I arrived in Germany today via Denver to Frankfurt direct flight. I’m back for Hutt’n in Nuremberg. I’m back for Zoiglbier – the rustic, hoppy, country lager produced at communally-owned breweries throughout Oberpfalz. I’m back for Bamberg Rauchbier, and I’m back especially for Gänstaller’s Zoiglstube in Straßgiech.
The last time I visited, Thanksgiving day 2011, I came from Plzen that morning after spontaneously deciding on Bamberg rather than my planned destination to the south of Plzen, the great beer town of Ceske Budejovice. But Bamberg is much more of a beer town. After four winter days in Bohemia I was tiring of the cigarette smoke, the litter, and the transportation infrastructure. But what made the decision easy that morning was the thought of Gänstaller’s clean, unfiltered lagers.
After being held at the border by German narcs (something about last-minute cross-border ticket purchases and single travelers), I stepped out into Bamberg and back into Bavarian life. I instantly realize that this decision to come back on a whim is a good one. By early evening in I have settled into a nook at Brauerei Spezial, over a steaming plate of schwienshank with a mug of rauchbier for my thirst . Happy Thanksgiving.
The next morning is cold and drizzly and cloudy, but my spirits are high. With a chocolate pastry and a rented bicycle I head east out of town through the nippy chill of late Fall. A 30-minute bike ride east of Bamberg drops you in Memmelsdorf, where Brauerei Hohn pours mugs of their unfiltered, hoppy and bright Kellerbier, as well as a ridiculously clean, snappy and bright Bockbier which tastes of honeysuckle and hay with warming alcohol. Two doors down is Drei Kronen Memmelsdorf, a brewery of ever-changing quality, according to the online ratings. Visiting in 2008, I found their pilsner and rauchbier to be well-made and enjoyable, though unremarkable. Three years later on this return I found all of their beer suffering from diacetyl.
A few miles east of Memmelsdorf is Dorfliens, where an appallingly bad version of dunkles landbier was served at Brauerei Goller. A stewy, sweaty, slightly-infected soup of dark malt, dirty minerals and limp, wet, moldy grass, this beer had me out the door and venturing elsewhere after only two sips. Sadly, the situation was the same down the road in Merkendorf, where both Brauerei Wagner and Brauerei Hummel had, across the board, poorly made and poorly conditioned beer. I managed to put down a few gulps at each and escape town within an hour, heading east again, to better pastures. Zoiglstube de Ganstaller, otherwise known as Drei Kronen Straßgiech.
Walking in as they opened in the late afternoon, I introduce myself and say hello from hometown friends who visited the Zoiglstube two weeks before. Andreas Ganstaller is warm and welcoming as any proprietor, but what makes him different is the limitless passion for, and knowledge of, his craft. His influences on the Franconian brewing scene are hard to miss, as interns, apprentices and trainees of his work brew beer throughout the region, and few brewers in Bavaria seem not to know his name. Though his work and influence puts him in a position as some sort of Godfather of Franconian beer, Andreas is remarkably human; humble about his success, and appreciate of your patronage.
It’s dinner time and the locals begin to pour into the stube. A group of young men express surprise to see the Kellerbier on draft, as Friday nights typically feature the Zoiglbier only. Instead, the Zoiglbier is running low and being saved for a brewery trip to Italy, though Andreas manages to pull a frothy mug of this delicious Franconian gem from the back cooler. Unbelievably bright, snappy and rustic all at the same time; unfiltered but clean, with dried hay and greens and farmhouse must, all on a perfectly soft bed of fluffy carbonation with rigid and firm malt to match, a combination that very few brewers – worldwide, not just in Germany – seem to be able to produce.
To match the world-class beer is world-class German fare. I’d been to Germany four times already, and consumed nearly every different traditional German dish I could find, but I was unprepared for what was cooking in the kitchens of the Zoiglstube. Spent grain-battered veal schnitzel prepared by Andreas’ wife and co-proprietor Manuela Ganstaller, at first bite it was instant love. The veal was perfectly cooked, the breading remained toasty and crunchy, the barley and lemon juice seems to meld into a symphonic overture of flavor with the veal cutlet it covered… my words don’t do it justice. I was prepared to drink mind-blowing beer; I was not prepared to match it with German cuisine taken to a new level.
The kitchen has not gone unnoticed by the locals: by five-o-clock the Zoiglstube is packed with a boisterous crowd and stays that way well into the night. Amidst the hoopla that is this typical Friday night in Franconia, Andreas pulls me aside to tour the brewery museum located out back. This centuries-old defunct brewery consists of an ancient brick-lined brew kettle and a 50-meter long aqueduct which would move wort by gravity down to open stone fermenters at the entrance to the cavernous barrel cellar. This brewery museum is a page right out of Franconian history, and it seems appropriately cared-for by one of the true passionate artisans of today’s Bavarian brewing culture.
Back in the stube with glasses of Kellerbier, Zwickelpils and Affumicator (95% smoked malt doppelbock, which ranks among the best smelling and tasting drinks of my life), it seems odd to watch locals wander in to their local and simply drink what’s on tap. Do they know – really know – about this place? Or to them is it just another stube on the corner, same as the rest which dot the countryside out here? I have to believe that people know that something special is happening in Straßgiech.
Saturday is more of the same, round two. A day of biking town-to-town east of Bamberg followed by a visit back at the Zoiglstube for more unfiltered lagers, rauchbier and doppelbock. Closing up shop early after a private party, Andreas drives me west to Schnaid in order to tour the brewery and pull samples from the lagering tanks in the cellar and the oak barrels in the barn. The sight of Andy on hands and knees, laughing as he’s sprayed by smoked Zoigl from the bottom of the bright tanks is a memory I will cherish forever.
Gänstaller’s beers are both small and large, but never brutish, out of balance, overly-sweet or sloppily made. Impossible to fully appreciate in small samples, and not fit for long travels due to their fragile freshness, the beers of Andreas Ganstaller demand a visit to the Zoiglstube in Straßgiech and they demand a good couple of hours of immersion to let the life of the beer sink in. The delicate beauty of these lean county lagers nearly induces tears, while the high gravity bockbier and rauchbier are both robust and beefy, but not off-balance and, especially important, not overly sweet. Those who have a deep and true appreciate for lager, and a deep yearning to learn more about German beer, owe themselves a visit to the Zoiglstube. I have yet to find a German brewer who comes close to Andreas Ganstaller, though the goal is to keep on searching, and that’s why I’m back in Franconia.