In the foothills of the Alps, Schönramer Brewmaster Eric Toft is a tinkerer and fine-tuner of highly addictive lagers.
Published: Apr 6, 2020
We could start at the beginning—with the careful selection of ingredients, for example. Instead, we’re going to do this differently and start at the end—at the point of consumption.
Yes, let’s start with the drinking.
The Bavarians, you might have heard, drink a lot of beer. Per capita, the Czechs next door are the undisputed champs, drinking about 143 liters (or almost 38 gallons) per person each year. After them, Germans and Austrians are neck-and-neck at about 104 liters.
However, Bavaria drinks significantly more than the rest of Germany. Think of it like the number of cowboy hats owned per U.S. resident; Texas is going to skew that average. That’s what Bavaria does with beer. The Bavarians’ own stats say they drink about 40 percent more than the national average, putting them closer to the Czechs in thirst.
There are now more than 1,500 breweries in Germany, and the Private Landbrauerei Schönram is not one of the big ones; it brews about 94,000 barrels a year. Meanwhile the village of Schönram has only about 380 residents. The brewery sells 90 percent of its beer within a 40-mile radius.
More than three-fourths of that is the same kind of beer: Schönramer Hell.
It’s a daily staple. If you lived there, you could have it brought to your house. “We self-distribute nearly everything,” says Brewmaster Eric Toft. “We have four trucks that do home delivery, like the milkman.” You don’t even need to be home. Leave a key with the driver and some euros on the table; they’ll make change, put beer down in the cellar, and take away the empties. See you next week.
Another illustration: The Schönramer brewery built the small church across the street in 1853, largely for its employees—including those at the maltings, now defunct—but also for all the locals who walked for miles to fill the brewery’s pub on Sundays. The priest received compensation in the form of beer—156 liters per month.
Today, in keeping with tradition, Schönramer’s 55 employees—like those of many other German breweries—get a monthly beer allotment in addition to their take-home pay. It’s not as much as it used to be. Today, they receive “only” 120 liters. That’s the equivalent of roughly 56 American 6-packs. Per month.
To be that supreme in the drinking of beer, you must have beer that is supremely drinkable—that is a product not only of tradition, but of art and science—many generations of fine-tuning.
At Schönram, the guy who’s been doing that fine-tuning for the past two decades happens to be from Wyoming.
Odds are, you’ve never heard of Schönram. The brewery isn’t huge, and it doesn’t export much. It’s in a remote part of Bavaria, and the village isn’t a tourist destination. So, why write about Schönramer beer?
It would be dishonest of me to not come out and say this: This brewery makes two of my favorite beers, both of which I’ve consumed in fairly large quantities over the past five years. These are not fly-by-night fancies; they have become dear friends, welcomed into my home and met again out on the town.
The Schönramer Pils is, for my money, the best in Germany—bearing in mind that (1) it is virtually impossible to taste every Pils in Germany, though I’ve made a fair run at it; and (2) my personal tastes run hoppy (yet noble). Fresh Schönramer Pils is bitter, but malty enough to hold it; it is jam-packed with spicy-floral-lemony aroma and flavor; and it is difficult to stop drinking. To me, most other German Pilsners seem drab in comparison.
The Hell, meanwhile, is simply addictive. It is a pure expression of light, sweet malt but with a touch more bitterness—a soft, smooth bitterness, mind you—than any Munich helles. And while it starts lightly sweet, it finishes dry, leaving you wanting more. And more. And so on.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. You can ask Matt Brynildson, brewmaster at Firestone Walker. He says the Hell “has been a benchmark beer for me and certainly was one of the beers that we thought about when formulating Firestone Lager.” Brynildson cites Eric Toft’s thoughtful use of hops, yeast management, and open fermentation.
