Some of the best and most evocative journalist stories come straight from the front line when intrepid reporters are willing to embed themselves in the military and head straight into a battle zone in order to tell it as it really is. Well, here’s a drinks journalist alternative to all that derring-do. Richard Siddle reports back from the heart of Bavaria where he has returned from a trade mission, embedded as part of the Hofmeister team, to see for himself what the brewing heartland of Bavaria is really like and go behind the scenes at the traditional Bavarian brewery responsible for making the new revamped, multi award-winning Hofmeister Helles lager.
Brewery visits, beer tastings, sales strategy meetings, oh, and a full on Bavarian beer festival with Oompah band. Richard Siddle puts himself on the line with Hofmeister in the premium beer land of Bavaria.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to travel, as part of the Hofmeister beer team, to the heart of Bavaria to meet the people behind the brewery that has successfully helped re-invent the once much loved beer brand that has been brought back to life after decades in hibernation.
Sadly the email did not then burst into flames after I had read it. But this was an opportunity to not just go on your normal press trip where you are there to ask the questions, but to go as part of a company-wide fact finding business trip. To see what it is like on the other side of the fence.
So why ask me? Well, for the last few years I have been working on a consultancy basis helping the new Hofmeister team with some writing, PR and media consultancy support. I have seen the business grow from what was in 2017 just the two founders, Richard Longhurst and Spencer Chambers, who had the vision, and, yes, balls to go to Hofmeister’s previous owners, Heineken, and see if they could buy a brand that it had mothballed out of existence for the previous 12 years.
Now it is a near 20-plus strong team with an impressive line up of former senior brewery, beer brand and pub executives all looking to help put Hofmeister back on the beer map. But not as the weak, mass-produced cheap lager that helped it become a top four beer brand in the 1980s and 1990s.
No, the new Hofmeister is a proudly produced Helles lager brewed by the traditional Schweiger Brewery in Ebersberger Forest in accordance to the strict German brewing purity laws – the Reinheitsgebot – that date back to 1516 that state only three locally sourced ingredients can be used in making a beer: water; barley; and hops. A move that has completely re-invented Hofmeister as a top class premium world beer that can quite happily look an Estrella or Birra Moretti in the eye and say “I raise you” (sorry a bit too much of the consultancy coming through there).
That’s the “mission” that Hofmeister and its new team are all out to achieve, says Chambers. To get into the “ruck” of the premium beer market and do what they can to “maul” their way through it.
What’s more they have even brought the infamous George the Bear, hero of the original Hofmeister TV advertising in the 1980s, back to help them. But crucially not as the original ‘geezer’ bear you might have met in a suburban London pub back in the 1980s, but as a seven foot grizzly bear that could have just stepped out of the Bavarian Forest the original George was supposed to come from. All ready to get into that “ruck” and fight its way out of it.
Follow the Bear
Sadly George has yet to get his passport renewed so was not there at Gatwick Airport with the rest of the Hofmeister crew, all decked out in their ‘Follow the Bear’ T-shirts and hoodies, ready to board a flight to Munich and then out into the forests and fields of Bavaria.
It was crucially an opportunity for them to see first hand how the beers they are selling into the premium on and off- trade are made. It was also a perfect way to spend time getting to know their colleagues, many of whom have joined the business this year as its sales and distribution have grown across the country.
It was clearly an important trip as Hofmeister looks to move from start up to scale up mode and a strategy to see the brand go from being in around 350 of the most premium bars and pubs in the UK in 2022, to 1,000 by 2025, pushing revenues up closer to £10m from the £2m it hopes to hit in 2022.
To do that it needs to work closely with the Schweiger family and the team at the Schweiger Brewery, one of the most traditional brewers in Bavaria and one of the few to still have its own maltings, that has made the new authentic, premium Hofmeister possible.
For this was also the first time that Erich, Ludwig and Siegfried Schweiger, the third and fourth generations who now run the family brewery, had the opportunity to meet all the Hofmeister management, sales and marketing teams in one go.
It was Erich Schweiger who Richard Longhurst and Spencer Chambers first met when they went travelling around Bavaria, back in 2016, in search of a partner brewer to work with. In fact they very nearly did not meet at all as Schweiger was the last brewery on their list to visit and it was only because Erich Schweiger was willing to wait into the evening to meet them, intrigued by what these two British entrepreneurs wanted to see him about.
But it only needed Longhurst and Chambers to sip the first beer pulled fresh out one of the Schweiger brewery taps to know that they had found the right partner.
“We are not brewers, we just want to partner with the best brewery we could find,” says Chambers. “A brewery who we could also scale the business with and build the Hofmeister brand.”
Now here they are back with a coach load of colleagues all fresh faced and eager to enjoy the Schweiger Brewery experience for themselves.
