Have you ever Zoigled? No? Well, I have and it is the most awesomely awkward beer travel experience I have ever had.
First a bit of history. Zoigl is a beer that is brewed in the Oberpfälzer Wald, a region in the far eastern part of Bavaria very near the Czech border. For approximately 600 years, beer has been brewed in communal breweries owned by either a town or a group of home brewers. The wort is then given to each brewer who takes it home to ferment in their own cellar. When it’s ready, they put out a six-pointed star – a symbol of a brewers guild in Bavaria – to show they are open for business.
The beer is served directly from the lagering tank until it is gone. Then the next brewer puts out his star and opens until his beer is gone. And so it goes throughout the year. I find it best to think of Zoigl more as a brewing tradition than a beer style. For more information on the history, visit Zoigl.de.
Now, when we told our friends in Germany where we were going and what we were doing, they were all a bit perplexed. Even they were not very familiar with Zoigl or the area, except to say that the people there spoke a very strange dialect, even by Bavarian standards.
We arrived in Neustadt a.d. Waldnaab, our home for the next few nights, and immediately spied a six-pointed star hanging around the corner from our hotel. We later learned, however, that while there are a number of places that put out a star and call their beer Zoigl, there is a much smaller number actually brewing communally in a Kommunbrauhaus. The one around the corner was not brewing traditional Zoigl.
Each Zoiglstube is only open for a few days to a week at a time, so if you want to maximize the number of Zoiglstuben you visit, planning is important. Before we left, Chris consulted the yearly calendar on zoiglinfo.de (a different site than mentioned above). We later found that each town prints their own handy pocket calendar to keep track of who will be open when. Oh, and we decided beforehand that none of the Zoiglstuben would count on the List because no brewing takes place at the individual sites.
For our first real Zoigl experience, we drove a short distance to Windischeschenbach, one of the original Zoigl towns. I really had no idea what to expect. I knew to look for the star, but that was about it. We easily found Zum Roud’n, operated by the Heinl family. There was no other marker, except for the star, so I tentatively walked down a short corridor to find the door. Luckily, right by the door was a sign indicating we had found the right place. It had been a very long time since I had felt so unsure of myself while in Germany.
I opened the door and was immediately faced with a long table of about ten men. They all turned to look at me in the doorway. For a moment I thought perhaps I wasn’t supposed to be there because I didn’t see any other women. I turned around for reassurance from Chris and he wasn’t there. He was still outside taking pictures. I let the door close behind me, which necessitated a somewhat embarrassing second entrance, this time with Chris as back up.
The room was small with four long tables and a bit stuffy. To give you a sense of how it feels to be in a Zoiglstube, think if you were to open your dining room or patio to anyone and everyone for a week at a time every few months serving beer and a small menu of home cooked Bavarian fare. That is a Zoiglstube.
Like good ol’ Americans, we immediately chose the one table that had no other people. Within a few minutes, the owner approached and we successfully ordered our beers (There is only one kind, but different sizes). In addition to my welcoming committee of ten men, about three other people sat quietly drinking their beer. Frequent glances in our direction with accompanying snickers made it very awkward, but with beer in hand I had regained my confidence. What I didn’t know then, but was to discover as we visited more Zoiglstuben, is that the Zoiglstube is a local gathering spot. The men had turned to look at us not to wonder who the heck we were and what were we doing there (okay, that’s not completely true), but rather to see which neighbor was arriving. Their summation that we were not just out of towners, but also American tourists perplexed them more than anything. This part of Bavaria is not a tourist destination and my guess is that foreigners are far and few between.
Turns out we had arrived just in time, as the place filled up quickly and we were soon sharing our table with others. Now this felt more comfortable, not only because it was an atmosphere we enjoy, but also because the attention on us seemed to be dissipating. Everyone in the room, including ourselves, turned to look each time the door opened. All patrons pretty much showed the same somewhat startled look as they entered. They commented on the crowd, scanned the room for people they knew, and then found an open seat. As far as I could tell, friendly salutations were exchanged amongst whoever made eye contact.
The beer came in half liter mugs and was tallied just like they do in Köln, ticks on a beer mat. The amber colored beer was unfiltered with a strong malt presence, very little hop bitterness was detected. It was very tasty and it went down easily. All of the Zoiglstuben also have a small menu of traditional Bavarian fare. At Zum Roud’n, we ordered a cheese board, which turned out to be quite sizable. To round out the first awesomely awkward experience, we discovered that prices are extremely reasonable. Six beers and a cheese plate set us back about $20.
We had visited Zum Roud’n on the last day they were open. The next day, the star was down and the man who had served us was on his roof making some repairs.
In Chris’ original plan, we were going to take a 12km round trip walk from our hotel to Windischeschenbach and Neuhaus visiting a Zoiglstube in each town. However, Mother Nature had other ideas and we didn’t want to chance getting caught halfway through in the pouring rain. What this did allow us to do, however, was take a drive out to Mitterteich to visit an additional Zoiglstube.
Lugert is located at 12 Bachstrasse, otherwise known as Boozhaus. According to Lugert’s website, the Boozhaus had been a Zoiglstube for hundreds of years, but closed sometime in the 20th Century. It re-opened 16 years ago.
