An evening with Eric Toft, Reinheitsgebot iconoclast

Rod Jones and Eric Toft

Rod Jones, left, and Eric Toft at the Old Brewery, Greenwich

Eric Toft – middle-aged, handsome, seldom seen out of lederhosen despite being born in the United States, passionate about beer in all its varieties – is an American with a mission: to drag German brewing kicking and screaming out of the 16th century.

After a career that would be the envy of – well, me, certainly – Toft is currently brewmaster at the 232-year-old Schönram brewery in rural Bavaria, just a few miles from the border with Austria.

There he produces the usual run of beers you would expect from a rural Bavarian brewery run by the eighth generation of the same family: a Pils, a Hell, a Weissbier, a Dunkel. Alongside that, however, Toft, the first and currently the only American to run a Bavarian brewery, also makes beers in styles you might fear a rural Bavarian beer drinker would never even have heard of: an IPA, an imperial stout, a porter, even a Belgian pale ale.

The idea, Toft says, is to show that the Reinheitsgebot, or “purity law”, firmly limiting the ingredients that go into beer, to which all Schönram’s output sticks as strictly as any German brewery, need not be a straitjacket forcing brewers into making bland clone-beers.

His motto is “Reinheitsgebot, not Einheitsgebot”, which doesn’t sound quite as good translated into English, “purity decree, not sameness decree”, but the message still comes across. “The Reinheitsgebot should be an inspiration and a motivation to creativity,” Toft says. “It’s blamed for making German beers bland. But the main reason for blandness is that the purchasing of raw materials has been taken out of the hands of brewers and given to the accountants.”

I met Toft this week because he was the speaker at the latest of the regular beer and food matching evenings at Meantime’s Old Brewery on the Royal Naval Hospital site in Greenwich, and Rod Jones of Meantime had been kind enough to ask me along as a guest. It was fascinating listening to Toft describe his career: he was born in Colorado and studied at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, which is next door to Coors’ brewery. That proximity helped Toft become interested in home-brewing, and after graduating he decided he was much more keen on a career making beer than spending years in, eg, Saudi Arabia prospecting for oil.

Clearly a man who believes that if you’re going to do something, do it properly, Toft’s next step, thus, was to go to Germany, learn German and enrol at the brewing school at Weihenstephan, near Munich, recognised as one of the best places in the world to learn about brewing beer. There he met a young Alastair Hook, later the founder of the Meantime brewery, where the two discovered they shared a disdain for the self-imposed straitjacket of German brewing traditions and a delight for the looser, more innovation-friendly ways of brewers in Belgium.

After Toft graduated from Weihenstephan he launched into a career that took him, among other places, to Lamot, a Belgian brewer owned, since 1970, by Bass Charrington of the UK. Its flagship product was a not-particularly-distinguished pils some may remember from the British market, but it also made a number of “speciality” beers for Belgian drinkers including Bass Stout. Lamot was sold by Bass to its Belgian rival Piedboeuf, which itself became Interbrew soon after, and Toft moved on, eventually ending up at Schönram, where he has been for the past 14 years.

It would be an exaggeration to say his ideas have swept South Bavaria like a storm: the brewery’s speciality beers find a better market in Italy than they do at home, Toft admits. But I can say, having drunk seven different Schönram beers at the Meantime dinner, that if you see them, you should certainly buy them, both the specialities and the “standard” beers such as the Pils and the Dunkel. The Schönram Gold, for example, is a lovely Maibock-style beer, sweet and appley (in a good way), the Saphir Bock nicely balanced with a touch of tangerine from the Saphir hops.

The Conatus, made with Belgian yeasts but German hops and malt and no sugar additions, just to prove that a Reinheitsgebot-friendly Belgian-style ale is more than possible, is an excellent palate-cleansing beer that worked very well with a fatty confit of duck leg and foie gras terrine. The Dunkel (until the 1960s, still the most popular beer style in rural Bavaria, just as dark mild ruled across so much of Britain) went just as well as you would expect with pork belly, spiced red cabbage and apple: personally I love pork with dark beers, a perfect marriage.

We also had the Schönram Pils with scallops, and the brewery’s Imperial Stout and IPA with the cheeseboard, but after five hours of drinking, eating, listening, talking and pontificating, all I can remember is that all three were excellent. As was the food. The Meantime guys are always very friendly to me, but I can say that even if they weren’t I’d still recommend a trip to the Old Brewery, to try the beers that Rod Jones produced on the kit there (you can see much of it in the picture of Rod and Eric Toft above – a lesson in how to ram a German-style microbrewery, including copper, lauter tun, whirlpool, fermenting vessels and the rest, into as small a footprint as possible) and if you can, to eat in the restaurant.

21 thoughts on “An evening with Eric Toft, Reinheitsgebot iconoclast

  1. We’ve started to get a few of his standard German styles on the West Coast of the US. I’m a big fan and would like to try his non-traditional stuff. I like his attempts to rebel within the system of the Reinheitsgebot. I wrote a post a bit ago about the silliness of the whole thing. http://wp.me/p2ucmM-4M

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  2. Eric is a cool dude for sure. The pils is still one of my favorite beers, and last time I saw him a few years ago with his US importer (Uplifters Spirits), I drank plenty of it at a rainy beer fest at the brewery.

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  3. He has my support. It should be a purity style, not a purity law – forcing everyone to do the same thing for any reason is bad in any artform. I’ll be sure to try any Schönram I see to find out what can be done within the restrictions.

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  4. Assuming Conatus is top-fermented, sugar would be allowed under the Reinheitsgebot.

    To be honest, I’m not waiting for German brewers to make IPA. I’d prefer it if they brewed Grätzer and Broyhan. Or a proper German Porter. That would be more interesting than just copying beers from somewhere else.

