“Inventing an Elf Seidla Steig” is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek bow to two thoughts. The name “Elf Seidla Steig” means Eleven Mug Climb and is my rip-off of the name of a popular beer hike called the Fünf-Seidla-Steig (Five Mug Climb) located in Germany’s “Franconian Switzerland“. Using the word “inventing” is likely a misnomer as well, as this part of the world is so old that many others have probably “invented” this route before. No matter – the goal wasn’t invention but rather some great hiking with interesting beers to try along the way and to extend the popular Funf Seidla Steig beer hike into a multi-day adventure.
The Fraenkische Schweiz, or Franconian Switzerland in the north of Bavaria is a beautiful region of forested slopes, deep valleys, and rolling farmlands. There are crazy rock formations and caves scattered throughout. A line of mountains called the Franconian Jura (Frankenjura) passes south of Nuremberg and curves to the north through the area. And if that isn’t enough, this scenic area boasts the highest concentration of breweries found on any landscape in the world.
The Elf Seidla Steig as I am describing it passes eleven breweries and many more beer cellars in the course of 35 km and two overnights. The route can be hiked in either direction, but the logistics for me were better starting at Weißenohe on the southern end. A short, afternoon train ride from Nuremberg dropped me onto the empty platform at Weißenohe. The train line ends at the next stop at Grafenberg. Weißenohe is the traditional starting point for the Fünf-Seidla-Steig up to Thuisbrunn and back – usually done as a day hike. Part of the idea of a multi-day variation was to spread out the beers a bit. I visited three breweries the first afternoon, four on the second day, and four on the third day. Throwing in a scattering of keller stops as well made spreading it out important.
As for logistics, multi-day meant finding a place to stay for two nights at appropriate junctures along the way. The first night I stayed at Grafenberg at Lindenbrau – one of the breweries that still offers rooms. I targeted Leutenbach for the second night, but I was unable to get a room there. The Drummer Brewery rooms were totally booked and Pension Rumpler was closed for vacation (damned urlaub!) Not too far away in Sclaifhausen is a place called Gasthaus Kroder that caters to hikers and has an inexpensive, hostel-like dorm in addition to regular guest rooms. Forchheim is a big town where there was no shortage of options post-hike – I used Air BnB to find a nice place in the center. For provisions, I got by fine carrying a big daypack. Food was no problem as there are plenty of places along the way to enjoy great Franconian cuisine.
The biggest logistical issue to navigate though, is the dreaded “urlaub” and “ruhetag” gauntlet. “Urlaub” means “on vacation” and “ruhetag” means “rest day”. Between those two facts of life, you have to plan carefully if you expect to find all of the places you are interested in stopping at open when you pass by. Many of these places are not large operations so don’t take for granted that they are going to be open just because you are coming. There are no hard and fast rules, but places out in the country are usually open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday but generally have one or more rest days when they are closed. In a bigger town like Forchheim, places are open more often. Beware and plan accordingly!
In addition to the breweries, the bier kellers along the route are a cool feature. In this part of Bavaria, beer gardens are called bier kellers. Historically, beer gardens were often built under the shady trees planted on top of kellers (cellers) where beer was lagered and cooled and they came to be referred to as “kellers”. Along the route near Forchheim there is a concentration of twenty-one kellers on a forested hillside that is described as the largest beer garden complex in the world. The keller season lasts from April to October and 5 to 10 of the kellers are open on a given day. All are open during Annafest, a great annual festival called held here in late July (read about it here).
The Franconian Switzerland is also famous for its orchards and the route passes through many. Sweet cherries, apples, pears, and plums are abundant and because of that, there are a lot of craft distilleries scattered across the countryside. I was told there are more than 300 distilleries (brennerei) in the region, and you’ll see many along this route.
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Weißenohe to Grafenberg
Klosterbrauerei Weißenohe is not far from the train station. Brewing history in Weißenohe goes back to the 10th century when the Benedictine monastery began. The facility was privatized in the early 1800’s and is family-owned and operated to this day.
The path to Grafenberg climbs out of town through a forest and eventually emerges into open orchard and farmland before dropping into the town. Brauerei Friedmann is visible from the path. The family-operated brewery, started in 1875, is on a main street and their beer garden is perched on a steep hillside above where there are great views. Friedmann`s Bräustüberl in town is where I finally caught up with one of their beers. Lindenbrau is another family-owned brewery in Grafenberg that also has guest rooms for overnight stays. It is a few steps from the center of Grafenberg, a walled town dating back to the 1100’s that is quite photogenic.
