Franconians are known to be particular. And so are beer drinkers and consumers, who have a direct proportional effect on the beer landscape, both historically and for the newly emerged beer scene. Beer expert Harald Schieder takes us on a craft beer excursion to his home region.
Brewing Franconian beer has always been a craft
Drinkers of Franconian beer are influenced by tradition. Why stray from something that has hit the spot for centuries? Having been popular as far back as we can remember, if the formula for ‘unbunged’, slightly dark, naturally cloudy, bottom-fermented Kellerbier ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. Why jump on new trends spilling over from the USA?
However, for traditional Franconian beer drinkers, there are already some errors in this way of thinking. American beer fanatics back in the 1960s started the modern trend when they were fed up with the thin beer that was available. As a result of their desire to finally drink good beer, these beer aficionados had no choice but to take matters into their own hands and make use of Old World recipes. So, now ‘craft beer’ recipes are spilling over from the USA to Franconia – recipes that originated much closer to home, namely in England, Belgium and the rest of Germany for the most part.
“If you apply the US definition of craft beer as a beer produced by small breweries, almost every brewery in Franconia can be described with this term today,” explains Georg Rittmayer from Hallerndorf.
Kellerbier, Zwickl, etc.
Of course, the majority of breweries that peddle the highest (or at least a very large) density of brews in the world are still busy producing the usual types of beer such as Helles, Dunkel, Pilsner and wheat beer. According to outsiders, Kellerbier, ‘unbunged’ beer, Zwickl and lager beers are apparently classic examples of Franconian beer styles. Contrary to this popular belief though, these four are not separate typical Franconian beer styles; they are all merely expressions of one style.
A Kellerbier can turn out lighter or darker, sweeter or drier. It’s usually bottom-fermented and naturally cloudy (‘Zwickl’). The term ‘lager’ originally only referred to the kind of storage as the beer aged, whereas today it refers to all bottom-fermented beers.
Likewise, the same goes for ‘unbunged’ beers developing through fermentation in open casks, which produces less carbonation. The bottom line is that it’s all traditional Franconian craft beer.
In tradition-steeped Franconia, it should be made clear by way of example that there are many bustling breweries and experimental newcomers who welcome the adoption of historically European beer styles. After all, brewing these supposedly new beer styles merely involves looking into older traditions from the region and its neighbouring regions. Pils, which has now been imported into Franconia via the Czech Republic and northern Germany, is no different. However, this style at least has been accepted by deep-rooted enthusiasts of Franconian beer.
The original Franconian craft beer
Under these conditions, the red ale style of beer is considered representative of craft beer in Franconia – effectively the original Franconian craft beer – provided that it is produced with passion and by hand. Perhaps due to the boom in pilsner and wheat beer, this style of beer was forgotten about for a long time, until Reinhard Engel, master brewer and owner of the Altstadthof brewery in Nuremberg, first thought to revive it. The style is a historical beer variety from Nuremberg, so it’s ideal as a basis for craft beer. Since 1984, Engel has been working from a brewhouse that was closed down in 1906, complete with rustic cellars carved out of the rock and a cosy bar. All produced in a craft, ecological way, Altstadthof brewery’s range of beers includes Helles, black beer and wheat beer, as well as seasonal, moderately dry-hopped bock beer.
Red ale as a growing trend
In 2007, Stefan Stretz attracted younger audiences to red ale with his Schanzenbräu. Originally located in the hotspot of Gostenhof, Stretz outgrew capacity at his brewery several times. Today, he brews using state-of-the-art facilities on a site in the outskirts of Nuremberg. In addition to the traditional red ale, he also produces black beer, which is reminiscent of top-fermented Irish stouts and porters due to its dryness, roasted flavours and hoppy bitterness. Kehlengold, a golden-blonde lager, is made using aromatic dry-hopping that gives it a kick of citrus freshness, without unsettling traditional Franconian beer drinkers.
Smoky George: Craft beer doesn’t have to go against the German Beer Purity law
One of the pioneers of craft beer in Franconia can be found between Forchheim and Bamberg. Long before clever marketing strategists began to ride the craft beer wave, Georg Rittmayer was experimenting in Hallerndorf with varieties that can be seen in today's craft beer range.
