Friday, 7 August 2009

A little piece of heaven

I had a plan. Not just a plan, but a printed itinerary and a bespoke pub guide. Including bus timetables and maps. That's the sort of bloke I am. Scarily organised. But, you guessed it, things didn't quite go to plan . . . .

We started the day by taking the train from Forchheim to Ebermannstadt. Thankfully, I persuaded Mike a taxi from Roter Ochs to the station was a good idea. My luggage seemed to have doubled in weight with the addition of the bottles of beer generously given me by Nick and Jim. The driver was the same one who had driven us in the opposite direction two days earlier. Small town this Forchheim.

I decided to lighten my burden while we were waiting on the platform and popped the Bock. 7.2% ABV. The perfect breakfast beer. Yet even before we'd left Forchheim, I knew my plan was in trouble.

Our intended destination was Brauerei Meister in Unterzaunsbach. Just 3 minutes on the train to Pretzfeld, then a bus. The latter was the sticking point. It only runs five times on Saturday. And we'd miss the 11:16. As the we tootled along through fields of yellow grain framed by dark green woods we discussed our options. "This Bock is really rather nice." "Can we get back to the matter in hand, Ron?" "If you insist."

There was a fallback plan. I told you I'm scarily organised. When it comes to beer. The rest of my life is a mess. "There are a couple of alternatives in Pretzfeld." I showed Mike my little map. "What's the blue marker mean?" "That's a beer garden." "And the red ones?" "Pubs. And a brewery. One that's a bit of an oddity around here. A new brewery."

Mike looked at the pub entries. I could have predicted which would catch his eye. "What's the scale of this map?" "No idea." "How far is it from the station to this pub?" He pointed at a marker almost off the the edge "No idea." He was starting to look unimpressed with my preparations. Bloody cheek.

By now we'd rolled into Ebermannstadt. The air was accented by the acrid smoke of a steam locomotive. I'd explained to Mike several times about the preserved railway that continued on from Ebermannstadt where the DB line ended. But he still seemed surprised. He's as bad as Dolores. Never pays attention to what I say.

A friendly old dear who couldn't have been much younger than 80 booked us into Brauerei Gasthof Sonne. There wasn't another soul to be seen. I noticed a pile of Brauwelts behind the desk. "I subscribe to that." "Really." Mike didn't sound very impressed.

Luggage dumped, we were soon back at the station. The steam locomotive was still pootering about the yard, coughing smoke. The platform was filled with teenagers, bound for the bright lights of Forchheim. I could see how it would appear like Chicago compared to Ebermannstadt.

I'd imagined Pretzfeld as a small town. Walking through it, I was reminded of the cluttered villages between Eisenach and Mühlhausen, windy streets without room for a pavement and barns sedately returning to dust. Very nice. Except when a car came past.

Blow me. I've forgotten to tell you which pub so took Mike's fancy. Richter. Gasthaus und Metzgerei Richter to give it its full title. It was the Metzgerei bit that grabbed Mike. Butcher. You don't get many pub butchers in Britain. Or anywhere else I can think of, apart from Bavaria. This one had yet one more attraction. It was a distillery, too.

Problem was, it wasn't in Pretzfeld, but Hagenbach, the next village. Mike was still keen. A bit like one of my kids. "Please, dad, can we go to the distillery - butchers - pub? Can we? Please." "OK, if it's not too far. Let's see how long it takes to walk to Nikl-Bräu. That's about a third of the way."

We hadn't got that far when Mike spotted a signpost: Hagenbach 1.6 km. Just a mile. Even I could manage that. You should have seen the look of joy on Mike's face when I finally agreed.

The walk was rather pleasant. There was even a footpath/bikepath so we weren't risking being ploughed down by a car. The road was bordered by fields of wheat and orchards with lines of gnarled apple and plum trees. Beyond, wooded hills walled the valley, broken occasionally by outcrops of bare, grey rock. As someone who scarcely ever strays outside the builtup comb (literally translated Dutch expression there) of Amsterdam, it was a rare treat. This being in the countryside thing. If the sun hadn't been shining, it would have been near perfect.

