It is 9:07 a.m. as I scribble this, sitting in the barroom at the Neder brewery in Forchheim, Germany. It’s pleasant outside, just what you’d want in early June, and it would be worth sitting on the terrace just to admire that timber-framed city hall across the main square.
But if I were out there, I wouldn’t learn what it’s like in here. I wanted to see who is here when a brewery gaststätte in Upper Franconia opens at nine in the morning.
I’m not shocked by the answer: It’s me, plus a bunch of old fellers.
This is the German tradition of Frühschoppen, of meeting others for beer in the morning, especially on a Sunday and often after church services. Church attendance is declining, however, and I’m not sure when Forchheim holds its service but I suspect not before 9 a.m. Yet Frühschoppen holds—for now, anyway.
At first, there are five of us plus the barman. Each has his own table, so it doesn’t look like a proper Stammtisch—another German tradition, where old friends know to meet at the same time, same table, for beer and chatter. (No need to send texts or reminders; a proper Stammtisch is steady as a rock.) But the way these guys joke and gossip, their seating arrangement is immaterial.
Sadly, younger Germans are less interested in traditions like Stammtisch and Frühschoppen, or less able to keep them. I worry that in 20, 40, 60 years these things become mere anecdotes: My opa used to drink there every Sunday morning…
A couple of these men have weissbier but most are drinking Fassbier, which is Neder’s characterful export lager poured via gravity. The barman opens the spigot of a tilted barrel, filling up steinkrugs—those thick stoneware mugs that we Americans incorrectly call “steins.” It’s not a remarkable beer by Upper Franconian standards, which means it is great: lightly sweet honeyish malt, a firm dusty-earth bitterness that seems to resonate with the smooth stone feel of that krug, but finishing light and dryish and thus disappearing quickly.
A half-liter costs the equivalent of $2.
I don’t need this beer. A friend and I were out later than we expected last night, having tried a locals bar packed with twenty- and thirtysomethings dancing (or bobbing heads) to all the hits. Even in that party bar, kellerbier and rauchbier easily outnumbered cocktails—despite a promotion for six vodka-lemons or whisky-colas for $12. This is Upper Franconia and beer is in their blood.
Yet, I came into Neder this morning with the idea to order coffee. That, I need. But as I walked in and looked around I knew it would be wrong. I am already a minor spectacle, with my relative youth and shoddy German and my scribbling with pen and paper. No need to make it sillier with a coffee mug in place of a steinkrug.
Besides, I half-suspect they don’t have coffee.
Bamberg is 15 miles north of here and gets far more tourists and attention. This is sensible, since Bamberg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its old quarter and boasts 10 breweries (depending on what you count) for its 75,000 people. Yet Forchheim (with its own attractive center and far fewer tourists) has four breweries for 31,000 people. So on a per capita basis they are more or less tied.
The town of Aufsess, 15 miles to the northwest, has bragging rights: four breweries for only 1,300 people. Upper Franconia is lousy with breweries pumping out old-fashioned lager, and it begins to make sense why one would open at 9 a.m. on a Sunday. To keep them all in business, we must get an early start.
The real attraction this time of year is not the breweries but the kellers. Literally that means “cellars,” but in this region it has become synonymous with biergartens. Before artificial refrigeration, beer in these parts matured in cool cellars dug into hillsides, which were further cooled by leafy shade overhead. Buying beer fresh from the cellar, and drinking it under those trees, turned out to be an ideal option. Today, “kellerbier” typically means unfiltered lager, especially of the Franconian type. But 200 years ago it simply meant beer bought from the keller.
Forchheim makes an ideal base for visiting those kellers. In the north of town is the Kellerwald, a large wooded hill with 20 bierkellers, each tied to a different local brewery. A few are open year-round, several more open only in warmer months, and the rest open only for the Annafest in late July. A folk festival rooted in a centuries-old pilgrimage to a nearby church—after which, the story goes, the pilgrims would rest and drink under the trees—these days it is grand debauch, and the town’s breweries mark it with a special beer.
There are more kellers, easy to reach from here. Bus 265 is the Hallerndorfer Keller Express. For about $13 you can buy a day pass, hopping on and off for some of the area’s finest beers and playgrounds: Witzgall, Rittmayer, Lieberth, Roppelt, and more. The Kreuzberg in Hallerndorf is another wooded hill with three biergartens (and a brewery) atop it, with a trail that leads down to Roppelt’s Keller. In any of these places a half-liter krug of kellerbier will cost you less than $2.50.
Back at Neder: By 9:30 a.m., more gents have trickled in. No women arrive, no children. I am 39, and I feel sure that every other patron has at least 20 years on me. One of the (apparently) eldest arrives, hanging his hat on one of the nearly infinite coat hooks that line the wood-paneled walls. The barman retrieves a special steinkrug for him from the mantel and fills it with Fassbier.
There are many open tables, but this venerable man comes straight to mine. He says nothing at first, just sets down his mug and some small plastic bowls. Time for my bad German: “Is your table?”
He responds: “[Something something in thick dialect], no problem.”
OK, no problem. So I stick around a few more minutes, sipping and scribbling and feeling awkward. More men arrive and come to the table. So I try again, “Ah, is your Stammtisch?”
“[Something something in thick dialect],” he says, shrugging, “This is our Stammtisch, that is our Stammtisch [something something].”
“OK, got it!” I say, though I do not have it at all. I move down to the next table anyway. I watch as the new arrivals, six of them, begin to play cards. The suits are slightly different from ours. They are taking tricks and moving coins around, I can’t make sense of it. But I am fairly sure this is Schafkopf, or “sheep’s head,” since I’ve heard it’s popular among Bavarian men of a certain age group.
Soon enough I finish my beer and prepare to leave, privately vowing to improve my German. And I wonder, as I often do, if I’ll someday be able to talk my wife into a quiet retirement in Upper Franconia.