Last Updated : 03/10/04
Beer in Jena, Chemnitz and Leipzig - by Stephen Harris
The weekend of 9-11 April 2004 saw four hardened Euro beer-spotters heading for virgin territory with a Ryan Air flight to Altenberg in the Thuringia province of the former DDR. We were there as much to watch football as to drink beer, but some elementary research promised a handful of brewpubs, a chance to sample the unique beerstyle of Leipziger Gose and a range of obscure (to us) regional brewery products.
The airport bus dropped us (and only us – everyone else was going on to Leipzig) at Altenberg station in what appeared to be a ghost town – even the station ticket office was closed for lunch. We proceeded by train to Jena via Gera, pausing only to stock up on some random bottles for the journey, including some fairly standard pilsener-type products from the Reudnitz, Mauritius and Sternberg breweries.
Jena proved to be a typical eastern industrial town with precious little remaining of the historic centre. Luckily our first brewpub was just a short taxi ride away and what a place it proved to be. This was the Wöllnitzer Talschänke in the small village of Wöllnitz just outside and substantially uphill from Jena. Two beers were available and the first was, for me, the beery highlight of the whole trip. Called Wöllnitzer Weissbier this was a home-brewed, sharply sour, salty and cloudy wheat beer. Opinions were divided as to whether it was a Berliner Weiss type, or possibly more similar to the revived Gose beer style of Leipzig. Either way it was very much to my taste and I would have happily sat here drinking it all weekend if we did not have other business to attend to. The bar owners seemed determined to get us to drink it with a sweet shot of syrup and seemed quite surprised that we were equally determined to drink the stuff neat. The other beer available was a good quality helles-style offering called Franken Brau. It was not clear to us where this beer was brewed – signs suggested that it was also available at several other bars in the area. The brewpub itself looked from the street like any other large detached house at the village edge, but from the rear it was clearly a boozer with a covered outdoor drinking area for more clement weather and a cosy inside split into two bars, one focussing on food and a smaller area of tables for those like us who were merely in search of liquid refreshment. By the time we left, a band was setting up for some later live music. This was a great start to the weekend and we were in good spirits as we walked back down through the village to the bus stop for the ride back into town.
From Jena town centre another bus took us out to the Hotel & Braugasthof Papiermühle, a large suburban hotel on Erfurter Strasse and home of the Mühlenbrau brewery. The beer interest was focussed in a large building to the rear of the residential part of the hotel. Although modern, the interior is decorated in a traditional style familiar to anyone who has visited the pubs and breweries of towns further west such as Dusseldorf or Cologne. It was by now busy and we were a little fortunate to get the last table in the upstairs balcony area – where we ordered a huge slap-up and proceeded to work our way through the beer list with some vigour. From memory, I think five beers were available and I tackled four of them (I always like to leave at least something for next time). First up was the Mühlenbrau Premium 5.2%, an acceptable dunkel beer, followed by Burschenpils 4.5%, a standard pils which I did not find to be particularly impressive. The Alt Jenaer, 5.8% was disappointing; a mid-colour beer apparently in the traditional style of the area, it tasted rather thin for its strength and overly sweet. I finished with the Jenaer Schellenbier, 5.8%, a dark bockbier which punched its weight and the best of the range in my opinion. With our bus revving up in the turn-around directly outside we decided it was time to move on, back to the town centre.
Here we wound up the evening in the Roter Hirsch, the only remotely traditional looking bar we could find, almost next door to our hotel on Holzmarkt. This proved to be a pleasant enough place, serving beers from Kulmbacher and the Rosenbrauerei, based at nearby Prosneck.
Saturday morning saw us aboard the unbelievably slow regional train service to Chemnitz, a much larger town whose inhabitants still seem somewhat more comfortable calling Karl Marx Stadt. The station area was crawling with heavily armoured riot police in the build-up to the ‘Sachsenderby’ between Chemnitzer FC and Dynamo Dresden, a match that kept two of us busy for the afternoon. The other two returned later with good reviews of a trip out of town in pursuit of beers from the Einseidler Brauhaus – somewhere else I’ll have to leave for next time, although I did manage to acquire a bottle of the excellent Heller Bock to bring back to London.
We all met up in the early evening at the Züdhaus, a small and friendly pub near our hotel at Schlossplatz, close to the town’s castle. Our gen suggested that this was a brewpub, or possibly wasn’t. It turned out not to be, the rumours apparently originating from the fact that its former owner now brewed elsewhere in town (Friedrich’s) and the pub took a guest beer from that brewery - only not available today as a thirsty crowd had drunk the whole lot the previous evening. Nevertheless, the landlord, who had opened up early especially for us when he saw us gathering outside, was able to tempt us with draught Braustolz Pils and bottled Braustolz Black Art, 4.9%, two beers from one of Chemitz’s other small breweries. The later beer also turned out to be an exceptionally good example of the Sachsen Swarzbier style and one of my favourites of the trip.
