Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The beer that changed my life

By Dr. Volkmar Rudolf/Tilman2007 (Own work)
[GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I was dismayed shortly after New Year to hear that the old-established Brauhaus Schweinfurt brewery from the town of the same name in Franconia had gone into liquidation. It’s a brewery that has a very special place for me, because it was the first beer I ever drank and enjoyed.

The Brauhaus is a typical regional Bavarian brewery of the type which still have a strong position in their local market, although their numbers are in long-term decline as more and more disappear, replaced by a Krombacher and Bitburger monoculture. You won’t find their beer in Britain either, although bizarrely enough their alcohol-free lager did turn up occasionally some years ago.

So, most beer drinkers will never come across it. Unless, like me, you come from Motherwell, a post-industrial dump in the West of Scotland. Due to a common interest in heavy industry, the formerly steel-producing Motherwell has a twin town partnership with Schweinfurt and its huge ball-bearing factories.

More than 25 years ago now, and through a complete coincidence, I got to take part in an exchange visit. This so nearly never even happened, as I was on the reserve list rather than in the original group. As a raw 18-year-old I was thrown into a week of worthy tours of factories and social enterprises – combined with evenings spent at beer festivals. The visit was in summer and at that time of year southern German towns are alive with local festivals organised by groups as varied as church choirs and the ward branches of political parties.

I swear I couldn’t have had a better introduction to beer than being submerged in this. We were confronted with litre glasses overflowing with frothy beer, whole evenings drinking with the other participants. Much of my knowledge of the German language has definitely been acquired by osmosis. Sat on the hard, orange-painted wooden benches typical of beer gardens, my command of it seemed to improve with every mouthful of beer I took.  

The golden liquid was strangely bitter to my inexperienced palate, but there was a rich sweetness to it as well. The taste grew on me, litre by litre, until by the end of the trip I was a lager drinker. I remember carrying ten bottles home in my luggage. The same year Michael Jackson’s The Beer Hunter series aired on British TV and I was enthralled.

How the Brauhaus Pils label looked when I first encountered it
So I’m perhaps a bit unusual among British beer lovers of my generation, in that I discovered the world of beer through proper lager rather than through cask ale. There was no real ale in Motherwell then (with the exception of Wetherspoons there still isn’t), so my first exposure to a beer that tasted good was the Bavarian stuff. I scorned other beers at first, turning up my nose at anything that wasn’t German, but the bug had got me and soon I was trying and sampling my way through as many of the locally available beers as I could afford. It was quite a simple methodology. There were no beer rating websites then. I simply bought every beer once. If I liked it, I bought it again. If I didn’t, I didn’t.

When I briefly lived in Schweinfurt a couple of years later, I got to know the Brauhaus beers better. I decided the Pils was still may favourite. They made wheat beer as well, but I thought those of the local rival – the long since taken over Werner-Bräu of Poppenhausen – were better. On the other hand, Brauhaus made better lagers than Werner. It was a good combination.

This week it was reported that an investor – a family-owned Russian brewery which has not been named – has been found to take over the Brauhaus business. As well as the brewery, the company is purchasing the (currently separately owned) land on which it sits, and promises significant investment in the plant.

As the alternative would have been a complete asset-stripping and closure of the brewery, I am glad that it will survive for at least a little longer. We can only speculate what plans the new owners may have in the long term. To me, what matters is that I will get to take at least one more trip to Schweinfurt to drink the Brauhaus beer that changed my life.

Recently – but before the insolvency news broke – I was in Schweinfurt again for the first time in years. It’s only about half an hour away from Bamberg so I tend to give the latter my attention. I only had time for one beer but dropped into the Brauhaus am Markt restaurant in the pretty town square opposite the Rathaus. This was the original site of the brewery before it moved a bit down the road to its current site shortly before the First World War, so seemed appropriate enough.

I didn’t know it at the time, but had no investor been found that would have been my last taste of Brauhaus Schweinfurt.

Ordering a Pils – “Peeels” as the waitress called it in the local accent – I was prepared for the worst: to find that nostalgia had coloured my memory of a dull, bog-standard lager that only a neophyte would find impressive. I once thought that Warsteiner and Hacker-Pschorr were superb, after all.

But when my beer arrived, I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve thought for a long time that there is a distinct style of Franconian Pilsner, more similar to a Czech beer than to the Pils of northern Germany (which shouldn’t be that surprising when you observe the proximity of Bohemia and Franconia on a map). It was as good as ever, full-bodied with a slightly citrussy hop aroma. I was quite delighted, and I hope to be delighted by Brauhaus Pils again for quite some time to come.

3 comments:

  1. An excellent post Barm; I only wish my own introduction to beer drinking had been as intensive and exciting as yours! The fact that I am racking my brains trying to think of any beer that “changed my life” is testament to this.

    A shame to hear about Brauhaus Schweinfurt’s financial troubles, but from what you say a “white knight”, in the form of a new investor, has stepped in to save the day. The point you make about the decline of regional Bavarian breweries, reminds me of Maisels who, until their closure in 2008, were the second largest brewery in Bamberg. Brauhaus Forchheim also suffered a similar fate; admittedly on a smaller scale. Medium-sized breweries in the region do seem most at risk, being squeezed between the bigger boys at the top end, and the small village, or even brew-pub operations on the other.

    I’ve never been to Schweinfurt. You mention the ball-bearing factories and of course it was because of the latter that the town took a real pasting, particularly from American bombers, during World War II. I assume that like many German cities, the town has been rebuilt in a sympathetic style to resemble something of its pre-war appearance.

    That whole top north-west sector of Bavaria, which includes Würzburg, is unfamiliar territory to me. However, as you point out, the area is only a short train ride from Bamberg, so next time I am in that city I will make the journey and find out for myself.

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  2. Bad news. The Russian investors have pulled out at the last moment and no other investor has been found. Brewing has already ceased and it appears the brewery will close at the end of May, barring a miracle. A terrible shame.

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  3. A great and very personal article! There is many stories link to beer, not just German beer... ;) Cheers!

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