How COVID is ravaging the brewing heartland as the alpacas look on

Life is full of choices and in the times of Corona, those choices have seemed tougher. The magic wand that its vaccine was to be has not proven as full-proof as we’d hoped and once again we are embroiled in yet another wave of a virus which has shown itself more resilient than the human condition. Humans love to reduce things to numbers so let’s have a futile go. In Germany, we were under a lockdown from November 2020 to May 2021. The country had deemed it necessary despite the financial hardship it obviously placed on business owners. Hospitals were overrun and if you needed an ICU bed, you might find yourself waiting for it. Once 7-day incidences fell below 100, gastronomy could reopen with outside seating and you could stay in a hotel with a negative Corona test result. We rushed up to Franconia to enjoy places we’d been shut out of for what seemed ever. It often meant sitting out in the cold rain but to drink the nectar of gods, you sometimes have to forego creature comforts.

the first supper after the lockdown

When 7-day incidences dropped below 50, we could eat inside again but had to have a negative test result. Things started to feel like normal even if the new normal was wearing a mask unless seated. Foreign tourists were still in short supply, nice perhaps for non-business owning locals but tough on those who depend on their spending. I enjoyed the lack of crowds but didn’t have my first tours until September when it seemed Americans finally felt safe to land on these shores once again. I can say all of my clients enjoyed themselves immensely while here and felt safe.

some Beerwanderers happy to be back

After the season, we were faced with some tough choices. We chose to fly to Florida for my Dad’s 95th birthday. Despite the state’s COVID posturing, we didn’t feel like we had a choice. On our return, we found out Germany’s numbers were surprisingly on the rise. Hospital beds were again scarce and there was a new set of numbers to follow. If the 7-day incidence in a particular area went above 1000, there would be a lockdown. If you’re paying attention, that’s 10 times what we needed to sit outside this past spring. With numbers below 500 in Bamberg, we chose to go for a weekend. We felt like it might go into lockdown and we might not get to go again until spring.

a lovely quick trip to Bamberg

Scarily, quite a few places were above the new magic number and many more hovered just below it, including one we were planning on visiting. So, the next choice was a little more complex, the numbers were over 800 and rising each day. We’d rented a car due to the lack of public transport. We’d cancelled the same trip the year before due to the lockdown. We really wanted to go but it seemed less than prudent. If the numbers went above 1000, our rooms would be automatically canceled and we could stay home without hemming and hawing over what to do. Of course, you can’t actually hope for such things outright and as chance would have it, they remained stable. If we decided not to go, we’d have to try and get refunds on rooms which were beyond normal cancellation cut-offs. Against all logic, we went with our gut. We took to the highway and boy was it empty.

the last time at the Bräutüberl?

The stop at Felsenbräu Bräutüberl in Thalmannsfeld had been an afterthought but after seeing the head on my beer and devouring one of the best Jägerschnitzels I’d ever had, it was firmly in our minds as a regular stop. We wondered how such a great place could be so empty. I went to get an empty case from the car to grab some beers to bring home and on my return heard the owner telling my wife a story of woe. She and her husband had taken over the pub from the brewery around the corner and had flourished. Though a small pub, they had a large events room and were understandably a popular choice for weddings, anniversaries and birthday parties. COVID had put a stopper on those and even when the virus took a break, the events didn’t return in their former glory. Everything was cut by two-thirds. She didn’t feel like they would ever return and nearing retirement age and the end of a ten-year lease, they decided to pack it in. The pub will close at the end of December. The brewery is doing well and on contacting them, they said they would try to find a new tenant but admitted in these uncertain times, the task wouldn’t be an easy one.

a bit worse for wear, Felsenbräu is still doing well enough

The evening prior, we’d sat at Brauerie Hennemann in Sambach and heard a similar story. On our first visit, the place had been bustling and the animated brewer quite comical. We’d made a reservation this time but walked into a nearly empty pub. The owner didn’t seem quite as light-hearted but diligently worked the room better than servers half his age. It was obvious he enjoyed what he was doing. We’d come for his renowned Dunklerbock and a fine one it was. I also got to try the local dish, Salzwasserfleisch, which while salty wasn’t the boiled affair I had envisioned.

