Monday, February 18, 2013

Kelheim - a Schneider Weisse experience

Wheat beer is one of the most popular styles of beer to come out of Germany and though there are several sub categories, such as Berliner Weisse and Gose, most people think of the hazy, wheat beers from Bavaria. Weissbier is indeed a Bavarian speciality, and it may be known both as "weizen" (German for wheat) or as "weisse" (white), since many wheat beers have a pale, almost milky complexion. When unfiltered, such beers are often prefixed by "hefe" from the German word for yeast, e.g. hefeweizen.

Erdinger is probably the best known weissbier brewery from Bavaria and Weihenstephan may brew the "gold standard" of Bavarian weissbiers but it's G. Schneider & Sohn aka Schneider Weisse, in the town of Kelheim, that is the boldest and most innovative brewery - offering a wide range of wheat beers that will surprise you and amaze you in equal measures. Kelheim is also close to Weltenburg, the topic of an earlier post, so it was high on my list of places to visit during the road trip through Germany in September 2012.

Mount Michelsberg in Kelheim, Bavaria

Kelheim
Kelheim has a population of about 15 thousand and is beautifully situated on the banks of the Danube river, between Ingolstadt and Regensburg, in Bavaria. Old town Kelheim is a very scenic place to visit, even if beer is not your fancy, with cobble stone streets, colorful, old facades and fenced in by four impressive city gates of age five hundred years or more.

If you crave great views, little will surpass the view from Mount Michelsberg west of old town. There you can also enjoy the magnificent Befreiungshall, or Hall of Liberation, which is currently under restoration. It was ordered built by King Ludwig I of Bavaria to commemorate the victories against Napoleon during the Wars of Liberation in 1813-1815.

From Kelheim you can take ferries or small cruise boats up or down the Danube river. A very popular one, which I took, goes upstream through the Danube Gorge to Kloster Weltenburg, where you can visit the abbey brewery from 1050 or just enjoy a hearty meal in the courtyard / biergarten of the abbey.

Colorful facades along Ludwigstraße in old town Kelheim.

For those with just the smallest shred of interest in beer, Kelheim is important for its central place in Bavarian weissbier traditions. It's home to the oldest exisiting weissbier brewery, Weisses Brauhaus, which is currently where G. Schneider & Sohn is brewing their famous Schneider Weisse series of wheat beers.

Getting there and staying
Though it's possible to take a ferry, from places such as Dietfurt and Riedenburg, a car is really the best way of getting to Kelheim and around in the area. The nearest train station is a good 6 km away from old town Kelheim, in Saal, which is a bit far to walk.

Old town Kelheim isn't really big, less than 500 meter times 500 meter, so instead of driving along narrow cobble stone streets I stayed at a hotel near the Donautor city gate which allowed me to park just outside old town. The hotel I stayed at, the Altstadshotel Wittelsbacher Hof on Donaustrasse 22, is a bit pricey (€69 for a single, €99 for a double room) but with a great location, excellent rooms and a very good breakfast.

The Schneider Weisse story
Located on Emil-Ott-Straße 1-5 in old town Kelheim, Weisses Brauhaus was founded as a weissbier brewery as long ago as 1609 and is still in the business, making it the oldest wheat beer brewery in Bavaria. Since 1928, the brewery and the adjoining brewery tap and biergarten has been owned and operated by the Schneider family.

Weißes Brauhaus was founded in 1607 making it the
"Älteste Weissbierbrauerei Bayerns"

For a German brewery family, Schneider is a relative newcomer. Their entry into the world of beer came with Georg Schneider (1817-1890), the royal master brewer and leaseholder of the royal Bavarian Weisses Hofbräuhaus in Munich. In 1856 he received an offer he couldn't refuse.

For centuries it had been the exclusive privilege of the Royal family of Bavaria to brew wheat beers, everyone else had to stick to the plebeian beer style of lager. But with the advent of pilsner in the 1840s, lager beer rapidly grew in popularity and wheat beers went into a steep decline. Thus, it was in 1856 that King Ludwig II of Bavaria decided to get out of the brewing business by offering the rights to brew wheat beer to a commoner, his master brewer Georg Schneider.

With the wheat beer brewing rights in his pocket, Schneider got to work saving wheat beer from total extinction. He founded Weissbierbrauerei G. Schneider & Sohn  together with his son Georg Schneider II (1846-1890), and bought the old Maderbräu brewery in Tal 7, Munich, in 1872. After renovations, the brewing operations were moved from the old Weisse Hofbräuhaus to Tal 7 in September 1872. That year the brewery also introduced their Schneider Weisse wheat beer, now simply known as Original.

Since then the Schneider family has kept the wheat beer torch burning and more or less single handedly kept the old style alive, while the lager craze washed across Germany and Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1890, both father and sohn died, but the barely 20 year old grandson, Georg Schneider III (1870-1905), was able to take over the running of the brewery. He renovated and expanded the brewery around the turn of the century, and in 1894 he submitted the crossed wheat ears trademark to the Patent Office in Munich, making Schneider Weisse the oldest registered trademark for wheat beer.