Yvan De Baets, cofounder and brewer at Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels, has told me many times that he believes Toft is one of the best brewers in the world. “He has the precision of a Swiss clockmaker when he brews, but remains very humble,” De Baets says. “His knowledge in malt and hops is simply incredible. He also has a huge respect for his yeast and the time she will need for making a good job. And he makes to perfection the ultimate ‘brewer’s beer’—a German Pilsner.”
Schönramer Pils, De Baets says, “is for me the best in the world, with its perfect depth in maltiness, super-refined noble hop character, and sharp-but-clean bitterness.” Toft, De Baets says, is “a real mentor to me.”
The consistent excellence of those beers is why I went to Schönram to talk at length with Toft. I wanted to know what makes them tick. My selfish hope is that a few American brewers read this, take notes, and try to make something like it—so that eventually I get to drink more of this kind of thing.
It’s a hot, sunny, mid-June day when my train arrives at a station near Schönram. Toft picks me up. He is not wearing lederhosen. Based on what I had heard about him, this is slightly disappointing.
Toft speaks excellent German, in local dialect. The brewery’s website says, “He is just a genuine Bavarian with American roots.” He does, in fact, own several sets of lederhosen. The scenery suits him. He looks like the type of relatively fit, kind of tanned, upper-middle-aged dude who goes skiing a lot. And so he does. “It’s a lot like Wyoming,” he says. “I mean, obviously.”
Schönram sits in hilly but not-yet-mountainous terrain about 1,500 feet above sea level. The Alps are just south of here. Salzburg, Austria, is a 20-minute drive away. Here there are rolling valleys, clumps of forest, and lakes for summer swimming. On the horizon, however, are more dramatic peaks. Yonder to the southeast is a mass of tabletop mountain called the Untersberg, which peaks at 6,473 feet. During ski season, it’s not unusual for brewery workers to hit the slopes after their shifts. “From here, between 15 minutes and one and a half hours are 70 ski areas,” Toft says.
It’s not ski weather on this day though. Did I mention it’s hot? It is, frankly, the perfect sort of day to stroll indoors through a cool, labyrinthine brewery, interspersed with refrigerated rooms, while sucking down the occasional bottle of cold, perfect lager, and asking questions. Lots and lots of questions.
The local water is subalpine—literally, the Alps are just over there—and rich in bicarbonates, which can make beer taste harsh. Toft says that at Schönram they use an old-fashioned method to “soften” the water: they add slaked lime, a.k.a. calcium hydroxide. That allows the bicarbonates to precipitate out. “It’s a simple physical process,” Toft says. “No ionization, no reverse osmosis.”
The hops are German aroma varieties from Hallertau and Tettnang—and Toft is especially fond of the Tettnanger. In fact, he loves the Hallertauer Mittelfrüh that is grown—perhaps confusingly—in Tettnang. “It’s just the terroir down there serves the aroma much better,” Toft says. “The stuff from Tettnang is floral. And the Tettnanger-Tettnanger is more lemony.”
He blends his hop varieties to maintain as consistent a character as possible, especially for the helles. In the summer of 2019, for example, he was blending two harvest years of Hallertauer Tradition, Select, and a bit of Saphir. The Pils gets Tradition and Select plus the Tettnanger Mittelfrüh and the Tettnanger- Tettnanger. “It’s all about just very, very gradual changes,” Toft says. In good harvest years he’ll buy extra, to be ready for off years. “And that happens,” he says.
Toft is keenly aware of what different hops do to his beers, even one as subtle as the helles. He emphasizes sensory analysis more than most German brewers—a practice he picked up in Belgium, while brewing for now-defunct Lamot in Mechelen. “The Belgians were after, ‘What’s something a little bit more special?’ With the Germans, as long as something was true to style, that was okay. But the Belgians would taste and see.”
He is devoted to aroma varieties and avoids the big-bittering, “high-alpha-citrus” ones. “There’s a cloying aspect that builds up on your palate that you can’t really explain,” Toft says. But with great beers, “you have to make a conscious effort to stop drinking them.”