Wooden cask storage played a major role, and vintage beers with different cask varieties – whisky, red wine or bourbon barrels – were created long before other styles. His traditional range of beers available today is oriented towards the German Beer Purity law as well as regional preferences, but the assortment is also enriched with some new interpretations based on today’s craft beer varieties. Rittmayer’s Craftmayer line gave the brewery’s master brewer the opportunity to experiment with different brews. Any that he liked were then made available in the region on a regular basis. All of Rittmayer’s beers are brewed according to the original Bavarian Beer Purity law.
Rittmayer’s range of beers doesn’t stop there: Smoky George is his new craft creation that has proven to be particularly successful. Having a love of Scotch whisky and also being a member of the Nuremberg whisky club Highland Circle, Rittmayer ended up producing a smoked beer that combines the classic Franconian brewing method with Scotch peat-smoked malt.
Experimenting with wooden barrels
Since the beginning of the craft beer boom in Franconia, it wasn’t just Rittmayer who was refining beers by using different types of wooden barrels: Mike Schmitt was doing the same.
In his brewery Nickl in Pretzfeld, he produced creations that were inspired by Belgian beers made in wooden barrels using spontaneous fermentation. His friend, distiller and neighbour Johannes Haas, was also a big inspiration for this. Combining Franconian and US craft beer styles, they got together to brew cask-aged beer varieties, for example using bourbon, rum and fruit brandy casks.
A brewhouse whose door is always open to travelling brewers
Jörg Binkert works in Breitengüßbach, north of Bamberg, using both traditional and innovative methods. His Mainseidla brand combines classic Franconian beers, such as Kellerbier, with craft beer styles such as English porter. In 2012, he entered the dense world of Franconian breweries by founding a new company with renowned Bamberg brewing equipment manufacturer Kaspar Schulz. His work involves two operations: brewing his own beer and also making the brewery’s equipment available to travelling brewers.
Binkert has recognised the trend amongst many colleagues towards Helles beer. He is now daring to approach Helles beer using new technology, which, as is well known, isn’t very forgiving of mistakes.
With craft beer, he believes that the zenith of beer has been reached. Especially in the contract brewing sector, demand has dropped sharply. However, there is a new style that’s establishing itself here as well: the latest trend is called New England IPA, which is mainly packaged in cans. At the moment, however, this niche is still mainly populated by beer nerds. Brewing and dry-hopping methods for this style are extreme. According to Binkert, this is a real challenge, as new varieties have to constantly be produced. The opportunity to taste ten different draught beers from the Mainseidla brewhouse definitely makes the trip to Breitengüßbach worthwhile.
Precise mapping of international styles
One of Binkert's customers is Hopferei Hertrich, better known by the name of its beers: VETO – Against mass-produced beer. The Hertrich family – father Ralph and his two sons Daniel and Michael, who have a beer-sommelier and brewing background – experiment and brew at home on a small scale. They then work out how to implement one of their beers professionally at Breitengüßbach. There, they create very precise beers, international beer styles in particular, which are considered classic representatives of craft beer today. Regularly winning prizes in blind tastings, Hoptiger IPA and Schokobär chocolate stout are often rated higher than competing beers that were brewed in the country where these styles originated.
Playing with yeast, fruit and spices
In the extreme northwest of Nuremberg, Felix vom Endt goes one step further with Orca Brau. Having been introduced to brewing in Vancouver, Canada, and in Berlin at the Heidenpeters Brewery, he then moved to Franconia several years ago.
Attracted by Belgian beer styles, wooden barrel storage, and above all by the use of fruit, spices and special matching Belgian yeasts, he brews beers at his recently expanded facility. His beers show his love for detail and experimentation. His range of beers always included a Kellerbier or pale ale, but he sees a craft beer renaissance in Franconia. Many decades and centuries ago, Franconia was home to the most diverse range of brewing and beer styles, all within a very small area, but in recent decades everything has become very similar. Today, there are only a handful of beers with hardly any difference in taste between them.
In conclusion, he sums up the current craft beer scene in Franconia: “Slowly, individual nuances of taste are being worked out again, be it through dry-hopping with different regional aromatic hops, or through using different historical brewing malts from the Franconian region, such as local barley, imperial barley, emmer wheat or spelt. There is also barrel lagering and fantastic ingredients finding their way into beers, like cherries from Franconian Switzerland, grapes from Lower Franconia and tomatoes from Bamberg. Creativity, freedom, individuality and the highest standards of quality and taste – that’s craft beer.” There’s really nothing left to add to this.