Heading up to sample the local beer of not only one of the most traditional but remote brewing areas of Germany, I had a romantic notion of women not only serving their wares from kitchen-like pubs but also doing the handy work of actually making the fermented beverages on offer. Though my notion was only loosely based on the fact that women were largely the ones doing all the brewing in ancient times, it was also that the production of beer in this region known as the Oberpfälz was indeed one that followed some equally ancient brewing protocols. Ok, I’ll be honest, I was looking for a catchy name for the blog and I let some stray facts become intertwined in my somewhat easily led astray mind.
The six-pointed Zoigl star & the Communal Brewhouse in Falkenberg
So, the real facts are that women were the brewers dating back to the Egyptians and even within the tribes of what would become Germany, brewing was a woman’s domain until the monks stumbled upon the concept of liquid bread to sustain them during Lent. Then they figured out you could make money and women were pushed aside, not an untypical story. While true the most famous of these monks were further south in Bavaria, there were a hearty few brewing in the Oberpfälz, a region wedged between Franconia and Bohemia.
Though the name Zoigl, a dialectic approximation of the German word “Zeichen” which means sign, refers to the six-pointed star that hung from brewers houses dates back to 1508 when it was first formally documented, a communal brew house existed in this region a hundred years earlier. These communal brew houses were the hallmark of Zoigl as each town would have one such place to make the wort, the liquid extract of all fermentable ingredients used in producing beer. This was where the variations in brews occurred as the wort was then delivered to the individual Zoigl brewers who then fermented it in their cellars in large tanks, from which the beer was dispensed directly. A given town would only have a handful (and often less) such establishments, which was open at most once a month, on a given weekend. On that weekend, a six-pointed star would be hung outside announcing the availability of the Zoigl. Obviously, it was not exactly a huge commercial enterprise and was aimed entirely at the locals of the town.
In front of Beim Gloser with its Zoigl star proudly hung
Fast forward 490 years and intrepid beer travelers like Graham Lees of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) was unable to find Zoigl even when in the right town. These towns were fairly numerous at one time but have dwindled to a mere five. Thankfully, they are now going about it with a greater emphasis on making their wares easier to find. In fact, there is a great website (zoiglbier.de) with not only the towns but also the individual pubs and a calendar of their opening weekends. It’s all in German but easy enough to navigate. Some say this takes some of the fun out of it but it’s still intriguing that the outlets change and that the Zoigl star is still hung outside to announce a given one being open. The star is a configuration of two triangles much like the star of David. One triangle stands for the three necessary elements of brewing: air, fire and water and the other stands for the three ingredients of beer: malt, hops and water. Evidently, the mysteries of yeast were as yet undiscovered though their existence was what made the necessary fermentation process take place.
Street scene in the Zoigl hotbed of Windischeschenbach
There is a bit of a buzz around the word Zoigl now, especially amongst US craft brewers and even in Germany, there are commercial brewers making their own versions. To be honest, it was these bottled ones from Germany that nearly put me off going to the region. I had tried a few and though they were well enough made, they didn’t really grab me. That said, the whole idea sounded interesting and the region is conveniently enough right off the Autobahn leading up to my wife’s family in Saxony. We generally go through Franconia but with many of those breweries now under my belt, I decided it was finally time to make my way there. I checked the Zoigl calendar and there was a good looking weekend that was part of a long holiday weekend we were driving north anyway. So, I reserved a room for that Friday night at the Hotel Oberpfälzer Hof.
Interior of Beim Gloser after everyone had left
It was a dreary night with dismal weather when we arrived so I was happy to discover the Zoigl pub in Windischeschenbach was right around the corner from our hotel. Beim Gloser looked unassuming from outside but the Zoigl star was hanging, proudly heralding its being open. We walked through the door to find it absolutely packed. Two people had walked out just as we arrived and I quickly spotted a small table open and we jumped on it. It was in a long corridor just inside and it was obviously not heated, aside from the warm bodies imbibing Zoigl. I noticed an additional room and went to check for seats. They were much warmer but predictably full. We settled into our less than prime spot and ordered a couple beers, the waitress repeating to us, “zwei Zoigl.” We found after a couple more places that they, in fact, do not call it beer. Routinely, it is ordered as Zoigl. Out came the beauties, amber with a gorgeous head. I have to admit, I wasn’t really expecting much but as soon as I put it up to my nose, I knew it was going to be good and the first sip didn’t belie the aroma. It was truly magnificent. My wife was equally enthralled. She’s a lover of hops and the bottled Zoigl we’d had were anything but hoppy.
