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.