The crossed wheat ears trademark of Schneider Weisse

Upon Georg Schneider III's untimely death in 1905, the running of the brewery was taken over by his wife, Mathilde Schneider. It was under her control that Schneider Weisse released their first strong wheat beer, the Aventinus weizen doppelbock, in 1907. She continued as the manager of the brewery until her son, Georg Schneider IV (1900-1991), had come of age in 1924. It's with him that Kelheim finally enters our story, when in 1927 he purchased the old Schramm brewery on Thalkirchner Straße in Munich and the Weisses Bräuhaus in Kelheim. The latter was renovated and put into operations in 1928.

In 1944, during World War II, the Schneider breweries in Thalkirchner Straße and Tal 7 were destroyed by allied bombs, causing the company to move all its beer production to the Kelheim brewery in 1946. In 1958, Georg Schneider V (born 1928) took over the brewery from his father. With a doctorate degree and also educated as a brewing engineer, he started expanding and renovating the Kelheim brewery. This work would continue for most of his time as managing director, and wasn't completed until 1998! Two years after that, he was succeeded by his son - the always smiling Georg Schneider VI (born 1965), who has overseen a growing popularity of Schneider Weisse with the relase of several new beers as well as an international collaboration - the Brooklyner Schneider Hopfen-Weisse made with brewmaster Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery in 2007.

Today, G. Schneider & Sohn is a successful wheat beer brewery with a modern and highly automated brewhouse and bottling plant, located in the oldest wheat beer brewery in Bavaria - the Weisses Bräuhaus in Kelheim.

Brewery tour and tasting
A few months before going, I had signed up via email for an English speaking tour of the Weisses Brauhaus, but when I arrived it turned out that most of the others on the tour were German natives so the tour guide was sorry to inform me that the tour would be held in German. Fortunately, the group was well disciplined so it was easy to hear what the guide said and even pose a few questions, in English, from time to time.

A 320 hl stainless steel brew kettle at Weisses Brauhaus

The tour started with a walk through the hop garden in the back of the brewery. Unlike many other German breweries Schneider offers aromatic and strongly hopped weissbiers, so good hops are important to them. From there we were led into the brewhouse, to behold two large 320 hl brew kettles in stainless steel. According to our guide, about 5,600 kg crushed malt goes into each kettle where it is boiled for up to three and a half hours, resulting in 32,000 liter wort.

Schneider Weisse uses top fermenting yeasts in open fermentation tanks, where each tank can take 32,000 liter wort. The fermentation starts after roughly one day. After 2-3 days a Kräusen is formed, on top of the wort, protecting it from micro organisms in the air. Some of this Kräusen, which is basically yeast cells floating to the top of the brew, is harvested and later reused to start fermentation in new batches of beer.

After seeing the brewhouse, we were led over to the bottling plant. This is a fully automated bottling plant with a capacity of 40,000 bottles per hour. The view from the second floor viewing platform was absolutely breathtaking. Along the viewing platform guests could also view some older bottling machines and even try their hands on a simple manual bottle filler. Part of the tour was actually to pour and cap my own bottle of Schneider Weisse Original, which I could then bring with me home as a souvenir!

The modern bottling line at Weisses Brauhaus in Kelheim

After the tour of the brewery, it was time to taste the beer so our group was led over to the brewery tap right next to the brewery. There we were given tasters of seven of the Schneider Weisse beers in order of growing strength, from the mild Kristall to rich Hopfen-Weisse.

All of the Scheider Weisse beers now have a unique Tap number, in addition to their old names, and these were the ones we got to taste:

- Schneider Weisse Tap 3 Mein Alkoholfreies
- Schneider Weisse Tap 2 Mein Kristall (5.3% filtered weizen)
- Schneider Weisse Tap 1 Meine Blonde Weisse (5.2% hefeweizen)
- Schneider Weisse Tap 7 Unser Original (5.4% hefeweizen)
- Schneider Weisse Tap 4 Mein Grünes (6.2% hoppy hefeweizen)
- Schneider Weisse Tap 6 Unser Aventinus (8.2% weizen bock)
- Schneider Weisse Tap 5 Meine Hopfen-Weisse (8.2% hoppy weizen bock)

Tap 5 is the same beer originally brewed in collaboration with Brooklyn Brewery's Garrett Oliver as Schneider & Brooklyner Hopfen-Weisse in 2007.

Bottles of Schneider Weisse tasted on the brewery tour.

After the end of the official program I moved out into the cozy biergarten in the back of Weisses Brauhaus, it was a bit quiet in late September (and cold after sunset!), but I found it a great place to contemplate the long history of this place and of Bavarian wheat beers in general, while indulging in a fresh Schneider Weisse Original from draft, the only beer on draft during my visit.

Next time I'd love to come back in July, to spend a long summer evening out in the biergarten.

Schneider Weisse Original, first brewed 1872
- in the biergarten at Weisses Brauhaus.

More photos from the visit to Kelheim and Weisses Brauhaus are found at Flickr.

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