An Introduction to the Tradition of Zoigl Beer
Zoigl is a bottom-fermented beer (‘ein untergäriges Bier’), which is brewed according to traditional methods in five towns in the Oberpfalz, a region located in the east of the German state of Bavaria, adjacent to its border with the Czech Republic. Zoigl has been brewed for over 500 years, with its secrets handed down through families.
‘Echter Zoigl’ – that is, genuine, traditional Zoigl beer – is brewed in the community brew house (‘Kommunbrauhaus’) in the small towns of Eslarn (1522), Falkenberg (1467), Mitterteich (1516), Neuhaus (1415) and Windischeschenbach (1455). The dates indicate when certain citizens in each town were given the right to brew and serve beer. This right, known as ‘Zoiglbraurecht’, is attached to houses that are located within a specific area, usually around the old town centre. As the dates indicate, in some cases, the Zoigl and ‘Kommunbrau’ tradition in the Oberpfalz is much older than the famous ‘Reinheitsgebot’ – the Bavarian Beer Purity Law, which was promulgated on 23 April 1516.
Malted barley is mixed and boiled in open brewing kettles with water heated by a wood fire in Eslarn, Falkenberg, Neuhaus and Windischeschenbach (in Mitterteich, the furnace is coal-fired). This produces a liquid known as ‘wort’ (‘Würze’). Hops are added during the process and, after cooling overnight in a large open vessel (known as a ‘Kühlschiff’), the liquid is transferred to tanks in the individual Zoigl houses (‘Zoiglstub’n), where yeast is added to enable fermentation. After around ten days, the resulting ‘Zoigl beer’ is pumped into storage vessels, where it is left to mature for several weeks. This process is known in German as ‘lagering’. As fermentation, an essential part of beer production, is carried out in the houses of the brewers, it should be noted that the ‘Kommunbrauhäuser’ are not breweries in the strictest meaning of the word.
In general, all the Zoigl brewers use the same method but each Zoigl tastes different because the individual brewers have their own recipes, which vary according to the type and ratio of malt and hops used in the process. Because the brewing process is controlled by a human being, and not a computer, individual batches of Zoigl from the same brewer will vary from time to time, making each visit to a ‘Zoiglstub’n’ a unique experience!
In Falkenberg, Eslarn and Mitterteich, the brew houses are owned by the local community. However, in Windischeschenbach and Neuhaus, the brewers jointly own them. In either case, the brewer must pay a fee, which is known as ‘Kesselgeld’, literally ‘kettle money’, each time the brew house is used. This is used to maintain and renovate the brew house. Community brew houses were once common throughout Bavaria, though, currently, only that in Sesslach, a small town in Upper Franconia (‘Oberfranken’) is brewing beers that are regularly available to the general public.
Access to the brew house is not strictly limited to the owners of Zoigl Stub’n. All householders within the area where the ‘Zoiglbraurecht’ operates have the opportunity to utilise the facility, always providing that their property remains in the official Land Registry. However, this right is only accessed in a few towns, notably Neuhaus, where a group of citizens with brewing rights annually brew Zoigl for their own consumption. In Neuhaus, the ‘private’ brewers maintain the old tradition of storing Zoigl in casks, which are located in cellars bored under the houses located on the main street.
Who are the genuine community brewers in the Oberpfalz?
In recent years, the increasing popularity of Zoigl beer has encouraged a number of commercial breweries to market a beer named ‘Zoigl’. These include some breweries in the Oberpfalz and several located in regions of Bavaria, such as Franken and the Allgäu.
Doubtless, many of these beers are of high quality but the essence of Zoigl lies not only in the product but in more than 500 years of tradition, which is embodied in the culture of the five Zoigl towns. In addition, in recent times, a number of pubs using the title ‘Zoiglstub’n’ or ‘Zoiglwirtschaften’ (‘Zoigl pubs’) have flourished in the Oberpfalz region, also hoping to capitalise on the popularity of the Zoigl tradition. Again, it must be emphasised that, notwithstanding the quality of their beer and the services provided, they are not legitimised by the Zoigl tradition and history.
