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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.

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