Four days of exploring Zoigland and hopefully I now know just enough to describe this fun and intriguing area for this story. There is alot to know and I found the story of the current state of the Zoiglbier tradition to have a good bit of complexity. Don’t worry though — it is all good and interesting for lovers of beer culture.
The area also offered some great hiking between Zoiglbiers so for a beer hiker like me, it is another small slice of heaven. The area I am dubbing Zoigland surrounds the small twin-communities of Windischeschenbach and Neuhaus in the northern Oberpfalz (Upper Palatinate) region of Northeastern Bavaria. Windischeschenbach and Neuhaus are immediately adjacent but separated from each other by the Waldnaab River. The Oberpfalz is rural in character and has a lower population density than is generally found in Germany. It is a distinct region by virtue of its particular history of controlling rulers dating to the middle ages.
The Zoigl tradition is intertwined in the same history and arises from the way in which brewing rights were historically doled out. Some rights were given to property owners in the centers of towns and villages in the region that led to the establishment of communal breweries in those places. At one time, more than 70 towns and villages in the Oberpfalz had communal breweries operating but that number is now down to five — Eslarn, Falkenberg, Mitterteich, Windischeschenbach, and Neuhaus. The bulk of the current brewing activity takes place in Windischeschenbach and Neuhaus and Windischeschenbach is the only of these places with passenger train service so it became my base location for my first exploration of Zoigland.
I had excellent help in planning my visit from Sandra Henkens at the tourism and culture department of the Windischeschenbach local government. Sandra connected me with and sponsored my time with Ferdinand Schraml, a retired school teacher who serves as a guide to the town and to Zoigl culture. Ferdinand and I walked Windischeschenbach and Neuhaus together, he gave me me many insights into the community, he patiently answered my many Zoigl questions, and we enjoyed some pub visits together.
So what the heck is “Zoigl” anyway?
Like I said, there is some complexity to this story. Let’s start with pronunciation — “ZOI-gel” (“oi” as in “boy” and “gel” as in the last syllable of “bagel”) — it’s a great sounding word that is fun to say. Zoigl is just the local word for what is known more broadly as the “brewer’s star.” The brewer’s star is a six pointed star that looks just like the Star of David except that there is often a beer mug featured in the space in the center. It is used as a brewing symbol in many parts of Germany. The use of this symbol as the brewer’s star seems independent of its use by the Jewish and other religions (for the curious, here is a link to an in-depth history and story of the brewer’s star on the website of the Schlenkerla Brewery). The Zoigl can be envisioned as two interlocking, equilateral triangles. The three points on one triangle represent natural elements needed to brew beer — fire, earth, and air. The three points on the other triangle represent ingredients in beer — malted grain, hops, and water. Yeast was not known or understood when the brewer’s star started being used or I guess there would be a seven pointed star.
The use of the Zoigl or brewer’s star is as a sign indicating a place where beer is tapped and can be obtained. In the Zoigl tradition, the sign is displayed at premises when there is Zoiglbier available for sale there.
So what is Zoiglbier?
I have to admit I struggled a bit to understand this, so bear with me (and correct me with your comments if you like) while I explain what I took away from my brief visit to Zoigland. Zoigl is not really a style of beer so much as it is a style and tradition in the method for brewing and serving a beer. In general, Zoiglbier is bottom fermented, unfiltered, untreated, and naturally carbonated. An “echter” or “genuine” Zoiglbier (more about “echter” in a minute) must also be brewed in the local Kommunbrauhaus and served directly from the storage tank in a traditional setting.
The Zoiglbiers I experienced were coppery in color, a bit cloudy due to being unfiltered, and were served with a big foamy head to start. Their fresh maltiness was nicely balanced with the spiciness of the hops. The characteristics of the soft water found in the Oberpfalz are a part of their distinctiveness. The Zoigls went down smoothly and have a relatively low ABV in the 5% range. Some would say that Zoiglbier is a kellerbier (German for “cellar beer”) or a zwickel (another unfiltered lager) style — I think that is in the ballpark, but is not quite on-base. What strikes me as a better description is that Zoiglbiers are to the lager world as cask ales are to the ale world. There are considerable variations between brewers owing to recipes and you get all the taste and texture of excellent beer without the added CO2.
All Zoigls Are Not Created Equal
An association of traditional brewers in the region named “Schutzgemeinschaft Echte Zoigl vom Kommunbrauer eV.” has assumed the mantle of keepers of Zoigl tradition. Members are generally people who possess brewing rights that were attached to properties they now own way back in the middle ages (more than 500 years ago). As part of their efforts, they have established criteria for defining what is called “echter” Zoigl. Echter means “genuine” in this context and describing beer as echter is intended to signal that the Zoigl is made and served according to longstanding traditions. The criteria include that the beer is brewed in the communal brewery of a Zoigltown (Eslarn, Falkenberg, Mitterteich, Windischeschenbach, or Neuhaus), is brewed over an open flame, wort is cooled in open air, brewers ferment and finish the beer in tanks in their own cellars, and their Zoiglbier is served directly from their tanks at their premises. Echter Zoiglstub’n (pubs) are generally open on only one weekend each month, usually from Friday morning to Monday night. They are usually attached to the house of the brewer and every one I visited featured communal seating, good food, and friendly hospitality.
