Where? Franconia is a region in Northern Bavaria.
Topography? Hilly, lush green with dense forests and stoney outcroppings.
How big? It’s about the size of West Virginia.
How many? There are around 300 breweries in this small area.
When? Now, this is the last beer frontier. It’s changing every day and may not be around in this authentic a form for long.
As a writer, you hate to resort to cliches. They’re overused and often simplistic but sometimes, even if you avoid the actual common phrases themselves, you wind up using the ideas within so strongly that the reader hears them in their head while reading anyway. So, I am going to just come out and say it, sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for. You just may get it. My combined love of hiking and seeking out new beers coupled with a fascination with maps often takes the fantastical form of imaginary trails dotted in beery wonder. I often tell my wife, you can blame Google Maps’ saved favorites for my preoccupation for such imaginings.
Since I’ve done portions of all the major beer trails and have spent far too much time looking at maps, it was a lot easier than I had imagined devising the route of my dreams. Within a couple hours, I had a trail that linked 5 major beer hiking circuits with 18 breweries along the way. The only catch was it was a little over 100 kilometers (a bit more than 60 miles) and I didn’t want to spend too much time away from home so I broke it into what seemed 4 manageable days. I found a few potential breweries to spend the night and I sent off e-mails requesting my dates. To be honest, it was a bit spontaneous and I didn’t actually expect to get all the rooms. When I told my wife what I’d done, she smiled surely thinking it wouldn’t pan out. Within a couple days, I had my rooms and that’s when my second guessing kicked in. Though I’d kept up with my hiking, I hadn’t backpacked in years and now the thought of carrying my gear for four days was a bit daunting. I started having doubts, at 58 with a shaky knee and touchy back, but I knew if I backed out of it, I might not ever do it. If what you wish for comes true, what can you do, but do it.
Early morning Pegnitz
So, I set off early on an ICE train to Nuremburg from Munich, switching to a regional train to Pegnitz. The initial forecast for the week was bleak and it would have been easy to fall back on that as an excuse, but I made sure all my rain gear was in order and even broke out my old sturdy hiking boots, rather than the new lighter style low ones I’d been using for day hikes in the Alps. As soon as I got to Pegnitz with darkening skies, I was glad I had, and even more glad when I started on the trail with my pack on. I’d forgotten the strain on your feet when you have that extra weight to carry.
I’d passed by Pegnitz a few times on the train but had never been there and though a cute enough town, there was no time to enjoy it so I set off for the Kleiner Klum, a small hill with a fire tower type lookout. The lookout was a bit disappointing view-wise but it was a nice trail to reach it and it meant the tough part of the morning was over and I was close to my first brewery.
Part of the trail leading to the Kleiner Klum
I’d made good time when I walked through the door of the Herold Brewery in Büchenbach. It’s a classic old Franconian pub, awash in wood and most importantly, their dark brew is still gravity dispensed without C02 from a small wooden barrel. It’s a magical beer in its simplicity, dry and fruity with slight chocolate notes and a clean dry finish. With so many breweries on the trail, I’d decided to just have one beer in each place so pushed on for nearby Leups, where the next brewery awaited me.
Interior of Herold Brewery with wooden barrel
Gradl is an even more rustic affair than Herold and only a few locals reading the paper were on hand. A young boy of maybe 9 was waiting on the tables, most likely a grandson. Many of these breweries have been in the same family for hundreds of years. I’ve seen a few close down in my Franconian beer drinking time so it’s good to see young people taking an interest in the family business. Their sole beer, a dark beauty paired well with the tasty Bratwurst and fresh dark bread the boy fetched. This was where it got hard. Walking away after one beer here was not easy but I still had 3 breweries and some tough walking ahead of me.