Like Zum Roud’n, Lugert was a little tricky in that there was not a big sign out front. There wasn’t even a six-pointed star. Hanging from a pole high above our heads was what looked like the top of a Christmas tree hanging upside down. But it wasn’t the bright cheery green of a Christmas tree. Hanging upside down it made me feel sadly curious, very Tim Burton-esque. Just below on the wall there was a green sign. It was the authentic Zoigl symbol (Echter Zoigl vom Kommunbrauer), which would become a familiar and comforting sight for us. It showed we were in the right place.
Despite the relative newness of the current establishment, Lugert maintains a traditional feel with the beer and food. Our waiter was in his 30s, by far the youngest of all those who waited on us. We thought it was our best chance to speak a bit of English and maybe get a firmer understanding of how all this Zoigl stuff worked. We were wrong and the waiter showed little interest in chatting with us in English or otherwise. The room was of medium capacity and similarly crowded when we arrived. We found a couple of seats at an empty table close to the door. A trio of older individuals joined us and it became quite cozy. At Lugert there were far fewer weird looks in our direction and we were feeling much more confident, having had one other Zoiglstube under our belt.
The beer was in a similar vein as Zum Roud’n, malt forward (though with a lighter body) with little hop presence. This one was not quite as cloudy, but still unfiltered and paired nicely with one of my favorite Bavarian specialties, Obatzda. Overall. It was a very enjoyable experience. One we would not have been afforded had the weather been more amenable to the long walk Chris had planned.
We visited two other Zoiglstuben, Schlosshof in Windischeschenbach and Schoilmichl in Neuhaus, the other traditional Zoigl town.
The weather was trying to cooperate with us and the sun was shining through a bit more. This gave us the chance to walk around Windischeschenbach a bit. Not being a tourist town, the window shopping was minimal, but that was okay. We were just happy to be out and walking around.
We found Schlosshof down some winding streets in a residential area. In fact, most of Windischeschenbach seemed residential. We entered a Biergarten in front and headed inside. We were immediately hit with the stifling warmth of a sauna. Although no one else was sitting outside, we went back out to sit in the pleasant Biergarten.
With only one kind of beer, you don’t have to think much about it and just order. I found all of the beers at the Zoiglstuben we visited to be nice and easy to drink. The food was great, too. At Schlosshof we opted to go bigger and I ordered the Schweinbraten with Kartoffelknödl, roast pork with a potato dumpling. Chris ordered the cold roast pork plate.
Sitting outside made it a somewhat solitary experience, but it was nice to sit in the sunlight. We watched as laboring men stopped by for a beer and small children were picked up for a play date. I imagine that parents whose home is the neighborhood gathering spot would feel right at home at Schlosshof.
One of the cool things about Schlosshof is that it has an apartment to rent. However, when Chris made our travel plans he found that the apartment was not available. I think it would be a cool place to stay for the ultimate Zoigl-centered trip.
The last Zoiglstuben we visited was Schoilmichl. It was unlike any of the other Zoiglstuben we visited. The other three were packed or became so soon after we arrived. We walked in Schoilmichl to find the place completely empty. An older gentleman came out to greet us and Chris did his best to ask in German if the place as open. As I said previously, the dialect is very different in Eastern Bavaria and it took a bit of deciphering to determine that 1) they were open, and 2) because it was their last day, there as no more food. This explained why the large room was empty.
Owner Manfred Punzmann was a jolly, round man who tried very hard to communicate with us. Together we sat at a table, with no other people in the room, trying to communicate by using a lot of hand gestures, some poorly pronounced German, a tad bit of broken English, and a fair amount of a German dialect completely foreign to us. Another couple (friends of Manfred as far as we could tell) came in while we were there. Manfred explained that we were American and the man came over to try to speak to us in English. Overall, this was probably the most awkward of all the Zoiglstube experiences.
To be honest, we couldn’t drink our beer fast enough. At the same time, it was extremely rewarding in that Manfred and his friends were not about to give up and leave us alone because we couldn’t communicate. They wanted to interact with us, offering information on Zoigl and generally being very welcoming. In a world with waning customer service and increasingly isolated consumerism, Manfred’s attitude was refreshing and reassuring that interpersonal communication was alive and well, even if we barely knew what the other was saying. It fully embodied the Zoigl spirit and pretty much encapsulated my experience of this new beer adventure.
Aside from the generous attention and hospitality, the best part of our visit to Schoilmichl was that we could purchase beer vom fass to go. For 3€, we purchased a one liter bottle of freshly filled Zoigl. We even went out to by some heavy duty tape to make sure the swing top didn’t open during the trip home. We shared it with friends at home about five days later. It was fully carbonated and just as good as when we had it at Schoilmichl. Sharing this beer with friends allowed us to bring a bit of our awesomely awkward adventure home to re-experience in an awesomely not-so-awkward way.
In a trip with a compressed schedule, we moved on from the Oberpfälzer Wald the next morning. Other Zoiglstube opened later in the week, but we would already be home in California. Awkward at times and despite not adding any breweries to the List, Zoigl was one of those truly special adventures in our long years of beer travel.