The menus of the Zoiglstubes are not large but quality as well as value is high. Don’t expect an elaborate hot meal. There are a couple hot items but generally, cold snack type dishes dominate. One common hot meal is the Schlachtschussel, literally a slaughter pot. I must say I haven’t tried this but my father-in-law loves them. I also have to say I saw many people eating them the night of my visit and it looked good and I might just try it next time. At Beim Gloser I ordered the Braten Sülze, jellied roast pork and it was marvelous. Even my wife, not generally a fan, thought it was really good. She had a very tasty potato soup. The place was really bustling and it would have been all too easy to stay if it hadn’t been a bit cold. Still, walking away after only two beers wasn’t easy.
D with her Zoigl & my Braten Sülze
Once outside, we realized it wasn’t so cold in the Stube after all. It started to drizzle on the way to Neuhaus, a small neighboring village in the Oberpfälz. It was a little less than two kilometers away but the last stretch was quite a steep climb. Actually, it was welcomed as it certainly warmed us up! The Beim Käckn was equally busy but had a more family oriented atmosphere with large groups with kids. It resembled a kitchen but we initially could only secure a standing spot near the entrance. The beer was also quite good but not as balanced as the one at Beim Gloser. We would have likely left after one but a table opened up so we went up to check out the main seating area and decided to have one more and a snack of a fairly large plate of smoked ham. It was homemade and quite good, too.
The smoked ham plate at Beim Käckn
We made out way back down the hill and to our hotel but had to conveniently walk past out first venue, Beim Gloser. We didn’t really need another Zoigl but it had been so good, we decided to check if a better spot had opened up since we were there earlier. As luck would have it, the main pub was now not as crowded so took a couple prime spots and enjoyed the colorful ambiance and warmth. My wife got a tasty Milchreis (kind of like rice pudding but not as sweet) to go with her Zoigl and I decided two of these great brews was more to my liking. It was nice to be staying around the corner.
The cozy interior of Beim Gloser with their picturesque kitchen Zoigl taps
The next morning we wandered around the small town to take some photos but with an appointment for a late family lunch near Dresden looming, we got on the road early as I wanted to stop in a few more of the Zoigl villages en route. First up was Falkenberg. I had conflicting information on the opening time but on arrival, we saw a very cool medieval castle in the distance and I figured even if the Stube was closed, it was worth coming just to see it. The Kramer Stube was in fact closed and even though it would likely open in another 20 minutes, we didn’t have the time to wait so headed up the to nearby Mitterteich to pay a visit to the Lugert “Boozhaus.”
Castle Falkenberg & the unfortunately closed Kramer Stube
This was the smallest venue yet. It was also the least busy with only one table of obvious locals enjoying an early Zoigl; it was only 11 am. It didn’t take long before the remaining five tables were full and the next family that came in asked to sit with us. My wife was driving so just had a soft drink but I enjoyed their quite hoppy Zoigl, perhaps the driest of the lot. Even though I’d had a large breakfast and had an even bigger lunch on the horizon, I asked for one of their pretzels and was glad I did when I bit into it. It was a gorgeous homemade pretzel and accompanied the Zoigl well. This was another hard place to pry myself from but with family waiting, that we did.
Another tasty Zoigl with a homemade pretzel & the Lugert “Boozhaus”
On the way out of town, I noticed the local brewery Hösl on the main square. There was no time for that but that was okay, we’d be stopping there for lunch on our way back to Munich after our family visit in Saxony. Tip: order the Goose breast if on the menu and wash it down with their tasty Dunkles.
Not Zoigl but a nice Dunkles and roast goose breast at the Hösl brewery