This summer I’ve been learning about beer culture in Franconia and Bohemia and hopefully, you may have read my recent articles: Relax … Have a Beer, Where Yeast Meets West, The Beer Fairies. Well, my beer cultural journey continued in the northern Bavarian cities of Bayreuth and Kulmbach. Both of these cities host interesting “beerseums” as well as outstanding breweries and beer-drinking venues.
This story begins before I made my way to either of the cities — while I was hiking and exploring beer culture in the Frankische Schweiz region to the south. I had heard about a small restaurant deep in a forest that I was told could only be reached by hiking to it. Forsthaus Schweigelberg specializes in what they call “slow food”, emphasizing natural, local ingredients and traditional methods of preparation. It is located in a forest warden’s house in a clearing in the forest on a mountain. My appetite was ramping up as I made the steep early-evening ascent of the Schweigelberg from Behringersmühle. I was primed! I arrived and there was only one other party there. I sat down, ready for a libation, and the server struggled to tell me (we finally figured it out together) that the place was closed that evening for a private party. I must have looked discouraged and thirsty enough that she offered to check to see what could be done. She returned a few minutes later with a cold beer and the offer that they could serve me what the private party was having, if that was amenable to me. That sounded pretty good …. and I have to say it was.
While I was waiting for dinner, a man from the small group that was there stopped by and introduced himself. I was enjoying a Maisel beer from Bayreuth, and it turned out the man was Jeff Maisel. He spoke great English … he told me that his mother is from South Carolina and his dad has a love for Albuquerque, so he told me he has spent a good amount of time in the U.S. I told him a bit about my journey to learn more about this part of Germany and it’s beers. He said that his brewery has a strong interest in the bigger story of beer heritage and culture — engaging people in the story of German beer and told me about their museum in Bayreuth. He sold me on the spot on making that visit and I made my first visit to Bayreuth a few days later.
Jeff told me that the craft brewing boom in the USA and elsewhere is not lost on German brewers. There is a desire by many to go beyond traditional brews, while still ensuring high quality and respecting the core traditions. I interpreted what he told me to mean that craft breweries in Germany, are defined as non-traditional, experimental breweries (not necessarily a function of size of output as in the USA). Maisel has produced some craft brews and plans to build a separate craft brewery for brewing non-traditional brews. This is a bit complicated as the Rheinheitsgebot law of 1516 limits what ingredients can be used in anything that will be labeled or called beer. Nothing but yeast, hops, malted grain, and water is allowed.
During my visits to Bayreuth and Kulmbach, I was able to visit the Maisel Brauerei & Büttnerei Museum, the AKTIEN Catacombs, Becher Braueri, Herzogkeller, and Mann Brau in Bayreuth and Bayerisches Brauerei und Bäckereimuseum and Kommunbräu brewery in Kulmbach. I am going to try to tell the story of these visits in pictures and captions. Captions when provided appear about the images.
Bayreuth is home to a thriving beer culture. Although the number of breweries has dwindled (as it has throughout the country), there are still several breweries, a beer garden tradition, and an outstanding “beerseum”. I saw many references to Jean Paul Friedrich Richter (usually referred to just as “Jean Paul”) a famous northern Bavarian writer and poet who lived in the area in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s and was said to be an enthusiastic hiker and beer drinker (a kindred soul). The Jean-Paul-Weg is a hiking route of about 100 miles that follows his history and travels and Bayreuth is one of the places it passes through. Needless to say, there is beer along the way.
Maisel Brewery is quite famous across Germany and beyond for its popular line of Weissbier (wheat beer). There are several different varieties: original, light, alcohol-free, dunkle, and kristall. I encountered Maisel’s Weissbier far and wide on my travels this summer and it is exported to many countries including the USA. This is a big brewery — they didn’t mention output capacity on the tour, but they did say that their modern bottling operation throughput is 72,000 bottles per hour — a big operation. As I understand it, Maisel is also a major shareholder in Bayreuther Bierbrauerei AG, another major Bayreuth brewery.
The Maisel Brewery Museum is very well presented and it was interesting to put together the museum visit with a visit to the catacombs beneath Aktien Brewery. A special aspect is that this museum features equipment used by Maisel in the very rooms that you see it in — The museum was brought to the brewery rather than artifacts being brought to a museum. Much of the equipment is still operable although Maisel’s current-day brewery is housed in a separate, nearby facility. The Maisel Museum not only covers brewing, but also the allied craft of cooperage (Büttnerei) — making and maintaining all of the wooden barrels that used to be required.
Harald Ridl, in charge of both the museum and the catacombs, took me through the catacombs and the old tavern above for a sample of Keller Bier, or Zwick’l. Harald’s organization has done a great job restoring and presenting these places and the historical brewing methods. The Maisel Museum is detailed and comprehensive whereas the catacombs are a bit more folksy and whimsical. Both visits are capped by samples of the fine beers. Harald told me that the goal for the museum and catacombs is not so much about marketing the breweries, but more about helping people understand the culture and history.
Exhibit about the malting house — from what I understand, modern breweries have proprietary malted grain formulations that are prepared for them by a company that specializes in this. In the old days, however, they would often do their own malting:
I wasn’t able to visit the Herzogkeller Beer Garden when it was in full swing, so I had to use my imagination a bit and I am sharing a picture from Flickr by DigiNights showing the place in action. This is the biggest beer garden in Bayreuth with hundreds of seats. It is the real deal. You will see signs saying “beer garden” all over the place in Germany, but many of these are just a nice grouping of outdoor tables at a restaurant — a traditional beer garden has a much narrower focus on beer.