Gradl’s majestic dark brew paired with local bratwurst
The Kürzdörfer Brewery is half-way through the Bierquellenwanderweg. This beery trail is based on another walk that passes by ancient springs and in this case, the springs are flowing with beer. It was the busiest of all the brewpubs that day. Their dark beer is serviceable and their food is excellent from the satisfied looks on the diners’ faces. I had a small beer and walked through the dense forest past one of the real springs en route to Zum Fichta in Weiglathal. Though it stopped brewing in 2010, their tasty dark lager is contract brewed but still lagered on the premises in their nearby Keller. It’s a scenic spot and the half-timbered building charming.
Zum Fichta in Weiglathal
That was my last stop on the Bierquellenwanderweg and now I’d have to go off trail a bit to connect to the next area. Some of it would be on small roads but to avoid the larger road entirely I routed myself through a few forests where there appeared to be a trail of sorts. Remnants of a trail would be a better description and I was happy not only for having bought the GPS but also that the weather had taken a turn for the better. At any rate, despite the trail and the hillier than expected terrain, I was soon in Hintergereuth and the Stöckel Brewery loomed on the horizon with the soon to be setting sun shedding glowing light on it. The friendly owner welcomed me to their fine country pub but with the nice weather, I took my dark beer and a small snack of cold cuts on buttered dark break with a pickle outside. I finally felt the first day was in the bag with only one more stretch to walk so I broke my one beer rule and had another.
Stöckel-Bräu in Hintergereuth
The last 90 minutes of zigzagging through open farmland with the sun going down was like a scene out of Grapes of Wrath, with corn and wheat fields coaxing me on to my final destination. Unfortunately, there was no brewery in Kirchahorn, but the Gasthaus Fränkishe Schweiz would serve me well. I walked gingerly into town around 10 hours after my start and close to 30 kilometers from Pegnitz. A hot shower never felt so good and reminded me of the comforts of Inn backpacking over tenting it. I could finally take comfort in having perhaps the hardest day behind me now. The fact that they had Held-Bräu’s renowned dark beer on tap didn’t hurt, either.
I awoke early the next morning, noticeably stiff. I expected my knee to act up but had forgotten how much your shoulders hurt after carrying a pack all day. I took a hot shower to loosen up before stretching, something I knew I’d need to do each day if I was to complete my dream trail. A hearty breakfast awaited me back in the pub. I ate every last morsel, I knew I’d need it. Nothing quite burns the calories like backpacking.
A gentle but steady climb led me to the Rabenstein Castle, a scenically perched fortress with an atmospheric stone bridge in the heart of what is fondly referred to as the Little Switzerland of Franconia. Parts of the structure date back to the early 12th century but is now a hotel in case you’ve ever wanted to stay in a medieval castle. There’s a nice Biergarten as well, but it was still relatively early and just below in the hamlet of Oberailsfeld, the local Kerwa was just getting under way at Held-Bräu. Kerwa is the local dialect for Kirchweih, a yearly celebration of the founding of the local church. For those less religiously inclined, if there is a brewery in the town in question, they are generally quite focal in the celebration and sometimes brew special beers for the occasion. You might be able to guess by now why I was there.
As expected. Held-Bräu had a tent erected outside to accommodate more people than could possibly squeeze into their cozy pub of about eight tables. Since I’d had a couple of the brewery’s most renowned dark beer the previous evening, I opted for their equally tasty lighter brew and an ample meal called Krenfleisch. Kren is their word for horseradish, which is used in the creamy sauce lavished over very tender slices of beef, much like a pot roast and served with Klöße, a large potato dumpling. Needless to say, it would have been easy to stay put but unfortunately, the Inn no longer has rooms like in former times and my bed for the night lie some 15 kilometers and 3 breweries north.
The tiny hamlet of Oberailsfeld & Krenfleisch at Held-Bräu’s Kerwa
The walk to Waischenfeld started steeply but once dropping down to the Wissent River, it was relatively flat and soon my big lunch faded into memory. The river had a cooling effect on the suddenly hot afternoon and it was idyllically decorated with a proliferation of pink flowers seemingly leading me to the incredibly scenic town with another hilltop castle. This is one of the tourist hubs in the area and also home to Heckl-Bräu, one of the best beers. Unfortunately, the brewery’s hours didn’t fit into my hike. It’s not easy to find the right course to 18 village breweries and have all of them open.
