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Zoigl beer in Windischeschenbach: A magic formula to bust a bad mood

Something’s killing Bavaria’s pubs. It has been raging for years and has already claimed many victims. So many, in fact, that one in four towns and villages in Bavaria no longer has a pub. It’s a menace that has all of Bavaria shaking in its boots. Wait. All of Bavaria? Not quite. In the deepest reaches of the Oberpfälzer Wald, near Bavaria’s border with the Czech Republic, there’s a powerful antidote. To find it, we’ll follow a mysterious, six-pointed star.

It is autumn. The last day of a long weekend. We’ve cycled nearly 200 kilometres through the Oberpfälzer Wald and gained 4,000 metres in elevation. Two days ago, the weather was mixed. Now it’s just plain rotten. Non-stop rain and an icy wind from the east are wearing on our moods and splitting our group of five into two camps: Those who packed light are shivering while the others just keep pulling more layers of clothing from their packs. It’s Clothed-in-Comfort versus Team Goosebumps. The Goosebumps are outnumbered and there is a lot of tension in the group.

Through an enchanted forest to Zoiglland

There are two reasons we didn’t turn back despite the awful circumstances. One was the surroundings. The Oberpfälzer Wald could easily be the location for a Robin Hood movie. There are brooks, cliffs, deep ravines, and fortresses – all the makings of a real magic forest. The other reason was Zoigl beer. And it was waiting for us in the town of Windischeschenbach.

Our companion Eddi is the one who turned us on to Zoigl. Eddi was born and raised in the region and spent his childhood in Windischeschenbach. It makes no sense to us now, but for years Eddi kept to himself the knowledge that his hometown is a secret bastion for beer. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that he took us to Windischeschenbach (or “Eschawo”, as he calls it) to celebrate his birthday. We’ve been rabid fans ever since.

500 years of home brewing

Zoigl is a bottom-fermented lager that’s low in carbonation. Doesn’t sound all that spectacular, does it? What makes Zoigl special is the tradition behind it. In the 15th century, all citizens of Windischeschenbach and nearby towns in the region were given a special privilege: They could brew and publicly serve their own beer. Because this brewing right is attached to the land and buildings rather than individuals, it has been passed down from generation to generation and is still very actively used today.

Then and now, a real Zoigl is brewed in the town’s communal brewhouse. Citizen brewers operate the brewhouse cooperatively and everyone can use it. The brewers whose turn it is simply bring their ingredients in and get to work. Tradition is important here, too. The mash of water and barley is still cooked in an open copper (wort kettle) over a wood fire. After adding the hops, the brewers take the wort home to ferment in their own private cellars.

Compared with today’s high-tech brewing processes, Zoigl production seems pretty archaic. But that’s exactly what gives the beer its charm. Because the various factors can’t be reproduced exactly and because each brewer uses his own recipe, every batch tastes just a little bit different. So it’s almost impossible to “burn out” on Zoigl.

Democracy in action: All are equal before Zoigl

But drinking is only part of the story, a small part. After all, Zoigl is more than just a beer. It’s an experience. Locals like to drink their Zoigl in company. And that’s where the “Zoiglstuben” come in. Originally, the beer was served in the brewer’s own living room (“Stube” in German). Only recently have the brewing families established dedicated “pub rooms” in their homes. But the living-room atmosphere remains to this day. Guests sit elbow-to-elbow at a shared table (“Zoigltisch”). Everyone is on a first-name basis and everybody talks with everybody else. Even when the Zoiglstube is already packed (and they always are), nobody has to go home thirsty. On the contrary, for every newcomer, everyone simply scoots a little closer together. Whether the new drinking companion is a native, an incomer, a regular, or a newbie makes no difference. Before Zoigl, all are equal.

That is true for guests as well as the brewers themselves. There’s no competition among the Zoigl pubs. Folks in this region are much too pragmatic for that. Zoigl brewers have a calendar in which they divvy up the year and the patrons. Zoigl is only served Friday through Monday and every week a different set of brewers has a turn at selling their brews. They hang a distinctive six-pointed star, the “Zoiglstern” at the front of the house to announce to tourists and other newcomers that their pubs are open for business. Locals and other insiders simply check the Zoigl calendar or the Zoigl app before heading out. As much as folks here love tradition, they also depend on modern technology when time is of the essence. And what could be more urgent than finding your next Zoigl?

Forget Oktoberfest — try Zoigling

Dying pubs? The inhabitants of Zoiglland have only heard about it in the news. Windischeschenbach alone, population 5,000, has no less than 15 Zoigl pubs. And there are more than 50 in the region. Almost none of them are professional restaurateurs. Being a Zoigl brewer isn’t a way to earn a living. It’s a passion. The incredibly low prices would never be possible otherwise. A half-litre glass of Zoigl costs just 1.70 euros. For two to five euros more, you get a hearty snack of bread, cold cuts, and cheese. No wonder word about Zoigl has gotten out as far as England. The London Times recently declared “Forget Oktoberfest — Try Zoigling”.

Highly drinkable beer and a crowded Zoigl pub can quickly go to your head. But I’ve never seen Zoigl lead to an unpleasant or dicey situation. No matter how late it gets or how many Zoigl are served, the atmosphere is always relaxed and peaceable. In this atmosphere, the tensions among our little group of five don’t stand a chance. We sit, each with a glass. The furnace is roaring. The beer is cold. The food is good…and enough to feed ten of us. Rain? Cold? Flat tires? All is forgotten after the first sip. I have often asked myself where people in this region get their equanimity. Slowly but surely, it’s becoming clear to me. They go to bed each night with the delicious knowledge that there’ll be Zoigl again the next weekend.

We found our route and GPS coordinates at MTB-Oberpfalz. If you want to do a lot of Zoigling, you’ll want to move the start and finish to Windischeschenbach. More inspiration for tours is available here (in German).

The three pictures showing the brewing and tapping process were kindly provided by the tourist information Neustadt (Tourismuszentrum Oberpfälzer Wald Landkreis Neustadt/WN) and Mr. Reinhold Zapf.

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