For malt, the brewery buys less-modified varieties from smaller maltings. These better suit their decoction brewing; they can tailor the malt to their needs. These days, malt has become more heavily modified to make mashing easier for breweries—a change driven especially by the larger industrial ones. “And I don’t like easy,” Toft says. “It’s always a problem if you start hurrying and rushing things.”
Until 1967 the brewery made its own malt. In the old days it grew its own barley, too. “It’s not really the best barley region—it was mostly feed—but since we had so much farmland, we malted our own barley. This was a gigantic farm. Brewing was sort of a side business, kind of equivalent to the saison breweries of Belgium.”
Toft identifies personally with Schönramer, saying “we” about things the brewery did two or three hundred years ago. It’s been in the hands of the same family for eight generations, since 1780—though the brewery was around long before that. Records show that a pub was here at least since 1512, and there may have been a brewery even then. The oldest records that specifically mention a brewery in Schönram date from 1643.
Sadly, the brewery’s own archives burned in a fire at the end of World War II. Toft says a U.S. soldier who was posted here fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand.
The old maltings is upstairs from the brewery, and there’s not much they can do with the space; it’s protected as a historic monument. “We have to be very careful, because these are hand-cut beams,” Toft says. Some old malting shoes are on display, hanging from one of the beams. “Those guys, they’re the reason we built the church.”
The brewhouse is beautiful but simple in the old German way. There are three vessels in a row, crammed into a space that feels a bit too small. The floor is brick, and hops hang from the vaulted ceiling.
The Hell and Pils both get 100 percent Pilsner malt, as do the Gold—a sneaky festbier of 5.7 percent strength; and the Saphir Bock—jammed with floral-hops, dangerous at 8 percent.
On this day, they’re brewing the Hell, as they are most days. We taste some sweet, pure, golden first wort that measures 16.5° Plato (1.068). It has just gone through a relatively elaborate mash process that includes a single decoction—all the Schönramer beers get one.
“We prefer to do a decoction because we want the control over the conversion and the attenuation,” Toft says. “I try a couple of infusion beers every year, just so I can say that I did, keeping tabs on it.” But he never likes the results; they don’t attenuate enough for his taste.
“I like brewing beers crisp and dry,” he says. “The Hell and Pils both get 86 to 87 percent attenuation. The stronger Gold also is well-attenuated.” Even the maltier Schönramer Dunkel gets 77 to 78 percent attenuation, he says.
Is the decoction strictly necessary? “Well, you don’t have to,” Toft says. “But our beer would not be the same without it.” The point is to get that higher attenuation for greater drinkability.
“The worst case,” he says, “is that people stop at two beers.”
The typical mash, for the Hell or the Pils, goes something like this: Mash in at 118°F (48°C); raise to 122–131°F (50–55°C) and then to 140°F (60°C) for brief rests; then raise to 149°F (65°C). However, Toft tweaks it from year to year, depending on how modified the malt is. “The mash regime always depends on the malt and the harvest,” he says. “I am constantly adjusting.”
Then it’s time for the decoction.
Three quarters of the mash is removed, leaving one quarter to be boiled for the decoction. How long it boils depends on the beer. For the lighter, paler beers like the Hell and Pils, it is only brought to boiling temperature before rejoining the rest of the mash. For the brewery’s darker beers—such as the Dunkel, Festbier, or Imperial Stout—the decoction might boil as long as 10 minutes. Reuniting the mash brings it to 170°F (77°C), where it’s held for five minutes before mash out.
The boil is only 60 to 65 minutes, but the brewers manage it carefully. Toft wants to see evaporation of at least 5.5 percent, to avoid problems with DMS.
The Hell gets three hops additions, with 50, 30, and 15 minutes left in the boil. It’s not only a bit drier but also a touch more bitter than the classic Munich examples, usually checking in at about 20 IBUs. Over the years, Toft has increased the beer’s attenuation by about 3 percent, and its hopping by about 20 percent—all for the sake of greater drinkability.