Not all Zoiglbiers are echter and the association has created a trademark known as the “Echter Zoigl vom Kommunbrauer” logo used to identify Zoiglbier as genuine. There are a whole range of beers you can encounter that are sold as Zoigl but which do not carry the echter designation. Some of these are identified quite closely with the Zoigl traditions while others may have little or no connections. For instance, Wolframstub’n Zoigl seems quite traditional in every way except that it is brewed in Wolframstub’n’s own brewing facility rather than at the Kommunbrauhaus. Another example is Würth Zoiglbiers – they are served in bottles and come from a conventional commercial brewery in Windischeschenbach. It is not hard to imagine this local brewery having strong ties to the Zoigl history of the town, but the process that produces and distributes them is not echter. A third example is a Zoigl I had from commercial brewer Scherdel Beer Co. in Hof, a city in neighboring Franconia. Apparently Scherdel brewed at a Kommunbrauhaus in Hof at one time way back in history, but that seemed to be be their closest claim to a connection with Zoigl tradition. That is not to say that the non-echter beers are not good beers. I enjoyed some of them greatly — they are just coming from a different perspective.
In a Zoigland Brauhaus
In the process of walking about town, Ferdinand introduced me to several people. One was Hartmut Hogen, an echter Zoigl brewer who goes by the nickname “Hogi”. Hogi invited me to visit him at the Windischeschenbach Kommunbrauhaus the next day when he would be brewing. I arrived fairly early and found that Hogi had been working since the night before to bring the wood-fired furnace up to brewing temperature. The external weather and temperatures play a big role in the Zoigl brewer’s process as they can have a big effect on the requirements for the fire and on the subsequent cooling step. About 3000 liters (790 gallons) of water and 500 kilograms (1100 pounds) of malt had been staged for the brew. Hogi told me several times that he “knows nothing” and I finally understood that to mean that Zoigl brewing is more an art than a science. The equipment is ancient. There was no written recipe or procedures — there were no computer controls, process checksheets, logbooks, and the few measurements taken were very rough — there was no chemistry or other testing performed. This is true artisinal brewing. Watching Hogi brew was more like watching an artist sculpting a hunk of clay than watching a brewer in a modern facility. Hogi put on and cranked up the AC/DC and proceeded to brew.
The following gallery displays images from the brauhaus — click on any image to enlarge it, read its caption, and open a scrollable slideshow of all images.
Once the brewing is complete, the wort is pumped up into a huge, open copper cooling vessel in the attic. It cools overnight. Once cooled, it is emptied by gravity through a spigot on the outside wall of the brewery into tank trailers for transport to the brewer’s private cellar where yeast is added and the Zoigl is fermented and finished. Every different brewer using the Kommunbrauhaus has their own recipes and technique, so there is variation between the finished products. I want to express my thanks to Hogi for letting me observe (and for the fine Zoigl he served up in the brauhaus).
One of Germany’s long-distance hiking routes called the Goldsteig passes through Zoigland. The Goldsteig is a 660 km (about 410 miles) route that generally parallels the border with the Czech Republic for much of its length. I found that I could get close to the route by train by starting at a town called Wiesau. That gave me a 25 km hike back to Neuhaus and Windischeschenbach by way of the Zoigltown of Falkenberg mostly on the route of the Goldsteig.
Much of the route passes through a unique nature reserve called Waldnaabtal — the Waldnaab River Valley. In the Waldnaabtal, I got the feeling that a fairy could appear from the rocks or forest around any corner. Two castles, Falkenberg and Berg Neuhaus are at either end of the valley. The valley is lined by picturesque cliffs, often more than 30 meters of granite masses that tower above the forested riverbed. About halfway through the valley is a pub and biergarten called Die Blockhütte. Its large shady beer garden is a great place to refresh along the way with regional food and Zoigl.
The following gallery displays images from the hike — click on any image to enlarge it, read its caption, and open a scrollable slideshow of all images.
Now for the best part — drinking some of those delicious Zoigls. The classic place to drink them is at a Zoiglstube. This is harder than it sounds,,, because a given Zoiglstube is rarely open. A typical echter Zoiglstube is only open once per month on a Friday through Monday in the afternoon and evening. There are fourteen Zoiglstubes in Windischeschenbach/Neuhaus. The various Zoiglstubes take turns so at least 2 or 3 are open on a given weekend, but you would have to be around for a month or more to have a chance to visit them all. A comprehensive calendar of Zoiglstube openings including those that are non-echter is available on the web. The bolded entries on this .pdf document are the echter establishments. This is a 2020 calendar and I’ll try to remember to update the link in future years. Also, the aforementioned Association of Kommunbrauers updates a schedule of echter Zoigl Stube openings on their website as a handy guide to which of their members are open when.
In the Zoigl pubs I went into, I don’t think I ever saw “bier” listed on a menu — they sell Zoigl and you ask for a Zoigl rather than a beer. I never figured out the economics of these places in that they are rarely open. It is clear though that they are usually only one of the operator’s business interests. The operator may also be a butcher, or a sausage maker, a baker, an innkeeper, or a farmer. You’ll find tasty, homemade foods that are literally farm-to-table. A quotation on one menu read, “What the farmer does not know, he does not eat. And if the townspeople knew what he was eating, they would immediately become farmers.” There are both indoor and outdoor seating spaces but visiting in summer I spent all my time outdoors. The communal nature of the seating in the Zoigl pubs meant that not even once did I sit down and not engage in some form of conversation with someone I didn’t know — my weak German language skills and all. A Zoiglstube is a place of genuine hospitality and community.
The following gallery displays images from drinking Zoigls — click on any image to enlarge it, read its caption, and open a scrollable slideshow of all images.
Windischeschenbach was a great base for the visit. I stayed at Pension Anker a traditional B&B located in the heart of the town. My hosts, Monika and Matthias could not have been nicer and more welcoming. They even hosted a cookout with Monika’s son Kevin volunteering as “grillmeister”. I’d recommend this place highly.