Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Brauerei Ulrich Martin, Franconia

You would think, to listen to the simplistic “craft beer revolution” propaganda repeated endlessly by those who find it a lucrative niche, that German brewing is on its knees, producing nothing but bland lager and waiting to be deservedly driven out of the market by a bunch of students making a copy of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

While this narrative contains elements of truth, it is far more the result of attempting to force the facts into supporting your theory. By far the most interesting German breweries to me are those which are informed by the existing brewing tradition, but rejecting the debasement of it that such luminaries as Ludwig Narziß have sharply criticised.

One such is Brauerei Ulrich Martin in Hausen near Schonungen, between Schweinfurt and Hassfurt on the railway line (Both Schweinfurt and Hassfurt have lost their local breweries and most of their former customers are now drinking beer from the huge Kulmbacher Brauerei).

The boss, Ulrich Martin himself, is kind enough to chat to us for a while. He is a brewer who has come up the traditional route: apprenticeship at another brewery, Göller in Zeil am Main and then working in breweries in Baden-Württemberg, Bremen and Thailand. Lucrative contracts can be had for experienced brewers in the Far East, but Herr Martin preferred to come home and keep the brewing tradition in Lower Franconia alive.

The building had been a brewery before, sixty years previously. Martin took it on and installed new equipment.

The brewery is stainless steel everywhere. An infusion mash is used. The mash is pumped into a lautering vessel and then the wort is pumped back again for the boil. A second Würzepfanne (copper) is on order which will enable them to mash and boil at the same time. The brewery was upgraded to computer control by the renowned Bamberg manufacturer of brewery equipment Kaspar Schulz, although they did not build it originally.

The old building is a little like a rabbit warren. Every room in the brewery seems to have been repurposed to contain lagering tanks. What’s round this corner? Whoops, another tank! What’s behind this door? Oh, another tank and the hop store! The latter contains big vacuum packs of hops which give off a pronounced, almost detergent-like citrus aroma.

Those hops must be what is responsible for the magnificent, unexpected citrus notes in Ulrich Martin Pilsner. Martin says he prefers to use Spalter Select for precisely this character. It’s a terrific beer in other respects too: straw-gold in colour, full-bodied and topped with fantastic foam.

I have argued before that I think there a distinct Franconian sub-style of Pilsner. Ulrich Martin’s Pilsner is representative of it, together with the vanished Brauhaus Schweinfurt Pilsner, Fässla Pils and perhaps even Spezial’s Ungespundet, although that is not described as a Pilsner. In some respects – less dry and fuller-bodied than some other German types – it has more in common with Czech svetly lezak, which should be no surprise if you look at where Franconia is on a map. The signature feature seems to me to be hopping with Spalt rather than Saaz, giving that citrussy aroma.

Martin’s other main beer is Spezial, which he describes as “Märzen style”. Martin tells me that Germany grows only half of the barley that its malting industry needs. Munich breweries sell “Bavarian beer” at the Oktoberfest that might well be made of French or Danish barley.

(While of course most brewers know far more about malt than I will ever know, I have never yet met another brewer who is quite as malt-obsessed as Herr Martin and who talks with such enthusiasm about its role in beer.)

For the Spezial, Martin gets barley from a local farmer and has it made into Vienna-type malt to his own specification. Nobody else has this malt, which is a bit of a shame as it makes great beer. The beer is a deep gold (not amber as I was expecting) and full of fresh, sweet malt with some toasty notes; slightly biscuity and decently hopped. The Spezial has two hop additions, the Pils three.

A Weizen and a couple of seasonal Bock beers round out the range – Weizen is now so popular among drinkers that you really have to have one in your range, says Martin. The Spezial has four weeks’ lagering, Pilsner five, Bock ten weeks.

Inevitably we discuss “craft beer”. I was surprised to find that Herr Martin sees it in much the same way as I do: it is rather insulting to traditional brewers when self-styled “creative breweries” (the currently fashionable German term) set up shop, implying that those who have gone before are not creative. He does, though, think that it has helped to heighten interest in beer.

We touch briefly on the sad closure of Brauhaus Schweinfurt, the big local brewery. I say I found the beer still very good on my last encounter with it; Herr Martin disagrees. The Brauhaus, he says, had made the critical error of trying to turn its fortunes around by cutting prices. This is bad for all breweries – it causes a levelling down to the lowest common denominator – and it doesn’t work. (I wouldn’t normally write what a named brewer says about another named brewery, but since the Brauhaus is gone anyway, I figured it was OK).

Most of the more serious German beer journalism has recognised this for some time – a particularly hard hitting example of the genre is this one in the Süddeutschen Zeitung about the decline of the Iserlohner Brauerei, which like so many others, attempted to save itself by brewing cheap own-label beer for supermarkets. It failed because the business is built on sand: the supermarkets will switch to another supplier in a heartbeat if it saves money, and indeed the own-label commodity beer, with no producer listed on the package beyond “Made in Germany” is designed to make the actual brewery abstract, anonymous and replaceable.

It seems to me that Brauerei Ulrich Martin is the opposite of this, and long may that continue.

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