The pictures without people give an idea of the size of the place — inside and out:
Bavarian Brewery Museum
The Bavarian Brewery Museum (Bayerisches Brauerei und Bäckereimuseum) in Kulmbach is a beautiful museum on the grounds of the former Monschof Brewery. One way I would contrast it with the museum at the Maisel Brewery is by its working micro-brewery they call their “Crystal Brewery”. They have built this with an eye to showing visitors the brewing process in detail. A glass mash tun allows you to see just what happens inside those big copper tuns at production breweries and windowed fermentation tanks allow watching fermentation in process. They brew in small quantities for on-site consumption. The bakery museum is a great adjunct as it demonstrates the connection between the worlds of brewing and baking bread. It got me thinking about beer as liquid bread. Read about my experience in a current day bakery in Bavaria here.
This museum also contains an attractive, modern teaching center for brewery, baking, and culinary demonstration and instruction. I regret I cannot bring back the name of our guide to the museum, a friendly and knowledgeable man who organized our time nicely.
Kulmbach is also home to a major beer festival in late July each year that celebrates the rich beer heritage here. You won’t find carnival rides at this one … just a very serious focus on celebrating beer.
Imagine bakeries in days when wood-fired ovens were the norm. The skill required to control (or make use of) such ovens and turn out consistent, quality breads is boggling to contemplate. In the old days, bakers were often also brewers:
Several different types of beer are brewed depending on the season, but the year-round product is an unfiltered, unpasteurized Keller Bier or Zwickelbier. One of the products made at the museum is a refreshing “radler” — a beer and limonade mixture.
Hans-Hermann Limmer of Kommunbrau Brewery in Kulmbach has been involved since its beginnings in 1990. We stopped for lunch and to get a look at this brewery and listened to Hans-Hermann’s account of the history of the place. Kommunbrau Brau is a really cool story. Kulmbach has a long beer history and culture, but locals found that many breweries were disappearing over the years due to modernization, consolidations, and market pressures. A local “stammtisch” — the name for a group of regulars of an establishment — started discussing their concern about this and what they could do about it (over a few beers of course). They came up with the idea of forming a co-op to gather the needed investment and creating a new local brewery with staying power. I find this particularly interesting because I am a member of a fledging beer co-op in my own community in New Mexico. It is trying to become the second operating brewery co-op in the USA. The Kommunion experience shows that it certainly can be done and can have staying power.
The discussion started in 1990 and the brewery was established two years later in 1992. They developed the tavern with small brewery (120,000 liters per year) to brew unfiltered beers. The co-op consists of about 400 local citizen members. The first beer was tapped in 1994. Year-round beers are a Helles and a Bernstein (amber – dunkle). In addition, Kommunbrau brews a different special beer each month that is tapped at 7pm on the first Wednesday of every month. They publish their calendar of specials for the coming year in July.
The Kommunbrau brewery is in a beautiful old mill building with a pleasant beer garden along a stream. I was shown the most immaculate brewery I have seen in my wanderings (maybe Pilsener Urquell in Pilzen rivals, but just isn’t the same) My hosts, Julia and Andrea introduced me to traditional “brotzeit” for lunch – we each order different varieties so we can share tastes with each other.
Devouring traditional brotzeit (rustic sausage and cheese with cucumber, horseradish, onions, bread & butter) with an excellent Bernstein (amber – dunkle) at Kommunbrau:
The Becher Brau brewery in Bayreuth is a family brewery that has been operating for generations. They make a variety of traditional brews like a Pils, an unfiltered Pils, an amber, and a dunkle as well as several seasonal special brews. The Braumeister, Johnny Hacker was on holiday during my visit but I was able to visit with his brother Christian and his brother-in-law Peter who was doing the brewing that day. This is a hard working place that oozes history and tradition. This is the oldest brewery restaurant in Bayreuth dating to the 1700’s. Touring the brewery and process it impressed me as a place where every square inch was being used. They are in an ancient building squeezed into the middle of a residential neighborhood, so no room to spread out here. There is a classic old pub at the brewery with a variety of great memorabilia on display. Mugs belonging to regulars are lined up in a locked case and many more are awaiting a wash and return to this storage. The menu features traditional Franconian fare and Becher also makes its own homemade sausages. Becher Brau has been a venue for a variety of local cultural activities and events for many decades.
Following our brewery tour, Christian and I drive over to his family’s tavern, Manns Brau in the city center. This is the only place, as I understand it, to have draft Mann’s Brau, a dark, tasty beer made by Becher Brau. They also serve traditional Franconian dishes. It’s a small place, so I share a table with several guys who have stopped by for afternoon libation. No english here, so I make do best I can to compliment the beer and match “zum wols”.
I want to acknowledge and thank Frank Niklas of Bayreuth Tourismus (pictured in front of Manns Brau above) for his work on my itinerary in Bayreuth and for being a great host as I made my way around these places and more. Also, thanks again to Julia Rubsch and the Frankenwald Tourismous Service Center for her work in arranging and taking me on the visits described in Kulmbach.