It was, says Schweiger, quite an experience for them too as they had not welcomed such a large group of people from one customer before. In fact, Hofmeister is the only non-German customer that Schweiger has as 80% of the beer it produces is usually sold within 20 miles of the brewery. Which is pretty much, apparently, the norm for most Bavarian breweries.
Unique slow brewing
What makes Bavarian Helles lager so distinct from this part of the world is the slow brewing process that allows it to build texture and mouth feel into the beer whilst maintaining its unique freshness.
Whilst major brewers can turn around beers in less than two weeks, Schweiger’s slow brew process takes at least five weeks. “Having a slower brewing process, makes nice beer,” says Erich Schweiger.
Then there are the ingredients. They may only work with three, but they are the best locally sourced ingredients they can find. Its barley is sourced from Upper Bavaria and by having its own maltings within the Schweiger brewery it means it can not only store its own malt on site, but can then produce the exact malt it needs for each specific beer it makes. Its malt is made to such a standard that it also supplies bespoke brewer’s malt to many other Bavarian breweries.
“Malting is inseparable from brewing,” says Erich Schwieger. “We are committed to this tradition at Schweiger. In our own maltings, we create exactly the right malt to meet our stringent quality demands and whatever malt is needed for our beer specialities.”
It also works with a number of local farmers in the renowned Hallertau area to only supply it with the level of indigenous hops it needs to comply with its handcrafted brewing traditions.
Now to the third ingredient – Its water. This is drawn from its own wells underneath the Ebersberger Forest, close to the brewery, that brings water up from 150m down. In 1993 its water source was recognised as a mineral water spring and as well as supplying the water it needs for brewing, Schweiger also uses it to make its own spring mineral water brand called Silenca Silence.
It also only uses yeasts that have come from its own pure cultivation to ensure it guarantees quality and control at every stage, says Erich Schweiger. Mixing its own stored yeasts and then combining it with fresh yeasts can have a big impact on the final beer.
“Managing yeasts is really important to the flavour of the beer. We are very particular. We consider the Bavarian art of brewing and the protection of the Beer Purity Law to be inextricably linked,” he adds.
Seeing is believing
All of which is not only good for the Hofmeister team to know, but invaluable when going out talking to customers and explaining just what it is that makes its Helles lager taste so fresh and clean, says Jim Harling, Hofmeister’s sales director. “That’s how we are going to get Hofmeister into the best bar in every town,” he adds.
Seeing the whole brewing process, from breathing in the fresh malt, to seeing the mash fermenters, through to pouring a fresh Helles lager for yourself straight from the tank was what this trip was all about.
It’s one thing to have a great looking beer in a bottle, or pouring one from a nice looking font on a bar, but nothing beats drinking the beer directly from the tank at the brewery.
Or does it? How about jumping on a bus and going on the next stage of the trip and taking part in the Schweiger Poinger Volksfest that just so happens to be taking part in its local town of Markt Schwaben during the time we are there.
What was supposed to be the “quiet Monday night” turned out to be packed marquee with hundreds of local people squeezed up and down trestle tables all singing along to an Oompah band as it went through its repertoire of what were clearly Bavarian crowd favourites.
There we were greeted once again by the Schweiger brewery team, but this time all decked out in their local Bavarian costumes. Which was very much the dress code for the few hundred other people there, probably all wondering what the 20 plus Brits were doing, all wearing Hofmeister ‘Follow The Bear’ T-shirts, sitting nervously at the back.
This was the full Bavarian Helles beer experience in technicolour. Complete with steins of beer and plates of meats, cheeses, pates, sausages pork knuckles – and the dancing.
If you could replicate that in every premium beer venue in the UK then sales of Hofmeister would be back to where it was in the late 1980s.
The whole experience also showed just how important and part of the local community the Schweiger Brewery is. For a start it is situated right in the middle of the town, so locals have the smell of brewing with them 24 hours a day – and have done since it first opened its brewery doors in 1934.
Its beer festival, for example, was not just a weekend affair, but went on for 10 days, apparently full every night. Not with tourists, but locals every night coming together and dressing up to celebrate, and share their love of being part of Bavaria, where having a stein of local beer and a plate of meat and cheese is part of their every day life.
Which brings us back to what Hofmeister hopes to be all about – “putting a smile factor back into beer,” says co-founder Spencer Chambers. “We want to find room on the bar for something special.”
Now I probably did not need to ‘embed’ myself into the Hofmeister team to find out just how special Bavarian Helles lager is, but there really is nothing like seeing something for yourself to truly understand what makes it so special.
- You can find out more about the new revamped Hofmeister and its range of premium authentic Bavarian beers including its Helles, Weisse and ultra low brands at its website here. It is rolling out a major Oktoberfest campaign throughout the rest of September and October and working with its on-trade customers across the country to put on bespoke Bavarian-themed beer events in their venues.