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  5. You can’t really describe someone dedicated to working within the constraints of the Reinheitsgebot as an iconoclast. Although I admire his efforts greatly; I enjoyed the Schönram beers at the Old Brewery more than I did Meantime’s own.

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  6. The Pure Beer Law is an anachronism, and it has partly been broken down even internally. Apart from the wheat beer and top-fermentation exceptions, there is the fact that Germany can no longer, under EU law, prevent importation of beer from the EU which doesn’t follow the law. True, the tendency still is for most of the beer sold in Germany to be all-malt, but breaches exist and from there I believe in time the law as applied domestically will change. One of the ironies is that doing so would probably provide a filip to the industry. Given declining annual consumption, it needs all the help it can get and throwing the market open to all ingredients that are safe to use but are often used elsewhere would be a big step forward.

    That said, 40 years of drinking beer has convinced me that all-malt beer is the best. I just know it is – for me of course and I speak for no one else. It has a richness and cleanness that are matchless in my experience. Yes I know some English beer uses wheat for head retention or whatever and sugar can be good and you can’t always tell but withal or all in all, experience has proved to me that all-malt generally is best and offers the roundest and most classic interpretation of the beer palate.

    Thus, I hope all-malt beer will always be the soul of beers in Germany, England, America and all places that care about good beer. By all means we want the German wheat beers, the lambics, saisons, recreations of disappeared German top-fermented styes et seq. But forsaking the all-malt path puts beer ultimately on a slippery slope to mediocrity IMO and in that sense – and whatever its original rationale – the German Pure Beer Law has provided a very valuable service IMO.

    Gary

    P.S. Talking about Britain which makes great beer, some breweries, I’m referring to the old-established group, always brewed all-malt. It is not as of the tradition had been completely lost pre-CAMRA, in other words. They may have been few but were an inspiration IMO.

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    • Wheat beer uses malted wheat, which falls under the Purity Law as “malt,” same as malted rye does for Roggen. These grains will ferment, unlike forbidden non-malted adjunct grains. The Law dictated ingredients (water, hops & malted grains – later adding yeast), not bottom fermenting, which really wasn’t standard until the mid-19th C.
      In ’92, the German brewers basically decided to stick to the Reinheitsgebot voluntarily as a “competitive advantage” (aside from some export products), even though it was no longer “law of the land.”
      Great to hear from Eric Toft! He was good friends of my original brewmaster (Fr. Wuerges) as I did my brewing apprenticeship in Bavaria many moons ago!

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      • “Wheat beer uses malted wheat, which falls under the Purity Law as “malt,” same as malted rye does for Roggen.”
        The Reinheitsgebot of 1516 specifies “Gerstenmalz” – no grey area there.

        “These grains will ferment, unlike forbidden non-malted adjunct grains.”
        Sorry, but this sentence does not actually make sense.

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        • True, but Reinheitsgebot (RHG) also never mentioned “hefe,” which was unknown at the time and only later included in the understanding of the law and allowed. Roggen and Weizen have traditionally been allowed because they are malted and their sugars are fermentable.
          Adjunct grains, such as rice, corn or roasted barley (Guinness Stout, for example, was not allowed before ’92…their German version, at least prior to then, was all-malt and technically a porter), are not malted and do not contain significant fermentable sugars. Therefore, they’ve been forbidden in traditional RHG brewing. What part doesn’t make sense?

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          • The part about corn, and rice not having significant fermentable sugar. That is wrong,

            Certain types of rice (O. japonica) are very favorable for brewing as they are high in amylopectin.

            Corn has less carbohydrate potential, but is still a significant source of sugar if treated correctly, especially in the form of grits or flakes.

            So if the RHG is truly based on lack of fermentability of other grains, well it is a typical political action not a scientific one. I don’t think that was the purpose of the law though.

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          • Jon…you’ll note, I said “significant” fermentable sugars…not zero. Thanks.
            I get the 1516 law referred to barley only, and thing became somewhat “flexible” later, but I still fail to understand this fuss over “traditional” interpretation of the law by German brewers, at least in the modern sense prior to ’92: Malted grains in addition to barley (ususally wheat/rye) were allowed…non-malted adjunct, even roasted barley, was not.
            Since the EU, it’s not the law anymore and it’s voluntary to stick to it. Some brewers do. Some don’t. Darn near all of ’em still make wonderful beer IMO.
            Prost!

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          • “their German version, at least prior to then, was all-malt and technically a porter ”
            What, out of interest, made it technically a porter, rather than a stout?

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  7. Well, the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot was never meant to be about all-malt brewing. In its original form in the year 1516 it was all about barley brewing. This was established to eliminate the compatition from Bohemia with their wheat Beer. So the Bavarian Hefeweizen is in fact not brewed according to the purity law (as much as marketing will convince you of the contrary). However when considering the start of a new craft beer movement here in Bavaria one has to keep in mind, that the Reinheitsgebot is a bavarian law which means:
    1. Bavarians are known to have a stubborn/anarchistic streak now and then.
    2. We are a Catholic country so we know its easier to get absolution than permission.
    With this in mind, it is no wonder that there are nowadays Beers like Pumkin Ale, Erdbeerweizen and Porter spiced with Licorice all brewed in Bavaria. And as far as I know, all the brewers had no conflict with the Law whatsoever.

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  8. I thought that the law controlling beer production was not the RHG, but the ‘Provisional Beer Law.”

    RHG is a good marketing ploy, but it isn’t really a law anymore is it?

    The PBL allows top-fermented beer to be made with other cereals, but the lawmakers (botanists all I am sure ;)) in their wisdom excluded rice, corn and sorghum as not being cereals. Lagers are still required to use all malt. Of course, the EU law may have changed all that. I am certainly no expert on Bavarian beer law.

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