Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

An American Brewmaster in Bavaria

I lost my brother to beer

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“Say ‘It’s not a tumor.’” “Fuck auf.” But now it’s more than the clothes and the accent. Rather than traveling with my brother in a distant culture, this time I’m touring with a resident foreigner who just happens to be my brother. And unlike my visit three years ago, I haven’t thought to ask when he’s moving back to the States. There’s too much to give up now—such as a monthly beer allowance of 120 liters, free housing, six weeks of annual vacation, free milk and cheese from the farmer next door and the fifteen-minute drive to the Hochstaufen and the Zwiesel, two Alpine peaks that offer some of the world’s best hiking and skiing. It’s all so damn quaint that I keep looking for Julie Andrews to come twirling down the mountainside. But these are just the perks of his job. The foam on the beer. The rest is serious business. His typical day begins at 6 am and ends between 5 and 6 pm, during which time he’s responsible for directing the entire brewing cycle of the Private Landbrauerei Schönram: evaluating the hops and malts of different growers and then negotiating a purchase price; distributing labor; guiding fermentation, lagering and the handling of yeasts; buying new machinery; and monitoring the microbiology to keep the beer free of contaminating organisms. He also oversees distribution, from deploying the brewery’s nine truck drivers to paying personal visits to the grocers and barkeepers who sell his products. If one of his five varieties of beer—helles (blond), Pils, dunkles (dark), Festbier, leichtes (light) and even Radler, the beer mixed with lemon soft drink (which, if we’re to believe the woman on the label, is best enjoyed while bicycling)—isn’t up to rigorous German standards, he’s responsible. And considering that the Private Landbrauerei Schönram has been in the Oberlindober family for over two hundred years, it seems that the brewery’s owner, Alfred Oberlindober, has entrusted Eric with even more than beer. “I feel like one of my unspoken duties is to continue the Oberlindober heritage,” Eric says. “In many ways I’ve been invited into the family.” Central to this family legacy is the heritage of Schönram itself. With 280 residents, the village consists of the brewery, a Gasthaus (bar and restaurant) operated by the brewery, a church across the street that was chartered by the brewery in 1853 and a handful of dairy farms, most of which are situated on land once owned by the brewery. As one of the largest businesses in the area, the Private Landbrauerei is also vital to the economy of the entire region. In addition to Schönram, the brewery serves over a dozen neighboring villages of comparable size, among which are the mischievously named Petting and Titmoning. Each of these communities offers something none of the others do. Petting, for instance, provides kindergarten and primary schooling for the region. Teisendorf, home to the retired beer maven Lothar, is also home to Fritz Ehrenlechner, tailor of such Bavarian threads as collarless wool jackets, embroidered shirts and lederhosen. My brother’s impressive status was illustrated for me when he took me out to dinner on my first night there. Locals pointed as we approached and blushed when he acknowledged them with a “Grüss Gott.” Given the Germans’ inexplicable devotion to David Hasselhoff, I wondered if this had something to do with Eric’s billowy chest hair, but that was before I realized that he’s often the one to tap the first keg at the regional festivals. And before I realized the importance of beer to these locals. The Bavarians’ per capita beer consumption of 220 liters is twice the German average, a figure even more staggering considering that it includes infants, children and the elderly. Discounting those who can’t or don’t drink, the average Bavarian puts away about ninety to a hundred gallons a year. Excessive as this sounds, after drinking beer straight from a storage tank it seemed more like temperance. Freshly brewed German beer is incomparable. Though an infrequent beer drinker in the States, I finished my Pils and then started licking the inside of the glass. Ninety gallons? “Kein Problem,” as the Germans say. No problem. Of course my brother’s beer was different fourteen years ago, when one weekend during his junior year in college he bought his first brewing kit and started making beer in the basement. I took it as an attempt to piss a wider circle around the house. This, after all, was a guy whose conspicuous displays of masculinity had included catching rattlesnakes in the prairie behind our house and keeping as pets two boa constrictors, a python and twin iguanas named Darwin and Shithead. The first batch seemed to confirm my suspicions. I was one of the first taste testers and, despite having a teenager’s beer-equals-cool reflex, I couldn’t take more than a sip. He kept at it, though. And steadily his beer grew better—or so our dad recalls—until, two months before graduating from the Colorado School of Mines with a BS in geophysical engineering, he announced that he was moving to Germany to turn his hobby into a profession. Reassured that he would at least finish his degree, our parents supported him. “I did a good job of convincing them,” Eric remembers. “But privately I had no idea if what I wanted to do was possible. If nothing else, I figured I could spend a summer improving my German before taking an engineering job in the States.” He began by writing a letter to Professor Ludwig Narziss, the director of faculty at Weihenstephan, the oldest operating brewery in the world and home to Germany’s oldest brewing school. Professor Narziss told Eric that before he could apply he would have to complete a one-year apprenticeship. Enter Leo Thamm, the head brewmaster at a brewery near Staufen, where my brother was studying German. He was unable to offer Eric a position, but was willing to discuss other options over—what else?