BEER WITH A SOCIALIST: The Schönramer brewery, by way of Birra Tirana and other lager breweries in Europe.

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My intent today is to link you to an amazing article by Joe Stange about a brewery about which you’ve heard little located in the Bavarian countryside, and with an American expatriate brewer (!) who is crafting gorgeous traditional lagers (primarily Helles and Pils, but also a Festbier and Bock). I’ll take my time getting there, so it you’re the impatient sort, start scrolling.

In any event, the previously unknown Schönramer brewery has occupied a spot on my revised bucket list.

I’ve been fortunate to visit quite a few “classic” lager breweries during the course of 35 years Euro-wandering. Since the 1980s and early 1990s, obviously much has changed in the brewing business.

Classic is an elastic term. I mean breweries of the old school that hit it big brewing lagers in the 1800s. This isn’t to dismiss smaller-scale operations like Schönramer, the Bamberg breweries and so many others.

Again and again, modernity has decreed that breweries of sufficient size, finding themselves folded into large cities, determine it is expeditious to (a) take advantage of skyrocketing property values by (b) giving up prime inner city real estate for adaptive reuse so as to (c) move increasingly automated beer factories into industrial zones in more rural areas. 

Ergo Heineken (Amsterdam) and Carlsberg (Copenhagen). I visited them prior to their moves. Tuborg, sister brewery to Carlsberg, fell victim to rationalization in the early 1990s; brewing went to Carlsberg and the acreage was redeveloped.

Pilsner Urquell and Budvar (both Czechia) and Dreher in Budapest remain where they’ve always been. I hope Eggenberg in Cesky Krumlov is still in business. It may have been the best quality lager of the lot.

No doubt the craziest of all probably was Birra Tirana in the capital city of Albania, 1994. Here’s an extended excerpt from the Albania narrative.

Back in the Brewing Business in Tirana.

In contrast to the brewery at Korce, the plant dating from 1952 in Albania’s capital city of Tirana is a utilitarian, white-tiled facility resembling a dairy more than a brewery. It was built with Soviet assistance, and looks it. Our ride from the port city of Durres to the brewery in Tirana took us past rustic villages, abandoned and dilapidated concrete irrigation channels, wandering herds of livestock, Albania’s sparkling new Coca-Cola bottling plant, row after row of shabbby scialist tenements, and finally a vast lot where the burned-out remains of the city’s Communist-era bus fleet reposed in blackened, skeletal lines.

At the time of our visit, the Tirana brewery hadn’t yet been privatized, but it was working again. Typically, upon arriving at the gate we encountered reluctance at letting us enter. Eventually a wiry, chain-smoking worker with an impressive five o’clock shadow and darting, nervous eyes took an interest in us and went off in search of the plant director, who couldn’t be found — but by that time we were in, our guide Genci having persuaded someone to make a decision and let the foreigners come inside out of the blazing, midday sun.

Minutes later, we met the “lost” director in the hall, and he hastily grunted retroactive permission to enter, no doubt thanking his lucky stars that he no longer lived in a nation where such negligence might be rewarded with a trip to the eastern Albanian ore mines or the dungeon-like prisons of the citadel in Gjirokastra with its handy rooftop garden once used by firing squads, but now serving as a convenient point from which to survey the ancient hilltop town and surrounding mountains.

We were met by a diminutive, white-coated brewmaster who happily led us around the spartan, functional plant and answered questions through our interpreter. Like the older brewery in Korce, Tirana’s brewery had ceased to function for quite some time. According to the employees, it closed because the former brewery bureaucrat had been paid off by entrepreneurs who were engaged in importing Macedonian Skopsko Pivo and who were intent on eliminating the local competition.

Only one style, a Czech-style pilsner, was being brewed at the time of our visit. Hops are purchased from Germany and barley from Italy. Yeast bought in Italy is being cultured in a so-called laboratory; some was foaming merrily in a kitchen-sink sized steel receptacle.

After 5 to 7 days of primary fermentation, the beer is pumped into the secondary tanks in the basement for 21 days of lagering at near-freezing temperatures. As we enjoyed the contrast in temperature between the frigid lagering cellar and the sunbaked streets outside, the brewmaster’s assistant tapped off some two-week old, unfiltered Tirana’s Best and proudly offered glasses to each of us. It was surprisingly tasty, and it was better than most of the Italian imports on sale in Albania.

Later, we sampled the filtered, bottled, final 11-degree product and noticed the lack of labels — they haven’t quite gotten to that yet, but they hope to soon. Appropriately, the beer is priced to sell below the lowest-priced imports; this is a sound strategy in a country as poor as Albania. On both sampling occasions, first in the cellar and then at the bottling line, we were joined in our tasting by the wiry, chain-smoking employee from the guard shack, who had accompanied us the entire route through the brewery.

As we surveyed the women from the bottling line, who were taking a break as the line was repaired, I spotted our guide discretely posted behind a machine, taking a final, furious drag on his smoke as he removed the cap from an unguarded bottle and drained most of it in one swallow. In my view, it was his well-deserved reward for being responsive to the visitors, and I thanked him for it.

Two lager links. First, from the UK.

Don’t like lager? Think again, by Melissa Cole (The Guardian)

Lager has a bad reputation, but there are so many varieties made under this ancient brewing method to delight in

Now the Schönramer story. I drooled just reading it.

Greatest Drinkability: The Bavarian Brewer’s Art, by Joe Stange (Beer and Brewing)

In the foothills of the Alps, Schönramer Brewmaster Eric Toft is a tinkerer and fine-tuner of highly addictive lagers.

… There are now more than 1,500 breweries in Germany, and the Private Landbrauerei Schönram is not one of the big ones; it brews about 94,000 barrels a year. Meanwhile the village of Schönram has only about 380 residents. The brewery sells 90 percent of its beer within a 40-mile radius.

More than three-fourths of that is the same kind of beer: Schönramer Hell.

It’s a daily staple. If you lived there, you could have it brought to your house. “We self-distribute nearly everything,” says Brewmaster Eric Toft. “We have four trucks that do home delivery, like the milkman.” You don’t even need to be home. Leave a key with the driver and some euros on the table; they’ll make change, put beer down in the cellar, and take away the empties. See you next week.

Another illustration: The Schönramer brewery built the small church across the street in 1853, largely for its employees—including those at the maltings, now defunct—but also for all the locals who walked for miles to fill the brewery’s pub on Sundays. The priest received compensation in the form of beer—156 liters per month.

Today, in keeping with tradition, Schönramer’s 55 employees—like those of many other German breweries—get a monthly beer allotment in addition to their take-home pay. It’s not as much as it used to be. Today, they receive “only” 120 liters. That’s the equivalent of roughly 56 American 6-packs. Per month …

2 COMMENTS

  1. Eric is not only a dear friend and one of the best brewers in the world, he makes amazing beers that are a must drink, and operates a brewery that is a must visit any time we're withing a days travel. Now available in the Rocky Mountains, near his home town, we can enjoy them and support a friend when traveling isn't an option. Prosit!

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