Brauerei Gasthof Eck
The following day (Saturday 12th April) we get a pleasant surprise after breakfast. The friendly brewer we met the day before, Mike Schönberger, gives us a private tour around the brewery.
We soon discover why he speaks such excellent English: he worked at the Gordon Biersch Brewery in California. It makes things a lot easier for us. No need to struggle with German when asking questions. I have lots of questions.
The current brewery was built in 1970 when around 20,000 hl a year were brewed. It's way too big for their current output, which is just 2,000 hl. Their beer used to be distributed as far as Munich but, as they were making no money out of it, in 1992 they decided to produce just for the pub and the local area. It's a story that is depressingly common. Most German breweries are producing far less beer than 15 years ago. Making the most out of their site - all that diversification I mentioned yesterday - is a smart way of compensating for the vicissitudes of the beer market.
I won't pester you with my questions. I'll just list the answers.
They brew once a month, but 3 brews one after the other. In total 36 brews a year of 6,000 litres.
60% of the beer the beer is sold draught, 40% bottled. (In Germany as a whole just 19% of beer is draught.)
80% of production is Dunkles. That's what the tourists drink. In the local villages, it's just Helles.
Three beers are produced:
The large brew length relative to total output means that less popular beers, like Maibock, have been discontinued.
In the summer, unfiltered Helles is sold in the beer garden. Like many of his colleagues, the brewer is convinced of the superiority of unfiltered beer. But it has to be sold quickly and this is only possible in the high season.
The Dunkles is brewed from 100% dark Munich malt, the Helles and Festbier from 100% pilsner malt. The hops are Hallertauer pellets and extraxt. The Dunkles has 800 gm of of alpha acid per 6,000 litre batch. The Festbier and Helles are boiled 1.5 hours, the Dunkles 2 hours. The hopping schedule is:
start of boil 40%
after 60 minutes 30%
5 minutes before end 30%
The primary fermentation, in open fermenters, lasts 7 days, starting at 7º C, ending at 9.3º C. When the wort has dropped to 4-4.5º Plato, it's cooled to 2º C and put into the lagering tanks.
The cellar is naturally cool and need no artificial cooling. Lagering lasts three months, starting at 2º C . In the last 4 to 5 weeks the temperature is slowly dropped to 0º C. The pressure in the lagering tanks is 0.9 bar, dropping to 0.5 bar 1 week before kegging.
Bottling is not done on site. The beer is shipped in a tanker to another brewery.
Sorry, I asked no mashing questions on the tour.
From Eck it’s just a short drive to the Czech border. As we approach it the hills turn into snow-capped mountains. There are even a few skiers descending a slope.
Hard against the German side of the frontier is Bayerisch Eisenstein, a trim town of pensions, pubs and a few Nordic walking pensioners. No doubt it’s livelier either earlier or later in the year. I spot an Augustiner pub and make a mental note. You never know. I may be back this way one day.
German and Czech customs posts enclose 100 metres of no-man’s-land. Both are deserted. Stuck into the bank of the stream that forms the border is a forlorn sign: “Pozor! Statni hranice” (“Attention! State border”). The only token of life is the pretty young Czech girl selling motorway stickers in a kiosk. Andy buys one for later. We won’t be hitting motorway until we leave Prague.
Once across, the road is lined first with shops selling vegetables and tourist tat then with “non-stop nightclubs”. They aren’t the sort of club where you dance, if you get my drift. Once through the rather scruffy, shabby settlement, there’s little sign of human habitation kilometre after kilometre. This is the Šumava – a part of Europe barely touched by man. It's nothing but green forest, beige marshland and off-white snow stretching to the horizon. In places the snow still lays in piles half a metre deep along the roadside. Aside from the occasional walker or cyclist, the land is deserted.
Stopping by a raging stream, we step out and breathe in the chill but pristine air. The silence is only disturbed by the rushing brownish water. It looks too clear to be soil. Is the discolouration from iron ore?
The villages we pass are mere clusters of wooden sheds, bereft of even a church. We go tens of kilometres without seeing a pub. That’s what I call a wasteland. We eventually pull up in what passes for a town. There’s a wood-shingled church, a freshly-painted town hall and a few down-at-heel hotels, none of which appear open. Not surprising, as there’s still snow on the ground. Is it really April? It feels as if we’ve been transported back to January. Yesterday we were sitting in shirt sleeves in a beer garden. Today we shiver in our heavy coats.
The cash machine is working and we load up on crowns. It’s always useful to have some local currency. I need beer tokens. I rashly take out 2,000, the equivalent of 80 euros. It turns out to be an enormous miscalculation.
We don’t linger. As we penetrate further into the Czech Republic, the land becomes flatter, the villages more frequent, though no less desolate. In one, dominated by the rusty frame of a deserted factory, a family of gypsies traipses disconsolately along the road, not even glancing up as we pass. It’s no wonder no-one wants to live in this area. Racing through it is depressing enough.
By the crossroads that at the centre of another town barely worthy of the name, two women sit surrounded by empty cans. “They must be hitchhiking.” says Keith, “Everyone does it in Rumania.” Yet there’s something about the way they wait impassively, with hollowed eyes, that hints of some darker purpose. At another junction just outside town stands a thickset woman of indeterminate age, a tiny strip of a skirt stretched across her bulging thighs. It’s not a lift she’s waiting for. Not in those clothes, in this weather. We realise that we’re close to the German border again. Hooray for a Europe without frontiers.
At least we see more pubs. Though some look ready to collapse. Those in a better state of repair have shiny new green Plzensky Prazdroj signs. What about the local breweries? Isn’t their beer sold anywhere? I guess in the semi-derelict places.
Surely Cesky Krumlov won’t be as run-down as this? Will it? Find out tomorrow.
The reluctant brewer - I’ve been seeking out small scale breweries across Norther Europe for a dozen years. Most of them are happy to open their doors, give me samples from their...
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