Our guest blogger Emma Inch knows a thing or two about beer. A beer writer, audio-maker and ‘British Beer Writer of the Year Award’ winner, she judges beer at several competitions including the World Beer Awards. In this article, Emma gets to grips with the ingredients and Bavarian craft that make Hofmeister stand out from the crowd.
Ask people to tell you what beer is made of and a lot of them will say hops. Some may also know about malted barley and water, and a handful may even be aware that yeast is involved somewhere in the process. But for Erich Schweiger – CEO of Privatbrauerei Schweiger in Bavaria where every bottle of Hofmeister is brewed – there are two other ingredients just as significant: people and time.
Erich’s family have lived and worked in Markt Schwaben, a small town roughly 25 kilometres east of Munich, since 1750.
‘We always worked with grains like barley, wheat, whatever,’ he explains, ‘We’ve been millers until 1934 when my grandfather had to leave the mill because he was the second-born son – the second-born has always to go – and he was a little farmer then but he wanted to work with grain. So, his first idea was starting a bakery but that was not allowed at the time, I don’t know why. So, he thought well, not a bakery, I’ll just start a brewery!’
The brewery is still independent and run by the same family. It’s been brewing Hofmeister beer since the brand’s relaunch in 2016. With around eighty employees, it’s now managed by third and fourth generation family members, with the fifth generation already waiting in the wings. For Erich, this autonomy and consistency is vital to the brewery and the beer it produces.
‘To be independent… gives us the freedom to do what we want, to make the beers as we want, and we don’t have to make every new thing which comes, every new beer, every modern thing,’ he tells me.
But being an independent, family-run business also gives the brewery a long-term thinking that many big corporations lack. When it invests, it doesn’t need to see a return in three years, or even five. It can invest in terms of generations, in terms of its own people, the people who are so crucial to its success, and who will be running the brewery in a few decades time.
This notion of continuity and the importance of time is apparent across the entire brewing process. In 2013, the brewery became one of the first in Bavaria to be awarded the Slow Brewing Seal, a quality seal awarded by the Slow Brewing Institute that recognises competence, authenticity, a commitment to sustainability, and an acknowledgement of the need to take time when producing beer.
‘For beer, time is the key to quality. That’s what I believe,’ explains Erich. ‘If you make slow, cold-fermented, cold-maturation beer it is just better than the same thing forced. We have breweries in Germany – I’m sure they are also in England – they make a beer in two weeks and it tastes like beer. It’s not bad beer. It’s a beer. For us we take from four to six weeks for the same process, but the beer is better. The taste is, as we say, rounder. Time makes better beer. That’s what I believe.’
Achieving and retaining the Slow Brewing Seal is not easy. The brewery must send samples of its beer for analysis at the Technical University in Munich every month and is subject to a major audit once a year. However, Erich describes the brewery’s values as already very closely aligned to those of the Slow Brewing Institute, and this obvious commitment to quality, and a rootedness in the local area, is apparent in the ingredients used in every beer.
Hofmeister is produced in accordance with the Bavarian Purity Law, a piece of legislation that has its roots in a decree issued over five centuries ago. In 1516, the Duke of Bavaria announced the Reinheitsgebot, a ruling that restricted the ingredients permitted for use in brewing to just barley, hops and water (at the time the role of yeast was not yet fully understood). The decree was intended to regulate the price of beer, ban the use of wheat in order to protect supplies for bread-making, and to prevent brewers from adding flavourings or preservatives in the form of herbs or other potentially psychoactive or toxic substances.
With some amendments – most notably the inclusion of wheat as a permitted ingredient - the ruling still stands today. Although some, particularly in this modern age of experimental brewing, may see it as limiting, Erich embraces it.
‘I would do it without law. I think it’s very unique. And it…gives you a lot of skills because if you work to this you have to know things a brewery not working according to this law doesn’t have to know. They use chemical enzymes or whatever. We have to do everything with our four natural ingredients. So we have the skills. We can do it and we really love to do it. So it’s not only by law, it’s by heart.’
The purity of Hofmeister begins with the water used to brew it. Thanks to a 150 metre deep well located in the middle of the brewery, brewing water is drawn from an underground lake beneath the Ebersberger Forest. The water down there is extremely old – perhaps between 5000 and 10,000 years old – and, as a result, is incredibly pure. So pure in fact, that the brewery is permitted to sell it as Silenca, their own brand of mineral water.
‘We are lucky,’ says Erich. ‘This well was built in the eighties – now it would be really hard to get the permission [to dig it]. It’s very, very good water and very, very pure. And water is the main ingredient in beer so it’s very important.’
By volume, the next biggest ingredient of beer is malted barley, and the malted barley used to brew Hofmeister is special for two reasons. Firstly, the area to the east of Munich, where the brewery is located, is home to many cereal growers so all the barley used is grown within a few kilometres of the brewery. Secondly, the brewery has its own maltings on site. This is where the fresh barley can be made ready for brewing through a process involving controlled germination and kilning.
Erich tells me that his grandfather built the malthouse in the 1960s, just as many other brewery maltings were closing.
‘We have all these farmers around Markt Schwaben and they deliver their barley to us from the beginning to the end of July, whenever the weather is good and we have the harvest. So these farmers come with their little trucks and we make our own malt out of it.’
Having a maltings on-site reduces the distance that this ingredient has to travel, but it also has another important benefit as Erich explains:
‘Because of our own maltery we can make agreements with the farmers to grow some species of old barley which are nearly gone because the amount you get out of one acre is not so high. So we have to pay a bit more money for the farmer so we get this particular sort of barley which we like for our beer. And in the end, we use three to four different species of barley which changes the character of our beer…and that we can do because we have our own maltery. Otherwise it would be much more difficult.’
Four different hops are used to brew Hofmeister and most are grown relatively near the brewery. North of Munich, around 50 kilometres from the brewery, lies the world’s largest hop-growing region: the Hallertau. It is here that three of the hops – Northern Brewer, Perle and Hallertauer Tradition are sourced. The fourth, Tettnang Tettnanger – to which Erich attributes Hofmeister’s smooth, hoppy taste - is grown on the north shore of Lake Constance, near the Swiss border.
The water, malt and hops – together with the brewery’s own yeast – come together to brew sound beers. But on their own, they wouldn’t be enough to brew quality beers like Hofmeister. As Erich explains, a little more is required.
‘Passion is very important. Time is very important. You have to have good ingredients as for cooking; good ingredients are always the basics. You have to have the right employees…And then you have to have the art of making.’
People and time: great beer can’t be made without them. The brewery’s attention to detail, its integrity, and its obvious commitment to quality is apparent in every sip of Hofmeister. There’s an honesty to the beer, as there is to the brewery in which it is made, and a quality that can only come from a brewery striving to brew its best.
‘It’s like in sport,’ Erich explains, ‘You always have to want more, to become better every day. That’s what we always say: make no compromise.’