Long overdue is not just this post, published over a year after the trip it describes, but also what it’s about. For years I have wanted to visit the village in question, and I finally made it at the end of 2019.
It is rare and precious to encounter a beer culture that has not yet been destroyed either by corporate monopolies or by “craft beer”. Only a few such oases survive in Europe.
One of them is the Zoigl culture in Oberpfalz, in the north-eastern corner of Bavaria, between Franconia and Bohemia. This region is supposedly called the Upper Palatinate in English, but as I doubt many outside Germany have ever heard of the place, and I have no idea what a palatinate is anyway, I am just going to call it the Oberpfalz.
The unique feature of Zoigl culture is a beer which is made in a shared, communal village brewery. When the wort has been made in the Kommunbrauhaus, the brewers take it home and ferment and mature it in their own basements and garages.
The Oberpfalz alone once had 75 towns and villages with a communal brewhouse. Now the culture survives in just a few villages: Neuhaus, Windischeschenbach, Falkenberg, Mitterteich, Eslarn.
|The communal brewhouse in Neuhaus|
|Potted history on the door of the brewhouse|
Once the beer is ready, each brewer sells it to the public in their Zoiglstube (Zoigl parlour). Originally it would just be served in the kitchen or the front room, whatever space the brewer had. Despite the cheap price the beer sells for, brewing Zoigl seems lucrative enough that many of the householders these days have dedicated extensions built with Zoigl money. These are pubs in all but name, yet the community feeling continues.
So that each brewer gets a fair chance to sell their beer, the parlours open on a rota basis. Practices such as this, which protect producers from competing each other to death, were once common in many towns, as were communal brewhouses. This does, of course, make things a bit tricky for the tourist, as you can’t visit all the parlours on one visit – unless you come for the summer festival when they make an exception and all open at once.
I had imagined that Zoigl country was more inaccessible than it actually is. At least, that was the excuse I made to myself for not visiting before. In fact, Windischeschenbach is on the railway line between Hof and Regensburg and is extremely easy to reach. Conveniently, Neuhaus is only a short walk away, although up a steep hill.
With the exception of the hill, it’s a pleasant enough walk from the station on a crisp winter day.
Now for the first Zoiglstube: Bahler. I choose it because it’s the closest to my hotel, and because it happens to be open. Most of the parlours have the name of the family who runs them, or a nickname, or of a long-dead former owner. The ironically down-beat marketing slogan “Bahler. Passt.” (Bahler. It’ll do.) is evidence that they don’t really need to attract customers.
This first parlour is a light, spacious room with lots of pale wood in the modern-rustic style common in German hotels and restaurants. There is a masonry oven (that’s the big white thing at the wall, an ancient form of central heating) to keep it warm in the winter. The menu offers the classic choice between two beers: half a litre of Zoigl or a quarter-litre of Zoigl.
When the half litre arrives, it is golden in colour and less cloudy than I had expected, showing just a slight haze. The aroma is of fresh malt and the condition is, despite the massive head of foam, soft like cask ale. Possibly some diacetyl is contributing to the full mouthfeel, but it is barely perceptible, so just right. I am already hoping that this is the best beer in the village, because I want to come back and drink it until closing time.
Whereas the first Stube was still quiet, by the time I get to the second, Schafferhof, it is almost raucous by comparison. I find a seat next to a family, or what I take to be a family, a couple with their apparently teetotal offspring.
Here, the beer is darker than at Bahler, sweet and spicy.
I am opposite the counter where the beers are being poured – a massive affair taking up most of one wall – and am entranced by the way the barman pours them. He puts the glasses on the counter underneath the tap and lets the beer splash into them from a height of about 20cm. The beer settles magically to the perfect proportions of two-thirds beer and one-third foam.
The tapping is matched optimally to the carbon dioxide content of the beer and the resulting mouthfeel is wonderful. It’s one of those beers that just disappears. Fortunately, when I want to pay they misunderstand “Zahlen” as “Zoigl” and bring me another beer. I accept my fate willingly. I’ve had three by the time I get out.
I venture back down the hill to Windischeschenbach proper, as I’d seen there was a brewery and beer depot there. I always check out these places to see what beers they have available. Besides, I need some water and I have empty deposit bottles to get rid of (although the eight cents is not really worth the bother, I still do it out of habit).
|The river separating Neuhaus (in front of you) from Windischeschenbach (behind you).|
The lad in the shop is happy enough to take my empty Schlenkerla bottles off me that I’ve carried all the way from Bamberg, and we have a bit of a chat about beer. According to him a few years ago Zoigl was on its knees and the communal brewers are quite happy for commercial brewers such as Würth – whose brewery the depot is attached to – to produce beer they call “Zoigl”. I am not sure I believe him on that score, and I’m even more sceptical about whether dark “Zoigl” or wheat “Zoigl” existed before Würth started making them. But if brewing fake Zoigl keeps small family breweries alive, perhaps it’s better than the alternative. And at least Würth is in Windischeschenbach. Some bigger brewers, like Scherdel of Hof, owned by the Paulaner group, make a “Zoigl“ with no connection to the tradition whatsoever. Having said that, the Würth bottled “Zoigl” is certainly an excellent beer and as far as the liquid is concerned, tastes pretty similar to the real stuff. Some of the Zoigl brewers get their yeast from Würth, so I guess relations can’t be all that bad.