Hennemann Dunklerbock & Salzwasserfleisch

While the owner had seemed reserved when we first got there, he warmed up to us as we drank his Bock like it was water. We also noticed a Bock Plus on the chalkboard and had a few of them with a tasty dish of Apfelküchle. This was a cold-hopped version of the regular Bock, something the owner said was “popular with the young people” and also proudly exulted it had been his son’s idea.

Bock Plus paired well with dessert

Though it had become reasonably busy, the owner later lamented it was less than half what a typical pre-Corona Saturday night would bring in. As each table left, he sat with them to give them their bills and when his wife was done cooking, she joined him in making the rounds, obviously enjoying the socializing. Due to our penchant for the Bock Plus, we soon found ourselves to be the only ones there. Even the brewer’s wife had left. He brought us our bill and I think even he was amazed at how much Bock we’d consumed. He asked how we liked his son’s creation and we said it was great but diplomatically said it wasn’t quite as good as the regular Bock. We mentioned the place had been very much spiffed up since our last visit and he explained they’d taken the slow time of the lockdown to move their living quarters into the old pub area and had redone this one to act as its replacement. He’d never imagined things would go on for so long. The latest surge sure seemed to catch even the wary by surprise. He explained that while he and his wife loved running the pub, they were getting close to retirement age. People still retire in their mid-60s in Germany but I imagine if the pub were busy again, he might keep at it a few more years. Of course, he could also just keep the brewery open and sell his beer by the case. I’m sure people come from miles around to get it. I would.

an empty farm road in Sambach & the alpacas

The next morning, I was looking out the window from our pension to see how hard it was snowing. I glanced over and saw a bunch of alpacas up the street. Not that it didn’t surprise me, but not as much as you might imagine. On our first visit, we’d done a long hike and passed an ostrich farm. So, when it comes to Sambach, nothing seems to out of the ordinary. Brauerei Hennemann sure isn’t ordinary and I hope it’s around for a lot more than a few years. Maybe the son with the cold-hop idea will take it over but as often as not lately, the children in these villages are moving on. I was telling my Dad about the situation and he asked if anyone would buy it. It’s hard for people outside this area to fathom a brewery in such a little village. It’s been in the Hennemann family for over 150 years. They’ve just moved their living quarters into the old part of the pub. I don’t see Herr Hennemann selling even if he found a buyer. He’s not likely to leave Sambach, either.

 the alpacas look on

The alpacas seemed pretty unaware of the potential doom which consumed my beery mind. After all, life would go on in Sambach, with or without the amazing Hennemann beer. I was pretty sure, life wouldn’t be as sweet. One thing I’m even surer about is I’m glad we chose to make our way to the Franconian countryside, even if it wasn’t the most logical thing to do. Places like this won’t be around forever and if we don’t support them, forever might be shorter than we think.

Contact information for the breweries can be found at: Brauerei Hennemann and Felsenbräu.

Interested in guided beer hiking tours in Franconia

For more information on hiking and breweries around Bavaria, please consider consulting my book, Beer Hiking Bavaria oder auf Deutsch: Bierwandern Bayern.

beer hiking bavaria book coverbierwandern bayern buch


8 thoughts on “How COVID is ravaging the brewing heartland as the alpacas look on

    1. I guess it has magnified a lot of the problems that have been creeping up in the rural area breweries in particular. The only hope for these places is if they find people to take over or run them. Harder to do than it sounds in areas where customers are dwindling despite the product being so damn good!

  1. A nice post, Rich. The photos were superb and you do a good job of narrating the ups and downs – mostly downs since the pandemic. It has been discouraging and expensive to business owners when they can reopen, only to have to close down again which has happened in Oregon several times.

    Part of the answer is to make the approach to dealing with this virus, based on science rather than politics which unfortunately has become the case with many people in the US. If people wore masks and got the vaccine, we would be back to normal a lot sooner.

  2. Sadly, until we collectively find the will to get Covid under control (vaccinations, boosters, regular testing, better enforcement of existing regulations), this list will grow. Pandemics, warfare, and financial upheavals always take their toll. Let’s hope that some of these breweries, Bräustüberl, villages, and regions bounce back. As you alluded to, much will depend on whether younger folks step up to fill their predecessors’ shoes.

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