Finding Richter was no challenge. Especially as there was a sign saying "Gasthaus und Metzgerei Richter 800 m."Even without it, a search of the village would have taken less time than a Ramones number. Played live. We took seats in the beer garden.

I doubt I'll be able to do Richter justice in words. Special, magical, unique. Orchard. A distorted, ancient apple tree, boughs splaying in every direction provided the shade. The branches emerging so low from the trunk that we had to bend near double to take our places. To our right, a barn of battered and faded wood. To our left, open countryside abruptly terminated by a precipitous slope, wrapped in a green velvet cloak of trees. To our front the rest of the orchard, sunlight speckling the grass.

The waitress brought us menus, ducking her head beneath an outstretched branch. "Two Dunkles, please." "She'll end up a hunchback working here." Mike said somewhat prosaicly.

So began one of the most leisurely and pleasurable afternoons I've had in a long while. Sitting in the cool shade, listening to the crickets make cricketing noises, sipping beer and Zwetschgenbrand, tucking into perfect pork, while the sun made its slow transit across the sky. Even occasional gunfire couldn't break the spell.

We managed to tear ourselves away after four and a half hours, leaving a little piece of our hearts in that idyllic garden. Only when leaving did I notice that they should have closed an hour earlier. Yet no-one tried to shoo us away nor did they refuse our requests for more drinks.

A little piece of heaven. Right here on earth.

I debated whether to pass on the details. Richter's not a place I'd want spoiled. Please don't disappoint me.

You probably want to know what beer they sell, don't you? Penning Vollbier and Wolfshöher Pils. Not worldbeaters, but tasty enough. The Zwetschgenbrand though, now there was something. A delicate mix of plum and flowers, smooth and rounded, without a trace of alcohol burn. Nectar.

Could we possibly match such a perfect day? Tune in tomorrow and find out. You may be in for a surprise . . .

Gasthaus und Metzgerei Richter
Hagenbach 23,
91362 Pretzfeld
Tel: 09194 / 262
Fax: 09194 / 79 58 45

Mike's view

To be perfectly honest, I didn't know much about the Fränkische Schweiz before the trip (not that I am an expert about it now!). My parents were from Berlin, so I grew up with German food and culture, but this was something different.

Once we left Ebermanstadt for the countryside on Saturday morning, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Knowing Ron, I knew that beer would soon appear and that it would probably be good. When we got to Pretzfeld, I saw from the map Ron had made that three of the four pubs lay in a row - the first was across the way from the railroad station (about seven meters).

We passed the second pub (in Pretzfeld) on the way to the third: Gasthaus und Metzgerei Richter. It was a walk, but the weather was good and the walk was pleasant. As Ron has suggested, if this is what heaven is like - Lord, take me now!

Drinking beer is, for me, an experience - it includes much more than only the beer. Most of the other things are intangibles - light, sound, feeling, etc. Richter, for both Ron and me, got all those intangibles just right. It didn't take us more than one or two beers to decide to skip the plans for the afternoon and just stay in this idyllic place.

I found it ironic that here was a pub that had gotten virtually everything right, yet would not even be a blip on the pub radar of Ratebeer or Beeradvocate. Afterall, they had only two beers, neither of which is very well known outside the region. Schnapps (did Ron mention the butcher also made his own distillates?) usually also falls beneath the radar of self-proclaimed "beer geeks." Well, that's fine with me.

We ended up staying at Richter about four hours. I could have stayed longer, but we had a train to catch (not to mention that the place was essentially closed and we were the last guests). Our waitress even opened the butcher shop for me before we left so that I could buy some meat to bring home.

The next day (Sunday) we were to have a similar, but not the same, experience in another small village. I wonder how many more there are?


Knut Albert said...

Great post. This is beer writing as beer writing should be!

Matt said...

Yes, it reminds me of Hermann Hesse's description of a Sunday afternoon crawl around German country pubs at the end of 'The Prodigy' (minus the drowning!)

Mark Andersen said...

Oh how I love Franconia!

I was lucky enough to visit the nearby Brauerei Penning in Hetzelsdorf and other breweries in the same area South of Forcheim about a week before Annafest.

Very nice beer but the ride up to Hetzelsdorf and the sorrounding scenery was spectacular.