Walking in to a brewery I’ve found you never know what to expect — every one has its own distinctive character. Entering the Meinel Brewery late in the afternoon it was very quiet. We entered small office and came upon two young ladies who appeared to be hurriedly wrapping up their day. It had been a whirlwind day of fascinating visits to castles, museums, and breweries and I couldn’t remember what the agenda had said about this particular stop. I said to myself, “Oh crap … we got here too late and missed whomever we were coming to meet.” Then there was a quick shift by one of the young ladies who said “follow me” and walked briskly out into the yard. We followed her up onto a dock and proceeded through a labyrinth of doors climbing steeply up several stairways for what seemed like a long way — I didn’t remember the building looking so tall as it felt climbing those stairs.
We finally reached the top … the brewhouse. Gisi turned to us and patiently began a detailed description of a brewing process that has been developed and refined by ten generations of her ancestors over the past several hundred years. Meinel-Bräu is the last remaining family-owned brewery in the city of Hof in the far North of Bavaria. It is no sleepy operation though as it turns out 18,000 hectoliters (about 15,000 bbl or 476,000 gallons) of beer per year.
It turns out that Gisela (she goes by Gisi) and her sister Monika are master brewers. If it’s not surprising enough that they are females in a male dominated business, they are young — both look to be in their twenties. Gisi’s passion for her work is hard to miss as she explains the process and the workings of her family’s brewery. They brew six different beers regularly including a classic pils, gold & dark lagers, a smoked beer, and a hefe-weizen. In addition, they brew many seasonal beers. They also operate a distillery at the brewery and there is an affiliated restaurant (Meinels-Bas) with a large interior courtyard beer garden just down the ancient street.
We followed the process along (along with Gisi) as we descended from the penthouse brewhouse down the many stairs. Proceeding through rooms with tanks and hoses and bottles and barrels — farther than it seems like we should be able to go — we reach what Gisi calls “the rock”. This is a unique attribute of the brewery — a huge cellar in the rock of the former quarry site. The temperature in the cellar is ideal for fermentation and stays that way year-round. The room is filled with huge tanks of fermenting beers.
“I think you either love it or hate it.” says Gisi when talking about growing up amidst malt, hops, copper kettles and beer barrels. I think she loves it. She talks about brewing beer with heart, hand and head. After our tour we head down the street to Meinels-Bas where Gisi grabs several glasses of a dark lager for us. She talks about her excitement for the idea of elevating the status Franconian beer and cuisine in the world. I think that she is the kind of person who works hard on what is exciting to her.
Gisi, her sister Monika, and their friends and fellow master-brewers Isabella Straub from Memmelsdorf and Yvonne Wernlein from Trebgast have become known as the “Bier Fee” or beer fairies since inventing a beer called HolladieBierfee. It came about as they were sitting and having a beer together and observed that few of the women at surrounding tables were drinking beer – mostly spritzers with Campari there. They engaged some of the other women to inquire about this and got feedback about what women thought about beer. The ladies thought about what they were hearing, and decided that they could make a beer that addressed the concerns — a beer for women … made by women. They set out to convince women like the ones they spoke to that beer could be for them.
The Rheinheitsgebot of 1516 (purity law for beer in Germany) limits brewers to using only four ingredients — water, malted grain, hops, and yeast. Use anything else and you can’t call it beer. This presents a challenge if the brewer wants to introduce non-traditional flavors and aromas. The HolladieBierFee brew overcomes this through innovative use of varieties of hops and yeasts in combination to produce a “malty orange-red stout with aromas of tangerine, apricot and bitter oranges”. It has 6% abv so is classified as a strong beer. Ale and French champagne yeast produce a bit of a sparkling effervescence. The beer is attractively packaged in a non-traditional bottle in two different sizes (.33 and .75 l), both topped with a champagne cork. Since 2012, this special beer has only been brewed in small quantities and it sounds like it doesn’t last long once it comes on the market. A second darker, stronger variety called Herbstbierfee has been added to the line-up as well.
Gisi shared a HolladieBierFee with me to try out later, along with one each of Meinel’s traditional brews. I carried one of the traditional brews along each day for many days as I hiked and I enjoyed every one (both hike and beer) — Thanks, Gisi! I finally had a good opportunity to try the HolladieBierFee this evening as I write. There were no women around, so I had to serve as a poor substitute taste taster. I popped the champagne cork and poured — as advertised, the beer is a dark, pretty reddish-orange and exhibited a thick, pillowy foam head with lots of staying power. There was a mild, fruity aroma and a malty, creamy texture in the mouth. It has a slighty sweet, malty taste. It finishes cleanly with no annoying aftertaste from the sweetness. This was a good beer … not a beer for my regular tastes, but I very much enjoyed it. Would I be able to get my wife (an avowed non-beer person) to try this and would she like it? I hope to find out some day.
Women master-brewers …. that’s a cool story. Beer for women made by women … even cooler..
Beer fairies photo credit http://www.zeit.de/
Here are more images — captions when provided appear above the image:
Gisi talks about the various malted grains they use
Inside a brewing vessel
Cool … I get to sample … unfiltered, unpasteurized, bliss
Sampling the HolladieBierFee
My favorite of the traditional Meinel brews was the Marzen — with lunch hiking on the Albsteig