Running on empty in Spielbach

It was a firm grip for such a small, thin if wiry hand. That she’d worked hard her whole life was a story that needed no words. Her eyes were warm and welcoming. She seemed to look into my heart as much as my eyes. Like a grandmother who knows her days are numbered, she squeezed my hand as if it would be the last time. My therapist looked down, having goaded me into doing the famous ritual payment opposite Frau Unbehauen, the matriarch of renowned Spielbach legend, Gold-Ochsenbrauerei. He knew I needed the consolation of a truly worldly soul, though he’d already expertly calmed me down after a minor melt-down upstairs in the Saal before we’d finally been served our meals. You often know friends jobs but until you see them in action you really don’t understand what they do. Jürgen is obviously a great counselor. He understood my disappointment about our experience. I’d come up all the way from Munich by local trains strained by a record 50cm snowfall of the previous weekend. Cancellations abounded. I was on a tight schedule at best and our meal arrived about an hour and forty-five minutes after we had. On top of that, rather than sit in the cozy pub I was used to, we were in a large cold festival room. He just knew my getting upset wasn’t going to help. The servers were in the weeds. They were all new to me. Some family members had left the business since COVID and as a person who grew up in a family business, I know well it’s not easy to replace them.  Understaffed has become the byword in the service industry across the globe but it’s hitting small rural Franconian pubs particularly hard.

the old world pub & Saal

I’d been to Spielbach for their Festbockzeit a couple of times and had just realized my dream of walking from Rothenburg ob der Tauber to Spielbach that summer so I’d kind of written off returning this year. My friend was busy the weekend we generally go but when I talked to him about it, he let it slip that he’d heard this would quite possibly be the last Festbock from the Gold-Ochsenbrauerei, which dates back to 1668. He told me it was not 100% confirmed and to keep it to myself but slowly I saw posts online hinting at the same. So, I changed my mind and though an evening visit was all that was possible, I jumped at the chance despite the chaotic train situation.

 the lure of the Festbock

Though we arrived about ten minutes after the official opening time, it was chockablock. The new-to-me barman at the tap said if we could squeeze in somewhere, we were free to despite our having a reservation. Otherwise, it was up to the Saal. I noted the Bock looked a bit flat with little head, even right after pouring.

the Gold-Ochsen’s uncertain future

We found an empty table upstairs with my name on it but my friend asked if we could sit with a larger group to get a bit more atmosphere. We waited for our oder to be taken but a Saxon, one of our new table mates, explained we should go downstairs to order everything. Eventually the barman came up and asked what we wanted but in retrospect, we should have listened to group consensus. The beer arrived soon enough but the head dissipated just as quickly. The food was a very long time coming despite my pleas. In the end, we got the wrong order, mine was overcooked and we had to wolf down our food in fifteen minutes before heading down to pay up with the grand old dame.

is the curtain closing in Spielbach?

Seated across from Frau Unbehauen, I knew it could very well be for the last time. Whether they stop brewing or not is not the only question. Can places like this remain open with lack of staff, with the impending return to pre-COVID goods and services tax, and mostly without family to take the reigns? This is one of the lucky places. They are a very popular restaurant and have to turn people away but working seven days a week takes its toll. Though they could likely survive without their own beer, it would be a sad loss. Not quite the loss of the family matriarch though. She’s the one irreplaceable thing in Spielbach.

Epilogue: Despite Jürgen’s valiant effort to get me to the station in time for my train, I missed it by a few minutes. He offered to drive me to Nürnberg but he’d already done enough by taking me there yet again and offering good advice when I needed it.

The next train came an hour later and after a tight connection in Treuchlingen and a very long fifteen hour day, I got home at 2 am. Sometimes, you should just leave things on their best note and listen to your voice of reason (read: your wife). Still, while the memories of Spielbach from a few months earlier would have been a more idyllic ending, the firm grip of Frau Unbehauen and her knowing eyes are surely the more befitting one.

Contact information for Gold-Ochsen.

We finally got to hike out to Spielbach while spending the weekend in Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

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4 thoughts on “Running on empty in Spielbach

      1. Seems like we just “conversed” about this place a few months ago as I mentioned we usually stay in Rothenburg for a spell and wanted to do the walk. Hope it remains open next summer. Regardless, sorry to hear about a potential closing and what seems you losing a friend. I am not a fan of change in general, or so I’ve come to realize. One thing I like about eating out in Germanic towns is years in between visits I see the same staff. I love that.

        1. Time is of the essence with these places so fingers crossed this closure of the brewery doesn’t come to pass. A second rumor which I didn’t mention was that they were considering bringing in another fairly hard to get beer on tap from a relative not so far away. While this is not the same as having your own, it would certainly still be a worthwhile walk from Rothenburg. Let’s see how it plays out.

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