—a few beers. With Thamm’s guidance, Eric eventually secured an apprenticeship at the Ulmer Münster Brauerei. So he moved to Ulm, a small city on the Danube, where an enormous McDonald’s is only a stone’s throw from Einstein’s birthplace. “Thamm and Professor Narziss gave me my first glimpse of the small-family mentality in the German brewing industry. Without their help I wouldn’t have known where to begin.” But of course there was a flip side. While flattered by his interest, most Germans doubted that an American could contribute. He was a curiosity. An unflushable turd. The brewmaster and his fellow workers at Ulmer Münster watched his every move. “I felt like I was walking on eggshells for a while. But the biggest challenge was trying to understand the Swabian dialect. I just did my work, nodded and smiled a lot, laughed whenever they laughed. After a few months, what was once gibberish started to make sense.” In the meantime, he survived on two dollars an hour by eating white sausages and pretzels. And by renting a room above Der Gasthof zum Wilden Man (The Wild Man Bar). “There were bands and rowdy parties almost every night. But the rent was dirt cheap. And since the brewery gave me a hundred free liters each month, I didn’t have to spend any money on beer. I couldn’t live there again, but back then it felt adventurous—the price I’d have to pay to realize my dream.” After a year of unloading, cleaning and filling kegs by day and of trying to sleep through the sounds of partying by night—often just giving up on the idea of sleeping and joining in instead—he was accepted into Weihenstephan’s Diplom-Braumeister program. The curriculum was divided into a year of microbiology, lab courses and accounting and a year of studying malting and beer production, the latter augmented by a four-month practicum. Although the science coursework was review for him, the faculty was skeptical of the American educational system and refused to give him credit. In their estimation, two years at an American university was equivalent to graduating from a German high school. This stigma only inspired him to prove that an American, ein Ami, could do more than squeak by. When not studying, he hung out with the German students, observing their accents and imitating them as closely as possible. Two years later, he graduated second in his class. At the end of his oral exam in brewing microbiology, he startled his professor by mentioning that he was an American. “Mastering their language was the best way to earn their respect. But I also wanted to blend in and be accepted. I’ve always been a good mimic. Before I knew it I was being mistaken for a native.” Had he not been a linguistic Zelig, he would’ve likely returned to a microbrewery in the States. Instead, his first job after graduation was as second brewmaster for Lamot, a large brewery near Brussels. In addition to learning the Belgians’ unorthodox brewing techniques (in some cases they use spices in the brewhouse and wild yeasts during fermentation), he learned another language: Flemish. “I would actually write down and rehearse what I wanted to say the next morning to my employees. And they would just smile good-naturedly and say ‘Kus mijn kloten’ before doing whatever I’d asked of them. I figured that meant ‘Sure thing, boss,’ but after a few days I realized they were saying ‘Kiss my scrotum.’ The fact that I found this hilarious won them over.” Looking the part also helped him overcome other people’s incredulity: Eric is barrel-chested and blond, with enough girth around the waist to deflect the greatest skepticism of all, that which is reserved for thin brewmasters. He also insists that, language barriers aside, there are more similarities between Wyoming and Bavaria than between, say, Wyoming and New York City. As examples he cites the Bavarians’ aversion to cities and crowds, their love of the land and their earthy sense of humor. “The jokes I tell at home translate pretty well here,” he says. After two years in Belgium, Eric returned to Bavaria to be closer to his future wife and was hired as second brewmaster for Schlossbrauerei Stein. After four years there, he considered returning to the States—where, of course, good beer isn’t prized as highly. When asked what they think of American beer, most Germans look politely flummoxed. I imagine it’s comparable to asking a Navy Seal or Green Beret what he thinks of the Belgian color guard. Germans just don’t think much about American beer. Those who have sampled it find the mass brands consistently tasteless and unremarkable. And aside from some notable exceptions, most of the microbrewed beers are considered overly hopped and too bitter. Ultimately, none of the worthwhile American microbreweries could make Eric a competitive offer. “The Germans value and reward brewmasters to a much greater degree,” he says. So he searched for the right opportunity in Germany, even applying to be official Court Brewmaster for the Duke of Bavaria. At one point, he briefly considered working in China and Central America for Interbrew, a growing, monopolistic brewing concern. Then came the opening at Schönram. At first he was hesitant to make the commitment: “If it’s a great brewery with a great owner, the head brewmaster job is one people leave at death.” In the end Eric decided to apply; five months later, he was chosen from an applicant pool of sixty Germans. Twelve years removed from brewing skunky beer in a plastic tub in a Wyoming basement, he had reached the summit of the German brewing profession. While happy for his success, the rest of us—his American family—have had to acknowledge that except for two- and three-week stretches during his six-week vacations, he’s not coming back. Difficult as this is for us, he says it’s even harder for him. “When I’m in one place, I’m always a little homesick for the other, which is how I imagine it was for our great-grandparents when they left Europe. Wyoming is still home, but I’ve come to identify with the people and culture here, too. I think about how lucky I am when I walk into the brewery and smell the wort boiling away, smell the hops, the beer fermenting. While there’s some quality beer in the States, brewing there just wouldn’t be the same. If I ever moved back, I couldn’t work in Germany again. The brewing culture here is almost hermetically sealed. To be accepted into it is an honor that wouldn’t be extended twice.” In the meantime, he takes the edge off his homesickness by dwelling on the similarities between Bavaria and Wyoming. In October he discovered that a club called the Country Friends of Schönram holds an annual festival where locals gather to two-step and listen to country music beneath a Texas flag. Fiddles were played and steak was served, but everything was a few clicks out of phase with reality. The beer was better—served cold with a four-inch head, in glasses rather than plastic cups. There were no buffalo burgers. And a band of Czech women in miniskirts covered John Denver songs, closing by singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” four times in a row. The party eventually moved to a field outside the beer tent for a target-shooting contest. After a few people hit the outside edges of the target, they handed the gun to Eric and told him to try. Eric, who’d only shot a BB gun when he was a kid, hit the bull’s-eye. Thomas Stippel, cofounder of the Country Friends, asked him to repeat the accomplishment. Eric declined. “Come on,” Stippel protested. “I bet you’ll do it again.” “I doubt it,” Eric said. “I got lucky.”