How a 700-Year-Old Brewery Makes Beer for the Modern Drinker

September 03, 2018

By October Staff, September 03, 2018

Produced by October for ROK Drinks

With more than 700 years of brewing history and counting, ABK Beer proudly calls itself the world’s “original craft beer.” But as classic German varieties face off against the world of new-school craft options, how does this legend of the brewing world stay relevant for modern drinkers? That’s the challenge its new owner, ROK Drinks, has taken on.

The story of ABK begins in the Bavarian valley town of Kaufbeuren, where, in 1308, the Aktien Brewery was donated to the citizens by a deep-pocketed baron named Henry Twinger. Nearly 200 years before Duke William IV enacted the German beer purity law known as the Reinheitsgebot, the notoriety of Aktien Brewery had already prompted the town of Kaufbeuren to establish a local brewer’s guild to oversee quality of ingredients.

Aktien gained notoriety through international beer competitions, taking home a host of accolades through the 1800s and even earning a visit from Prince Ludwig in 1901. By then, Bavaria had become one of the world’s most prolific beer-producing destinations, with nearly every major town in the region boasting its own brewery. But over time, the vast majority of these old-guard establishments have found themselves victims of changing tastes.

“Most of [these breweries] are in financial trouble—I would say maybe 95 percent of them,” says Jonathan Kendrick, chairman and co-founder of ROK Stars, the parent company of ROK Drinks. “The young kids in Germany are drinking hip hop-style brands and other alcoholic beverages.” 

Kendrick explains that he and his co-founder, former Patrón owner John Paul DeJoria, were drawn to Aktien because it was one of the oldest breweries in the world that wasn’t affiliated with a monastery, as many of them are. To make it more marketable for export, they first shortened the name of the beer—thus, Aktienbrauerei Kaufbeuren became ABK.

Stephanie Byce, Good Beer Hunting

“It’s been making the same type of beer since 1308—that’s 710 years this year,” says Kendrick. “When we get into anything, we always like a great story.”

When the ROK team came across Aktien, they found it in an incredibly well-managed state. (“That’s the German way,” says Kendrick). But without substantial investment from its previous owner, the brewery was only producing beer at 50 percent of its full capacity. And it was in desperate need of a branding makeover.

“We spent a lot on the marketing, the way it looks” says Kendrick. “But the one thing we haven’t had to touch is the beer. The beer is still made under the old German Reinheitsgebot, since 1510. There’s no preservatives, no colorings, no additives—and it is one of the best beers in the world.”

When ROK Drinks acquired the brewery, it left the operation totally intact, down to the staff producing the beer. And with the exception of the Rose beer, which it recreated using information culled from the company archives, the recipes used on-site are completely untouched. Interestingly, the light, pink-shaded Rose brew, meant to be served over ice, has become one of the company’s best-selling products in the German market. Another popular contender in the 18-beer lineup is the Hell, a Munich Helles-style lager.

Despite being keen on preserving authenticity, Kendrick says ROK wasn’t necessarily looking to win over young German beer drinkers. Rather, the focus was on export, and spreading the passion for traditional Bavarian beers across the drinking world. To that end, ABK was named the official beer of the United Kingdom’s Oktoberfest festivities last year.

“That was a huge success,” recalls Kendrick. “We served nearly a million pints—we ran out of beer, actually.”  

Kendrick considers turning ABK around from bankruptcy a key achievement of his career. And he hopes to see it become a truly global beer while still honoring the integrity of its legacy.

“I’ve got to be honest—I don’t think this is something we’re ever going to sell,” he says. “We’re never going to get another opportunity to own a 710-year-old brewery. They just don’t come on the market. Keeping it alive has been one of my proudest moments.”

ABK Beer will join nearly 90 breweries on New York City's Govenors Island at OctFest.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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