Grafenberg to Dietzhof
From Grafenberg, the route climbs again and joins the route of the Frankenweg, a famous German long-distance trail that runs 520 km (320 miles) from near Lichtenberg in the north of Bavaria to Harburg. The next stop, Georg Hofmann Brauerei in the village of Hohenschwärz, was founded in 1897 and is now a fifth-generation family operation. They have a pleasant, shady beer garden outside of their pub which was a welcome spot to rest with a cool dunkel. Continuing north through rolling terrain you eventually descend into the picturesque village of Thuisbrunn and Gasthaus Seitz, home of Thuisbrunner Elch-Bräu. This brewery and distillery is very young by German standards having been established in 2007. Beer is served into their beer garden from a rock cellar behind the guesthouse. The clientele was a mixture of bikers (both motorized and not), hikers, and people out on a country drive.
At Thuisbrunn, the Elf Seidla Steig route parts ways with the Frankenweg and heads west on farm roads and rustic forest paths. Since I just made this route up, there are no more convenient trail signs or markers so a bit of navigation is required. I found it to be easy enough with the Google map downloaded to my phone for offline use. The route climbs over a rise to the village of Haidhof and then traverses forest before beginning the drop toward Leutenbach beginning near the St. Moritz chapel and spring. There is interesting local folklore connected to the spring.
Brauerei Gasthof Drummer in Leutenbach has been family-owned and operated for over 250 years. It is a classic country inn with fresh, tasty beer. Brauerei Alt in nearby Dietzhof resides in an ancient farmhouse built on the remains of an even older noble residence. Five generations of the Alt family have operated the small brewery – it is a great place fo a Franconian dinner and a nice beer.
Dietzhof to Forchheim via the Kellerwald
The walk from Dietzhof to Forchheim begins by curling around to the western flank of a prominent flat-topped mountain with twin summits called Ehrenberg. One of the peaks is named Walberla, and the entire mountain is often referred to as Walberla as well as Ehrenberg. Walberla is a legendary place that is said to have been inhabited as many as 6000 years ago. It was a spiritual place for the Celts who had a fortress up there and Germanic pagan tribes once considered the mountain top to be the home of their gods. A Walberlafest Spring festival that is claimed to have started in the 800’s is held there around Mayday and I’ve read that it’s a pretty good event for beer hikers and pagans.
Once on the west flank of Walberla, the route descends into the Wiesent valley to cross the river near Reuth before climbing up toward the Kellerwald above Forchheim. The Kellerwald is a large, beautiful beech forest interspersed with some open meadows and fields on another flat-topped mountain. The route funnels into a substantial complex of beer cellars – rock cellars tunneled into the hillsides, many with beer gardens built out in the forest on top of them. These cellars, some of which date back to the 1600’s were used for cooling before the invention of mechanical refrigeration. Only a fraction of the beer gardens were open (beer cellars with beer sellers) for business, but that was enough to quench my thirst from the hike.
A steep lane descends to Forchheim, a pleasant small city with a pedestrian-friendly center. The city celebrates its rich beer culture with a Walk of Beer, a walking route with interpretive information for its five stops. At each stop there is a plaque with a QR code enabling smartphone users to pull up descriptions and other information. There are two stops on the plaza across from the Rathaus (city hall) in the center. Brauereigaststätte Hebendanz is a family run brewery that dates back to the 1500’s and has been at its present location since 1882. Two doors away is the oldest of the Forchheim breweries – Brauerei Neder. Their “Black Anna” black lager turned out to be a favorite of mine on this hike. Neder has a classic, old-school tavern in their brewery that is a comfortable spot for a brew. I walked around to the alley in back to see what I could of the breweries and it is obvious that they have to be creative to operate in close quarters in buildings that are hundreds of years old.
Brauereigaststätte Eichhorn is a small, family-run operation that traces its roots to a brewery at this location in the 1700’s. Their flagship brew is “Braun’s Achhörnla”, a brownish hoppy lager. Eichhorn means squirrel I think, so I still remember this as the Squirrel Brewery. Brauerei Josef Greif is just out of the center on the edge of a more modern residential area. It is also a family operated brewery dating back to the 1800’s and it is Forchheim’s largest with an annual output of more than 17,000 bbl. They make a great Kellerbier with an unusual hoppy character.