|Peeking through the window at Würth brewery in Windischeschebach|
There’s nobody at the brewery as it’s the weekend, but you can look into the delightful 1950s brewery from the street outside. It’s all blue tiles with the inevitable for Bavaria crucifix on the wall. It is still in use, says the lad in the shop, but looks older than the mothballed Mönchshof brewhouse I’d seen in the museum in Kulmbach.
In Windischeschenbach there is just one Stube open, Binner. This is also very busy but I find a seat. I’m right next to the masonry oven and it’s hot! Here the Zoigl is another sweet amber lager, similar to Schafferhof’s but less well executed: it’s a bit fizzy and coarser with a yeasty aroma.
|Zoigl at Binner|
I had thought that three open Stuben might be a bit meagre, but I needn't have worried – I was blind drunk by four in the afternoon. I blame the schnapps at Binner. I take a nap but I do after all make it back to Bahler for a nightcap, when it is much busier than it had been earlier.
|Remember to hydrate on beer trips. |
Extra-refreshing water that’s frozen overnight
When I return to Schafferhof the next morning, the boss, Reinhard, remembers me. He’d noticed me watching the beer pouring and thought I was from the tax office (I think this was a joke). I reassure him I was interested in the beer taps for a different reason.
Reinhard waxes lyrical about Zoigl. It is a way of life. The essential characteristic of Zoigl is wort production in the communal brewhouse. The culture is living tradition through the Stuben. It is – slightly – reminiscent of the semi-religious devotion to real ale in some parts of England.
We are joined by Matthias, who just happens to be passing. He runs another Stube in Neuhaus, Beim Käck’n. I haven’t tasted his Zoigl because his Stube isn’t open this weekend, but he is a trained butcher who makes his own sausages to go with the Zoigl beer, so that gives me an additional reason to visit his place next time.
As suspected, the communal brewers are not at all keen on the commercial brewers who market “Zoigl”. But they cannot stop it. The communal brewers tried in court to get the term protected, but failed because they could not show that the rules of real Zoigl resulted in a liquid that was significantly different from one made in a modern brewery. More importantly, there was the issue that several commercial brewers had been selling beer labeled “Zoigl” for decades before the court case.
For their part, the commercial brewers argued that it had been their brewing and marketing of “Zoigl” that had helped create the cult reputation which they were now accused of exploiting.
The purist rules that the communal brewers tried to get protected are really quite strict. Zoigl has to be brewed in the communal brewhouse, of course. The brew kettle must be directly fired by coal or wood and the wort must be cooled in an open cooler. It must be fermented at the brewer’s home, and it goes without saying that the beer is unfiltered and unpasteurised, as nobody has the equipment for that in their basement. It must use bottom-fermenting yeast and be made solely from barley malt. If it is supplied at all to commercial gastronomy, such as hotels, they must be in the same village as the brewhouse.
After the defeat in court, the communal brewers adopted a new approach and now urge you to drink “genuine Zoigl from the communal brewer”, a phrase they actually could trademark, rather than just any old beer with Zoigl on the label. Five years after the court case they did gain a certain protection when in 2018 Zoigl culture was declared part of the intangible cultural heritage of Bavaria. This is the first step to having it recognised by Unesco.
|Open fermentation at Schafferhof. Reinhard lagers his beer for three months, or maybe four.|
Technically, there is not much difference between Zoiglbier and any other unfiltered golden or amber lager. After all, it’s the communal brewhouse and the Stube that makes it Zoigl, not the recipe. Matthias hops his beer with Perle, though he has a batch with Herkules on the go when we speak. Some of the brewers use all Pilsner malt, some add a bit of Munich. Theoretically you could mix up the recipe a bit, but innovation is not seen as a positive here. They set great store by brewing beer – as much as possible – in exactly the same way as their forefathers. Matthias’s dad ran the brewhouse as supervising brewer – helping the other brewers – for forty years, and he learned it from someone who had done it for thirty years before that.
The Stube had been quiet when I arrived, with just a few people in to get carry-outs of Zoigl in the familiar 5-litre mini-kegs. Now it is starting to fill up. I decide not to frighten my hosts by trying to explain the pastry stout horrors that are now fashionable at home, and take my leave.
I left Neuhaus enthralled and determined to return as soon as possible, planning at least one trip and possibly more in 2020. Obviously those trips never happened, but if normality ever returns I will be back as soon as I can.
|Neuhaus, the street|