Regensburg, Bayern (Bavaria):
Spitalgarten (Spital Brauerei)
Monday 14th April 2014
This brewery is said to be yet another contender in the “World’s oldest” category although I think it is a little too young for that accolade, being established in 1226. Nevertheless there aren’t many city breweries that date from medieval times as this example does. It is however, most definitely the oldest hospital brewery. As is well known it could be dangerous to drink water back in those times and most of the populace drank beer, or wine for those wealthy enough to afford it.
If fact, when the Spitalstifting (Hospital Foundation) opened in 1226, it offered both wine and beer. Citizens gave the organisation barley and hops to make the beer, oats were also used. They began brewing wheat beer in the 15th century.
At the end of the next century beer had replaced wine as the most consumed drink in Bavaria, setting the way forward for its famous beer culture.
The city of Regensburg enacted a law in 1454 on beer purity thus pre-empting the 1516 Rheinheitsgebot. Herbs and botanicals were in common use before and after it was enacted heavy fines were levied on any brewer using them.
Unusually, we know the beers that were brewed in those far off days and in some cases when they were introduced. They were: Märzen, Georgsbier (1391), Jakobsbier (1393) Konfenbier (a low alcohol beer, 1408) and Weizenbier (wheat beer, 1408). It is not know if the latter had top or bottom fermentation, but it’s almost certain it was top for all of them.
The biergarten and pub had many different names over the years since it began offering beer to the general public.
By the early 1800s it had settled down to Spitalgarten and this included the pub. At this time many hospital breweries closed after they lost the patronage of the crown. In an early example of privatisation this brewery was separated from the hospital and both were placed under independent foundations. The King of Bavaria personally insisted the brewery continued in operation.
It was very progressive and in 1852 made an attempt to take over the Bischofshof brewery. This was blocked by the trustees and Bischofshof is with us today, please see separate article. At this time there were 35 breweries in the city. They did however, take over Strasserbräu. Incidentally the brewery building of Spital that is with us today was constructed around 1600, although it has been heavily modified.
The building that houses the present pub was originally a bath house. By 1809 it was the part of the hospital for poor citizens. It became the pub in 1859 and its popularity increased over the following years. The garden was extended in 1882 and nowadays there is a large area of it in front of the pub but it continues as a ribbon along the river bank all the way to the brewery buildings. It is capable of serving 750 thirsty customers.
One of the nicest things about visiting the pub is that you have to use the ancient Steinernbrücke (Stone Bridge) to get from the Altstadt (Old Town) in the centre of the city to Stadtamhof, the island where the brewery is located. This bridge is well known and was built between 1135 and 1146. Until the early 1930s it was the only crossing of the Danube in Regensburg.
Only one of the original three towers is still extant and it is on the south (city) side. Next to its small archway leading onto the bridge is a larger one. This was constructed to accommodate the tramway which had no other way to get to the other side but to use the ancient bridge when it opened in the early 1900s.
The continuous use for over 850 years has left its toll on the structure. Private vehicles were banned over ten years ago and in 2008 buses and taxis were also banned; only pedestrians and cyclists are permitted now.
With no heavy traffic crossing, it was now possible to allow the long overdue restoration work to begin and this was still going on when I crossed on my way to the pub. Part of the crossing was done using a temporary wooden bridge to the side of the main structure.
I descended from the bridge and turned right. Directly in front of me was the St Katherinenspital which is still in use as an old people’s home. To the left of that building is the entrance to the pub and garden and immediately I noticed a change from my last visit in the mid 2000s. There was a new entrance and it was completely out of keeping with the other surrounding buildings. I didn’t see the point of it and wonder why something in a traditional style could have been built instead. It looks a bit temporary yet I’m sure it isn’t.
Once past this monstrosity I was relived to find the rest was still as it was with the biergarten stretching out in front of me. I turned right into the main room and took a seat.
I ordered a Dunkelbier (dark) to start and thought it was reasonable. Once it had cooled down I could taste a bit more malt but that is a characteristic of the style.
Then I had a Hell (light) and enjoyed it. Again, it was good without being outstanding in any way.
The room was not particularly large yet when a group of about twenty fire fighters came in for a communal meal a side room was opened for them and I could see that it had been previously prepared. On my way to the facilities I walked through another large room so there is a lot more to this pub than first meets the eye.
The furniture is all traditional varnished wood with cloths on all the tables. One feature that I liked was an alcove where, on the wall were pictures of the last two Popes; I believe both have visited St Katherinenspital.
When I left the pub I exited through a different door and arrived in St Katherinensplatz, the central square of the complex of monastery, hospital and several churches and chapels, most of which date from the 13th century. Down a lane off the square is the brewery on the left with the filling room on the right which is connected by a pipe carrying the beer.
Although Spital beers can be obtained in many places in and around Regensburg, I think this is the best place to consume them. It has so much history and it just seems very appropriate. I would think the next best location would be the Spitalkeller, their biergarten on the outskirts of the city. See below for full details.
Spitalgarten (Spital Brauerei), St Katharinenplatz 1, 93059 Regensburg. Tel: 0941 84774
Open: Monday-Sunday 09.00-24.00
Obviously the best way is to get to the pub is by crossing the Steinernbrücke, yet otherwise it is possible to get close by bus. Routes 4, 12, 13 and 17 go to the Stadtamhof stop about 5 minutes walk away.
The Biergarten: Spitalkeller, Alte Nürnberger Strasse 12, 93059 Regensburg.
Open: Tuesday-Saturday 16.00-23.00; Sundays and Holidays 10.00-23.00
It is around 15 minutes to walk from the Spitalgarten. It is served by buses as follows: Routes 13, 14 and 15 (Drehergasse stop); Routes 4 and 12 (Steinweg stop) and route 17 (Schelmengraben stop).
Update January 2020. Hours are now: Monday-Sunday: 10.00-23.00. Spitalkeller hours remain the same.