide beer for Germany’s Oktoberfest, still makes the Salvator. Fortunately, in the centuries since the original decree, no pope has said a word against it.

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