In order to help Zoigl enthusiasts to identify genuine Zoigl, the ‘Zoiglbraurecht’ brewers of the five Zoigl towns have formed an organisation to helped protect the Zoigl tradition. Only those Zoigl houses whose proprietors are members of the organisation are allowed to display the special green ‘Echter Zoigl vom Kommunbrauer’ logo.
What does the ‘Echter Zoigl vom Kommunbrauer’ logo promise for the customer?
The ‘Echter Zoigl vom Kommunbrauer’ logo promises the customer that the beer served in the Stube has been brewed in a community brew house located in the same town, using traditional methods and materials, and fermented and lagered within their own premises. This means that they serve a Zoigl beer (also called ‘ein Kommunbier’) that is bottom-fermented, unfiltered and non-pasteurised, and brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Law). The use of wood- or coal-fired brewing, the open cooling vessel, the individual brewer’s choice of malt and hop and the delivery in the Zoiglstub’n direct from the lagering tank, ensure that a real Zoigl will always taste different!
Perhaps as important as the quality of the beer is the special atmosphere of the Zoiglstub’n. For the proprietors, brewing and serving Zoigl is very much a way of life but it is, essentially, a part-time occupation, which is undertaken in addition to their main job. As a result, the individual Zoiglstub’n generally open on only one weekend in each month, usually from Friday morning to Monday night. In Windischeschenbach, ‘Echter Zoigl vom Kommunbrauer’ is also available on weekdays. The proprietors of the individual Stub’n work together to produce a calendar of opening times (‘Zoigltermine’), which can be seen on this website.
Whether you are young or old, the visitor to a Zoiglstub’n is guaranteed a unique experience. Each Stube is attached to the house of the proprietor, who, along with the family, will ensure that you are served in a timely and hospitable manner. Customers mix freely in the Zoiglstub’n and, whether you are a neighbour or a visitor from afar, you will be guaranteed good conversation, a lively and friendly atmosphere and beer and snacks (‘Brotzeit’) for a modest price.
Follow the ‘Zoigl Star’!
In earlier times, many people who had the Zoiglbraurecht brewed beer for their own consumption in the community brew house. As Zoigl beer is not filtered or otherwise processed, once a cask was opened, it had a limited life. To avoid wasting any valuable beer, neighbours would often be invited to help drink any remaining. Over a period of time, certain houses developed this practice in a slightly more commercial manner, charging visitors a small price to drink the Zoigl. It is from this tradition that the modern Zoiglstub’n has developed, maintaining the tradition of a homely hostelry and modest prices for drink and food.
Unlike bars and pubs in other parts of the world, the owners of Zoiglstub’n did not use painted signs to advertise their presence. Instead, the ‘Bierrechtler’ (person with brewing rights) hangs a star outside of the house. In former times, sometimes a broom or a bush was placed before the door as a ‘Bierzeigel’ (‘beer sign’). In the Oberpfalz dialect word, ‘Zeigel’ is rendered as ‘Zoigl’ and this is the derivation of the term for the distinctive ‘Kommunbraubier’. The Zoigl Star was also a sign that the landlord had the right to brew beer.
The use of a star to represent brewing is not unique to the Oberpfalz and can be found in other parts of Germany. The oldest known image of the star in brewing dates backs to around 1430 and can be found in an illustration in a book from Nuremberg, in which the monastic brewer, Herttel, is shown stirring the brew over a wood fire. Above the cauldron, the typical beer star can be seen hanging on a pole.
The Zoigl star consists of two intertwined equilateral triangles, one pointing up, one pointing down. One triangle symbolises the elements of fire, earth and air; the other indicates the essential ingredients of water, malt and hops. Since yeast, and its role in fermentation, was not known before the late nineteenth century, it is not represented in the Zoigl Star.
So, when you see a six-pointed star hanging outside a house in any of the five ‘Echter Zoigl vom Kommunbrauer’ towns, you know that it is time to ‘Go to the Zoigl!’
Formulation and Translation by Barry Taylor from Great Britain and Ireland, a faithful friend of Zoigl tradition, August 2016.
Presentation to Zoigl Beer by Christian Müller