It was probably for the better considering the heat. Besides, another hamlet brewery lie a mere 30 minutes away in Nankendorf, just over the Höhenweg, always an elevated ridge trail in German. It was a tough slog but I was rewarded with pretty views of a very green valley dotted with fluffy white sheep. I finally understood the next brewery’s beer coaster symbol of a cute little lamb.
Schroll’s lamb logo & sheep in lush valley
The Schroll Brewery is part of a 3 brewery triangle hike linking it to Heckel to my south and Krug to my west. It’s a friendly little place with a great dark lager to make it worth your walk and in the colder months, a great dark bock. Sometimes, it’s a good thing the bock is not on even though it was only a fairly short stroll to Krug in Breitenlesau. This is a big player in this region and it’s not hard to find their beers in many a local Inn but it’s always nice to drink it at the source and their pub is a homey half-timbered affair next to their large modern brewing complex. I could smell the malt long before seeing the welcomed site of an open seat under a chestnut tree, a perfect place to both escape the sun and enjoy one of their many beers on tap. And I do mean one as another hour in the late day sun was on my walking agenda, as was my evening stay at local legend, Reichold in Höchstahl. I must say I needed the mantra of hot shower/cold beer to prod me on.
The Krug Brewery in Breitenlesau
This place is always busy and the hub of the Aufseß Brauereienweg. This was the most surprising reservation to get as they have meal-inclusive, minimum 2-day stays on the weekends. Coming during the week was the key. Why is it so popular? Well, the Aufseß holds the Guinness World Record for most breweries per head in the world. I guess there are four small towns in the Aufseß postal code so it may just be a technicality but no matter how you dice it, they’ve put a 14-kilometer circuit together that links the four breweries. It’s a very pretty valley but that would be for tomorrow. First, well after a shower, would come that long awaited beer and even more anticipated Schäuferla. This is the signature dish of Franconia and this place does a great one. It’s pork shoulder, with a crispy layer of pork skin on top but cooked to fall of the bone tenderness. Served with potato dumplings and a rich sauce, it’s a formidable meal. Needless to say, I had a few beers to help wash it down before falling into a food coma induced sleep.
Franconia’s signature dish: Schäuferla
After a very hearty breakfast of house-produced cold cuts, farm fresh eggs and bread, I was ready for day three. My legs were still stiff but my shoulders were starting to get used to the load. It’s amazing how quickly your body can adapt. It probably didn’t hurt that I knew this would be my easiest day. There also weren’t so many breweries to stop at and the first one was only 20 minutes away. It would have been understandable to skip but Kathi-Bräu in Heckenhof has to be one of the most charming scenic spots to have a beer I’ve ever seen. A small stone pub is cheerily decorated in flowers and the small Biergarten has ample trees and looks directly at the pub. Their dark beer is another winner but with another very short walk to the actual town of Aufeß, I was soon on my way.
Kathi-Bräu in Heckenhof
The Rothenbach Brewery, scenically situated beneath yet another hilltop castle, is the biggest of the circuit’s breweries and has rooms, as well. I imagine the food is excellent but I was still full from breakfast so opted for their serviceable dark lager before pushing on.
The Aufseßer Castle and Rothenbach brewery
Walking along the river to Sachsendorf was very pretty and fairly flat. I had been through the valley a couple times in a car and, as is typical of me, wondered what it would be like to be on foot and able to really enjoy the scenery. Well, I was finally doing it and on a glorious day.
