Salvator and the Feast of the Holy Father

Today would have marked the final day in the eight-day Feast of the Holy Father celebration in Bavaria. While the festival's religious observation ended long ago, one aspect of the celebration, a famous monastic beer, has lived a long and healthy life. Here's the full story of Salvator, which you know today as doppelbock.

Have you ever wondered why German doppelbocks often carry the suffix "-ator" (Optimator, Celebrator, Maximator, etc.)? Well, we have to go back to a the mid-17th century to the village of Au, then near but now in Munich. The story picks up with a Paulist monastery that, in 1651, received permission to build a brewery. In time, they began serving a special beer to be served at the Feast of the Holy Father, which was, by contemporary accounts*, quite the fête:

To a certain extensive garden, high up on the right bank of the Isar, from which a beautiful view of the city is had, there is every year a pilgrimage of all Munichers. It seems as if a world's fair were being held. Close streams of people, men, women and children, people of all ranks and of every station in life, pour in from all directions, and the garden and the immense halls, and even the street adjoining, are swarming with drinkers.

The object of their attraction was called Holy Father beer, or Sankt Vaterbier. Eventually this morphed into the name "Salvator." The monks brewed this beer to a high gravity, but it was underfermented so that it wasn't particularly strong--but was very heavy and sweet. This may help explain why monks used it to ease them through their days of fasting during lent. Unlike today’s much more alcoholic doppelbocks, old Salvators were heavy but modest in strength—“liquid bread," perfect for fasting monks who needed calories but not booze.

Other breweries started making their own versions of Salvator beer, and over the decades it became its own style. Ron Pattinson posted some 19th-century examples, and they tend to fall on either side of 50% attenuationlow (very low!), so that an 1853 beer brewed to 19.5 Plato (1.081) finished at about 11 Plato (1.043) and had just 4.9% alcohol. By comparison, a beer with a similar gravity brewed today would produce a beer of around 8%--which is typical for modern doppelbocks. (If you ever get caught up in a conversation about Lenten bocks and fasting monks, remember this detail--it undermines the myth that the old boys were wheeling around the monastery blasted all the time.) By the end of the 19th century, dozens of breweries around Munich were making it.

Paulaner Brewery today.

But here we come to an interesting wrinkle in the story. Back in 1799, the monks decided to get out of the beer business and sold their brewery to the state. A few years later, a brewer named Zacherl purchased the brewery and carried on the tradition of making Salvator beer. That example from 1853 I mentioned above was brewed by Zacherl. Later still, Zacherl changed its name to one more familiar to contemporary drinkers: Paulaner. Since Paulaner is the only brewery still making Salvator, you may have guessed what happened next. The brewery decided to put a trademark on "salvator." By then, it had become a generic style, like helles or dunkel lager, and the breweries making salvators howled in protest, arguing:

"Gentlemen, you all know the beautiful gift of God that is called Salvatorbier; this beer is brewed by the joint-stock company Schmederer that is the fortunate owner of the Zacherlbrauerei in Munich. This company has recently submitted the trademark "Original Salvator" to the Reich Patent Office, has obtained a registration, and the objections of a whole number of other breweries, who also brew Salvatorbier, were ignored, yes, it has gone so far that the district court in Munich passed an injunction and seized the beer stocks of the other brewers and has started criminal proceedings against the directors of these breweries. Now, everyone who understands the brewing industry knows that the name Salvatorbier in no way implies origin from a specific brewery, but, just like Bockbier, is only a certain type of beer, a stronger type of beer, that is a specific sort. It's certainly reasonable for the Zacherl brewery to call its beer Zacherl-Bräu Salvator; but if officials allow a single brewery to register the name Original-Salvator, if courts punish those who use the designation and seize their stocks, it shows how little expertise the courts possess."

The courts went ahead and granted Paulaner its trademark, perhaps not persuaded by the argument that the jurists were ignorant fools. Whatever the case, the style of beer once called salvator came to be called doppelbock instead. The other breweries may not have been legally allowed to call their beers salvator any more, but they began retaliating by appropriating that "-ator" suffix and undermining the strength of the Salvator name. They seem to have won the war, too, because little of this old fight is remembered, and even Paulaner calls its beer a "doppelbock" on the label--now one of many dopplebocks with an -ator suffix.

So, on this, the final day of the Feast of the Holy Father, track down a doppelbock and raise a toast to forgotten monks, old trademark battles, and the fierce traditions of Bavarian brewing.

*As usual, I outsource the actual historical heavy lifting to Ron Pattinson, whose series on Salvator beer is fascinating.