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The Quest For Zoigl : Germany’s Elusive “House” Brews
By Don Scheidt

Among beer fans, there are who that are always seeking out the unusual, the exotic and the just plain hard-to-find. There are numerous beer styles and great traditions associated with them, particularly in Europe, home of classic beers and places where beer culture is firmly woven into the fabric of everyday life. Some cultures are world-renowned and widely imitated (Irish pubs would be an example) across continental Europe and North America.

There are still a few pockets of uniqueness where deeply rooted cultures exist that are nearly impossible to duplicate. The lambic brewers, blenders and pubs of Belgium’s Payottenland are an example; in Germany, the kölsch brewers and pubs of Cologne are another, as are the Altbier houses in Düsseldorf, and Bamberg’s classic old-fashioned breweries, pubs and kellers (beer gardens, Franconian-style). There have also been revivals of styles thought extinct, as with Belgium’s witbier, the wheat ale style that Pierre Celis is credited with reviving decades ago, or Gose, an old German ale style that is once again available in Goslar and Leipzig, the two cities most closely associated with this unique, eccentric beer — a slightly sour wheat ale flavored with coriander and salt.

And then there is what may be one of the most elusive styles on earth, found primarily in the Oberpfalz (Upper Palatinate), the historic territory of eastern Bavaria, mostly to the right of Franconia on the map. The Oberpfalz is home to the old-fashioned Zoigl tradition. Zoigl beer is normally not considered a commercial product, although some breweries in the region market a bottled Zoigl beer. For purists, Zoigl is the beer that comes from communal breweries in the Oberpfalz, a tradition preserved in five towns in the region: Windischeschenbach, Neuhaus, Eslarn, Falkenberg and Mitterteich.

Zoigl houses have their own pubs built in, recalling the days when pubs were an extension of someone’s home.

In each of these towns, the communal brewery provides the infrastructure for mashing, boiling, cooling and initial fermentation, but after that, instead of offering the beer for commercial sale, local citizens take the beer home to age in their own cellars. These homes, or Zoigl houses, have their own pubs built in, recalling the days when pubs were basically an extension of someone’s home. These citizens have a special right that comes with owning a particular home, and that is the right to the use of the communal brewery.

In the smallest of these towns, there may be only one house that takes and serves the beer; in the larger towns, several houses may offer the beer for sale. The Zoigl houses are often part-time operations, open only a certain number of weeks or weekends during the year, so it pays to either check out a calendar online or call ahead to see who’s open. It will also be evident when one arrives which Zoigl houses are open, as they will have the Zoigl symbol displayed prominently. The symbol itself will seem something of a surprise to the uninitiated, as it resembles the Jewish faith’s Star of David. In this region and context, though, it’s known as the Braustern, or Brewer’s Star, and the term Zoigl is an old local dialect word derived from Zeichen, meaning “sign” or “symbol.” Zoigl beer itself is an old-fashioned rustic lager, unfiltered and brewed in small batches. It is said that no two batches come out quite the same, and even though the beer might be brewed in one brewery, it will come out differently after aging at different Zoigl houses.

In the mid-19th century, there were still 75 towns with these communal Zoigl breweries in the Oberpfalz. Today, with five left, the best opportunities for the visitor looking to sample the style are to be found in the neighboring towns of Windischeschenbach and Neuhaus, located about an hour’s drive east-southeast of Bayreuth. There are eight Zoigl houses in Windischeschenbach that rotate opening days among themselves; on any given weekend, two of them are usually open. All of them are within easy walking distance of each other. Three other Zoigl houses in the town have more regular opening hours, including the Oberpfälzer Hof hotel, which has a pub serving Zoigl daily except Wednesdays. Neighboring town Neuhaus has five Zoigl houses; on any given weekend, one is usually open. Don’t show up at Christmastime, though; these are family operations, and they shut down for the holidays.

When open, a Zoigl house will offer its one and only beer and a brief menu of simple, old-fashioned food at absurdly reasonable prices; a half-liter of Zoigl beer is typically about $1.70 in U.S. money, and it’s pretty hard to spend much more than six or seven dollars for a meal.

This Celebrator journalist will be exploring the Zoigl experience this fall on his own personal Quest for Zoigl. Prost!

Don Scheidt all too rarely updates the Northwest BrewPage at nwbrewpage.com. He also writes about beer for the Seattle Weekly. He can be reached via e-mail at dgs1300@hotmail.com.


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