The scenic Aufseß Valley with charming towns along the way
The Stadter Brewery is the smallest of the lot but produces perhaps its nicest beer, a dry fruity light amber brew. I was hungry so ordered a Schnitzel with potato salad and was glad I did. It was freshly pounded and breaded, and popular from the looks of my fellow beer wanderers. Now, would come the hard part. I still had another couple hours to my next brewpub’s evening accommodation. I had to leave after just one.
Stadter Brewery & their homemade Schnitzel
It was by far the hottest day so far and this was another connection hike that would pass through a lot of open farmland. I was thankful for the few forested patches along the way but enjoyed also walking along the corn and being greeted by small fields of sunflowers glowing in the last glimmer of the fading sunlight. Though it had been my shortest day at only 20 kilometers and I arrived at my most reasonable hour, the strain on my body was becoming noticeable, especially on my feet, probably the most underestimated part of the human body.
Open farmland & glowing sunflowers greeted me
The small town of Huppendorf is unremarkable except for one thing, it is home to the Huppendorfer Brewery, one of the most beloved in all of Franconia. Its familiar red logo never looked so good as when I approached it on foot for the first time. I’d been a few times by car but this was far more rewarding. It was also the first time I’d been during Biergarten season and it was already starting to fill up. So, as much as I would have liked to give the feet a rest after my shower, I dragged myself down to the little piece of paradise below my window to enjoy their renowned Vollbier, another dark fruity classic. I ate their half chicken with fried potatoes and was happy when the waitress said they still had their Export beer on tap, left over from their recent Kirchweih. It was a deep golden malty brew with a light floral hoppiness, lovely as the sun was setting. It didn’t last too long as a thunderstorm rolled in and forced me inside for my last pint of day 3. Fresh country air had me sleeping well until early crowing country roosters roused me earlier than I might otherwise have.
Huppendorfer’s renowned Vollbier & damn good chicken
Day 4 always looked like the tough one right from the inception and with 29 kilometers and 6 breweries standing between me and my train home, I got as early a start as I could. It started off going straight up but I was rewarded with some much needed bars on my phone and was able to call my wife who I’d not talked to since the previous afternoon. Huppedorfer might be a famous beer in these parts but it is still a small village and phone coverage, data and even WiFi were not part of my previous evening’s entertainment. Great beer and food were and one thing I noticed was at all the tables surrounding me, everyone was engaged, including the kids and teenagers, who without phones to divert their attention, had nothing better to do but to enjoy their families.
The hill flattened out and I was soon in the now familiar farmland I’d grown to appreciate for its gentle beauty and navigability. I found seams in the landscape that turned into trails not on my topo maps and cut a bit of distance off my hike in doing so. It led to yet another dense green wonder of a lush forest. I found myself at the Hönig Brewery and the gray sky that had been threatening to rain all morning broke open into blue patches that promised sun for my hoped for late afternoon Bierkeller visits.
The lush forest leading to Tiefenellern & the Hönig Brewery
Hönig is a fine country Inn located in Tiefenellern in what is called the Franconian Tuscany, part of the 13 Brewery Trail. I was happy to see a gravity tap wooden barrel on the bar and enjoyed my first beer of the day, a fine Pils unlike the bland mass-produced products far better known. I noticed a group getting beers at the bar and going outside so went out to discover a huge Bierkeller and decided to enjoy the weather out there, as well.
With lots of ground to cover, I got on my way to the next village of Lohndorf. I had been to both of these towns on my first beer hiking tour quite a few years ago only to find the Holzlein already closed on my arrival so I was really looking forward to finally sampling their beer and my timing would be perfect for lunch, too. Plans, as they often do, don’t quite work out and I was greeted with an all too familiar sign saying it was closed due to Betriebsurlaub. In other words, they were on vacation for a few weeks. These family enterprises close a couple times a year, generally for 2 or 3 weeks at a clip. I was a little disappointed but it’s another reason to come back to the area. Besides, with the weather getting better with each step, I knew great things were coming up just the same.
