Thursday, 22 July 2010
Our recent visit to Franconia, the northern part of Bavaria, barely scratched the surface Once a proud and independent state, Franconia was merged into Bavaria by Napoleon following his conquest and occupation of the area during the early part of the 19th Century. The inhabitants of this region however, still take their identity seriously, and Franconian flags and emblems were evident in many places during our travels.
The reason for barely scratching the surface was that we were based in the beautiful, world heritage city of Bamberg, and with nine breweries, and a host of unspoilt pubs within the town, there was precious little incentive to venture out into the surrounding countryside. (For more details of our experiences enjoying the products of Bambergs' breweries click here). The weather also played its part in keeping us within the city limits. With temperatures in the mid to high 30's, it was too hot to travel far, and all too often the temptation was to find a shady beer garden, and then sit down with a nice cool mug (or three), of the excellent Keller Bier sold in the majority of them.
We did venture out a couple of times though, and were impressed by what we saw. The first excursion was a short bus ride out to the village of Bischberg, just outside Bamberg. We called in at the unspoilt Zur Sonne pub, which brews its own beers. It was shortly before midday, and we sat outside, just across from a group of locals. The landlord brought our beers out to us; fresh Franconian beer at its best. It was priced at just 1.80 Euros for a half litre, and after enjoying the Helles we moved onto the Zwicklbier; both were good.
The idea in coming out to Bischberg, was to call in at Kaiserdom on the way back, but that plan was thwarted by the Gastatte being closed until early evening that day. Whilst waiting for the bus back though, I was reflecting on how can such enterprises at Zur Sonne survive? The pub itself looked up to date inside, although I gather it is of some considerable antiquity. There were a fair few locals enjoying the house-brewed beer, even at that time of the morning, but I couldn't help wonder how do such places keep going? As we stood at the bus stop, we saw the landlord go driving past on his forklift truck, with what looked like a metal bin full of spent grain on the forks. He waved in greeting to us, although he had only met him the once, and we naturally returned this courtesy. I don't know what the laws are in Germany regarding taking a fork-lift on the road, but I suspect they are less strict than they are here in the UK. Obviously mein host was taking one of the left over products of the brewing process to a local farm; it may have even have been his farm for all I know.
And there perhaps lies the answer. In this part of Germany, occupations such as farming and brewing, often go hand in hand, as they have done for centuries. Franconia is fortunate in still having many such breweries in operation, but, as with a lot of good things, their numbers are slowly declining. Back in the mid-90's, I bought a copy of Graham Lees's excellent Good Beer Guide to Munich and Bavaria. In a detailed introduction to the section on Franconia, Graham describes how villages of no more than a couple of thousand people, often have two or even three breweries. Many are little more than brew pubs, but alongside the brewery the family enterprise may well include a farm, a schnapps distillery, a butchers shop or even a slaughterhouse. He stated that whilst no single part of these family enterprises is profitable on its own, together they provide a reasonable income.
Even back then though, Graham was warning that many of the marvellous breweries he was describing were in danger of disappearing. Rising costs, changing habits and tastes, EU laws, and the inevitable march towards a more uniform and homogenised society had led to the closure of over 50 Franconian breweries. He stated that "one of them may have brewed your perfect pint" and bemoaned the fact that one such operation, now closed, had come close to brewing his perfect one. Unfortunately this closure process has gathered momentum. John Conen warned in the 2003 edition of his Bamberg & Franconia Guide that over 80 breweries had closed during the pre-ceding 15 years, and although he was hopeful that the closure rate had fallen off somewhat, I found whilst researching for our trip that quite a few of the breweries mentioned in Graham Lee's guide were no longer in production. The closure of the substantial Maisel Brewery in Bamberg, a couple of years ago, is a case in point
It is not all doom and gloom though. We spent our last night in Bamberg at the excellent Greifenklau Brauereigasthof. Whilst there I picked up an English language edition of a guide to what are known as Privateur Braugasthoefe, (privately-owned breweries that provide accommodation). This informative, and well illustrated publication lists 69 such establishments, primarily in Germany, but with a few in neighboring Austria and Denmark. Most are family run, and all pride themselves on producing good beer and serving it alongside good food.
Hopefully more breweries will join this worthwhile organisation, and the 2011 edition will feature more Franconian members. In the meantime I'm already planning my next trip to this beer lovers paradise.