Our genial host pointed us in the direction of the real location of the Friedrich’s Brauhaus, situated in one corner of a large shopping mall at Reichstrasse 58-60, some 15 minutes brisk walk away. Despite the rather unpromising looking location and feelings that we must be in the wrong place, the doors of the modern building opened in to a large brew-pub with capacity for many drinkers and looking older than its 1997 foundation year. It was quiet at this still-early hour and we took a table right next to the bar. I skipped the Pils, having failed to be impressed by the several other local examples tried at lesser bars during the day, and progressed straight to the seasonal beer, a Märzen, which I’m afraid had a slightly unpleasant, metallic taste. The Braunbier was better, and the Schwarzbier the best of the three tried, but overall I did not feel that this was in the front line of innovative, modern German brewpubs. The barman was impressed with our dedication to seeking out the beers of Chemnitz, supplied us with souvenir brewery stickers to adorn our notebooks and fixed us up with a taxi to our next venue.
It was just as well we went by taxi because the Brau-Stubl Reichenbrancher turned out to be an awful long way down Zwickauerstrasse, almost at the edge of the city. This is a fairly new brewery tap built into the front of the long-established Reichenbrancher Brauerei. It was very busy and our hopes of a sit-down meal were dashed as every table was taken. We stood at the bar in the small drinking area and got stuck in to Dunkel, Kellerbier and Helles from the old brewery out the back. Each of these was a good example of its style, produced by what is clearly a thriving and popular local brewery. The lack of a table meant a quick decision was needed on the hourly bus back into town. With some regrets, we opted for the quick getaway, thus reducing our time at this appealing brewery tap and again leaving some beers unsampled.
By now fully refreshed, I decided to call it a day whilst others embarked on an ultimately fruitless quest for another brewpub located in Beckerstrasse; which when eventually found, turned out to be shut. Whether for the evening or permanently was apparently unclear.
Sunday morning and another long, slow train ride up to Leipzig. Our time here was to be brief and insufficient to visit all the places we would have liked. First priority was to try some Gose, so we presented ourselves at the Gasthof & Gosebrauerei Bayerischer Bahnhof on the stroke of opening time. This large brewpub is situated in an historic terminus railway station on the south edge of the city centre and appears to have been set up with no expense spared. My notes say "First-class brew-pub with superb beer in lovely surroundings", so I guess I must have been impressed. The pub very soon filled up, mostly with families out for Sunday lunch. The bar has a railway theme, with plenty of interest to explore in the various rooms. We all started with an Original Leipziger Gose, 5.2%. Tasty and refreshing, the expected saltiness turned out to be quite subdued but to my taste the coriander flavouring was overdone. All credit to the brewery though for reviving this unusual local wheat beer style. I moved on to the Kuppler Weissbier, a bavarian-style wheat beer which was as thoroughly enjoyable as one would expect at a Bavarian-owned brewpub – another real refresher. Again I skipped the home-brewed pilsner (reportedly very good) and finished up with a Heizer Schwarzbier, more of a dunkel than a schwarzbier I thought and not one I greatly enjoyed, as for me it had too much of a coffee flavour.
Again the team split up at this point, three heading over to the impressively rebuilt Zentral Stadion to see Sachsen Leipzig in action against Uerdingen and one preferring to explore some of the recommended pubs and breweries in Leipzig’s suburbs. On the way to the stadium we popped in to the Brauerei an der Thomaskirche, in the shadow of the city’s main church on Thomaskirchof. This small modern brewpub does not receive a very promising write-up in English-language internet reviews we had seen, but we were pleasantly surprised. It’s an odd one, being essentially a large pizza restaurant, with a small brewery tucked into one corner. The brewing coppers are prominent in a window and have a small bar adjacent with a handful of high tables for drinkers to stand against. The standard pils and dunkel (here called Spezial) were available and I went for the latter. This turned out to be very good and preferable to the dunkel I had tried across town earlier on. A seasonal offering was also available, Hefe Weizen, and this was another very good interpretation of the Bavarian wheat beer style, again if anything better than the version brewed down the road at the Bayerischer Bahnhof. So very much worth a visit.
A couple of hours later we all met up again at a quiet bar called Sinfonie, at the edge of the city centre on Gottschedstrasse. This was the only place we knew of that was at all accessible in the time available where we could try the other Gose beer currently in production. Called Döllnitzer Riterguts Gose, in homage to a long-defunct brewery, this is brewed by Ernst Bauer, a small family brewery in Leipzig. Sources suggest that this is the more authentic of the two Goses, and to me it was the better version. The beer was better balanced, with coriander less prominent in the overall taste. Definitely worth a second, despite the interesting beer list at this café, and our last pint before heading home.
Overall this worked out to be a very pleasant introduction to the beer culture of the area, made all the better by the knock-down Ryan Air prices. We made no attempt to be comprehensive, covering only a selection of the places we had heard about and that in a fairly random way. As often on mainland Europe we were pleased with the variety of beer styles on offer and the survival of allegiance to local breweries. On this trip alone we sampled locally-brewed beers in the Pilsener, Helles, Berliner-Weiss, Weizen, Gose, Kellerbier, Dunkel and Bock styles, the quality of most being good to excellent. Beer of the weekend for me was the superb Wöllnitzer Weissbier from the village brewery in Wöllnitz.