Lohndorf’s is a pretty village even with a closed brewery
So, I set off over a fair but well-treed hill to Schammeldorf, home to the Knoblach Brewery, one of my favorites. Again, this was a first summer visit for me so I was finally able to enjoy their outside seating, a superb Kellerbier and stuffed cabbage with mashed potatoes. With four amazing beers on tap, some of the hoppiest you’ll find in the region, it was not easy to leave without having another. Only the lure of three as yet unvisited places ahead of me got me to darn my backpack once again.
Knoblach’s scenic Biergarten & stuffed cabbage
The next part of the trail was what I had missed the last time around. I did walk through this valley with my wife but it was raining fairly heavily and unarmed with any concrete info on the trail, we stuck to the bike path that is probably better in very wet weather anyway. This time, I knew much better where I was going and with the sun shinning I sought out the refuge of the true and forested trail to Geisfeld, only 90 minutes away. This small town is blessed with two breweries but I’d never managed to be there when Krug was open so was very happy to find it bustling. Their Kellerbier was every bit as good as Knoblach’s and that’s saying a lot.
Happy to see the Krug Brewery in Geisfeld open
I was making good time but didn’t want to miss my planned train so marched past the town’s second brewery, Griess to their Bierkeller only 10 minutes away. I had never managed to get to their atmospheric and much photographed Bierkeller just on the edge of town. When I saw people sitting in seats I’d only seen empty previously, I felt the epic hike a total success. This place is a true classic, with a wooden house fronted beer storage Keller acting as the dispensary of their fine Kellerbier. Scenic benches and tables are either under gorgeous trees or most photogenically under wooden roofs covered in the most green moss. Places like this are timeless but there’s no telling how much longer this one will be around.
The photogenic Griesskeller of Geisfeld
The next Bierkeller was only 2 kilometers away in Roßdorf. I knew the town’s brewery, Sauer but again had not been to their Bierkeller. I didn’t know much about it either but whatever expectations I had were far surpassed when I found another gem. Their Kellerbier was again top notch and I decided to get a plate of their homemade Sülze. Call it aspic, jellied meat or head cheese, this stuff is very underrated. A perfect quick snack as you don’t need a lot of beer to wash it down. It would have been easier to stay than it was to leave and I’ll admit, I had originally played with the idea of staying the night in Geisfeld but didn’t want to stay away from home for four nights and miss the whole weekend with my wife. Now, I was here and the weather was great. The beer. The food.
The Felsenkeller of Roßdorf & Sülze mit Musik
I thought about trying to find a room but then I thought back to my room in the Aufeß. It had the strangest touch. Despite no shampoo or body gel, they had gone to the trouble of toilet paper with an inscription. It was a unicorn and a rainbow, with the words “believe in your dreams”. I thought it was a bit corny at the time but now I remembered how I got on this adventure in the first place. My wife knew it was something I wanted to do. That I wanted to make a life, a business out of something that I was passionate about. She believed in my dreams and I was going to do everything I could to get back to her that night.
The walk back to Strullendorf was not disappointing
I completed the hike I had dreamed of doing. I had drunk a beer in all but one of my planned breweries. I had been to both Bierkellers. The weather had been incredibly good. My body hadn’t failed me. In the end, I had marched to the station, to ensure I’d make that train. Ok, I had marched so intently that I had decided to stop at one more unplanned Bierkeller I had discovered last minute. It was another gem. I’d like to tell you that it caused me to miss my train and that I was sorry I fell to temptation but I can’t. I had drunk one more beer and had still made it to the station on time only to find there was construction on the line and that it was canceled. I would have to take three buses to get my train south of Nuremburg back to Munich. A 3 hour trip would take 5 hours. I would pry my boots off after far too many hours of wearing them, feet aching like they’d never done but how could I complain. I’d lived a dream and got to crawl into bed with the woman who believes in my dreams, too.
My wife Doreen loves Franconia, too. Hopefully, she can come next time.