The Pils, meanwhile, gets five hops additions: in the first wort; at 55, 15, and three minutes left in the boil; then an aroma burst of Tettnang and Mittelfrüh at whirlpool. These days, they bitter the Pils to the tune of about 40 IBUs. “We’ve been as high as 50,” Toft says. “But it really depends on the harvest because it’s also about perceived bitterness.”
Toft says that when he came to the brewery in 1998, the Pils “was like the helles with a little more hops.” Eventually he started making adjustments. “For the first year and a half, I did nothing to any of the beers.” So he had to laugh when longtime customers—aware that an American had taken over as brewmaster—almost immediately started complaining about how the beer was not as good anymore.
“And then I started fine-tuning, tweaking details,” he says. “And especially the Pils, I started jacking it up. Because I was always a Pils drinker. So at the end of the day, that’s probably the beer I’ve fucked with the most.”
The brewery uses three kinds of yeast, since it produces ale and wheat beer in addition to its lagers. The lager yeast, Toft says, is a descendant of a famous strain from Weihenstephan. “Yeah, I’m sure it’s a mutation of 34/70,” he says. “It goes back.”
Schönramer Hell is the brewery’s dynamo. Its kräusen is fuel for all the other lagers. The whole place runs on it.
The place to see this is the huge cellar that is home to the yawning open fermentors. At virtually all times, most of these are filled with helles. After 24 to 48 hours, when fermentation is most active, the kräusen is pulled and set aside for an incoming batch of wort (which, again, is usually more helles).
Among the benefits of open fermentation is what Toft calls aufstinken—not a word I’d heard before and not one, I suppose, you’ll find in your German brewing texts. It means “stink out,” since the volatiles escape into the atmosphere. Another word for it is “off-gassing.” In the end you get a cleaner beer.
These larger fermentors are only for the Hell. There are smaller ones in the next room for the other beers, including the Pils. (It seems like everywhere I look, gorgeous, marshmallowy kräusen is poking up out of vessels.)
Schönramer lagers its Hell for four to six weeks. The Pils and Dunkel go for six to seven weeks, while the festbier and bock go for at least 10. Patience is obligatory.
When I ask Toft what holds more American brewers back from making better lagers, he begins with one word: “Time.”
Toft studied geology and geophysics at the Colorado School of Mines. He was probably bound for Arabian oil fields. “Then I decided my senior year, about Thanksgiving, to come to Germany.” After that he did more European travel.
“My favorite countries were Germany and Belgium,” he says. “Because of the beer! I’m not ashamed to admit that. The beer, the people in the taverns. I’m like, ‘This is paradise!’”
He has lived in Bavaria now for 32 years. At the age of 46, he picked up a euphonium, a tenor horn, after not playing it since he was a teen. “I play in a brass band,” he says. “I feel pretty integrated. I feel more European than American these days.”
Over beers I prod him for more advice for brewers. “Time,” he repeats. “Ingredients. If you’re doing lagers, you’ve got to use the traditional hop varieties. You should at least look at a multistep protein mash. Geometry. And time. Just respecting temperatures, time, ingredients. You can’t get a lager, helles, Pils or export-style beer through the brewery the same way you get an ale.”
He also strongly endorses using kräusen to ferment lager beers. “Only with kräusening can you get the proper aging, the desired maturation process,” he says. However, that means more gear in the brewhouse. “You’re looking at 50 percent more equipment for the same amount of beer.”
Time for another helles. It’s delicious, if not a beer that will blow anyone’s mind at first gulp. Yet, after the last one, there is that familiar decision-making process—well, what the hell, why not another?
“For me, that’s the craft,” Toft says. “Making a helles. Some people don’t like to hear that, but hitting that mark again, and again, and again—that’s the real craft, and the brewer’s art.”
Photos: Joe Stange