Brewing in a former Gemeindebrauhaus

So it is no secret that I am a huge fan of Franconia and during my time living and working in Germany I am becoming increasingly fascinated by this region and its unique beer culture. One aspect of this that I came across recently is the Gemeindebrauhaus concept, which dates back to a time when beer was a healthier alternative to poor quality water and a key source of nutrients. Gemeindebrauhaus roughly translates to a ‘community brewery’ and its defining feature, as the name would suggest, is the community-based operation of the brewery. Beer was produced by the community for the community. It is a boozy socialist’s dream. And it is no surprise that this concept was just as successful and, to some extent, lives on just over the border in neighbouring federal state Thuringia in former East Germany.

Hopfen und Malz, Gott erhalt’s

The members of the community, often villagers, that produced the wort had to be in possession of a household licence in order to operate the brew house. Permission was only granted to those who were seen as fit to guarantee the quality of the beer and licensing was also a more convenient way to manage the trade bill and tax collection. The first granting of permission to brew beer (Braurecht, ‘the right to brew’) was documented in 842 AD and this was one of the earliest cases of bureaucracy to rear its ugly head in German beer history.

Another unique aspect of the Gemeindebrauhaus was the way in which the beer was fermented. The beery licensees would siphon off a portion of the bitter wort into a container, haul this home and carry out the fermentation and maturation there. This split-batch brewing method almost certainly resulted in an array of different tasting beers due to different conditions under which the beer was fermented, stored and whether other additions were made in secondary.

Whilst a handful of Gemeindebrauhäuser still exist today, the Braurecht permit has been scrapped and each household is now allowed to produce 200 litres of tax-free beer for personal consumption per annum, which renders the original purpose of the Gemeindebrauhaus redundant.

One of the few remaining Franconian community breweries is the Brauhaus Oberstreu in Oberstreu, Lower Franconia, a village with a population of 1500 people. The Brauhaus was built in the early 17th century and now produces a Helles Lager and Dunkel Lager Bier on a commercial scale with a 30 hL brew kit. Although the building and brewing equipment have undergone various renovation works over the centuries, the brewery has an enchanting, historical feel that is unlike any modern production facility. Earlier in August 2017 I was lucky enough to meet the brewer Christian Schmitt and he kindly invited me to visit the brewery and be his brewery assistant for the afternoon.


I arrive at the brewery at 2pm as Christian tends to the fire and gets ready to mash in his Helles beer. I take a minute to awe and take it all in. Christian prepares the fire for the mash tun, kettle and hot liquor tank that are all heated directly by copious amounts of firewood. Christian says that he gets through approximately one cord (4ft. x 4ft. x 8ft.) of wood on brew day and he must start the fire at least 2 or 3 hours before he can mash in. Today brew day has started late due to deliveries and Christian is anxious to build a strong fire so that we can mash in and he can make it back home to his family before midnight. I check the thermometer display on the kettle from time to time and I am surprised to see how little progress we seem to be making despite the roaring fire downstairs. That is until I realise the unit of temperature is in °Ré. Christian explains that the Réaumur scale was commonly used for 19th century German brewery equipment and that he has never quite got around to installing a new thermometer with a Celsius scale.

In the meantime, I tend to the fire whilst Christian mills the grain. He uses a claw machine to lift the 50kg sacks of malt from the ground floor 10 metres upwards to the mill. This reminds me of the rip-off arcade game where the goal is to grab hold of a cuddly toy with a slightly smaller claw and just when you think you’ve won the prize the claw’s flimsy grasp is released and all hopes and dreams are shattered. Thankfully Christian was safely able to guide the malt to the mill without any casualties or heartbreak below.

The fire is the heart of brew house operations

The water temperature eventually reached 50°Ré (60°C) and we mashed in just after 3pm. As soon as the mash had settled and the clumps had been broken down, a portion of the mash was drawn off to the kettle where it was slowly brought to a boil. Christian performs a single step decoction mash in order to reach his final mash rest at 56°Ré (70°C). The grist consists only of Pilsner malt and all colour and sweetness from the malt is derived from the decoction step. Decoction mashing was the way all brewers used to increase mash temperatures before the modern wonders of steam engines and electricity. It is truly fascinating to see this method being used today out of necessity rather than out of choice.

The relatively new mash/lauter tun that was installed in the 1990s

We eventually reach our final mash temperature and soon it’s time to lauter. I am a huge fan of the traditional, German swan neck lauter taps for aesthetic reasons as well as an appreciation for low-tech precision and efficiency in brewing. During lautering we take a break to eat some dinner. I have pizza baguettes with Christian and his wife and daughter, Michaela and Sara as we constantly feed more wood to the hungry fire. By this point it’s getting late and after dinner I bid farewell to the family. I cycle back to my lodgings in the malt house with a bottle of beer in each pocket.

Beer slowly runs off from the lauter tun through the swan taps and into the kettle

More recently Brauhaus Oberstreu opened a Biergarten just down the road from the brewery, which is also home to their bottling line and a small, indoor seating area. On Wednesdays and Sundays Brauhaus Oberstreu beers are available on tap and delicious Flammkuchen are served alongside. I would definitely recommend a visit to this historical brewery and peaceful Biergarten, should you ever find yourself in this lovely, quaint part of Franconia.


Brauhaus Oberstreu

Schmalzgasse 7, 97640 Oberstreu


One thought on “Brewing in a former Gemeindebrauhaus

  1. I enjoyed your story! I’m curious – how would the Gemeindebrauhaus tradition compare to the Zoigl tradition in the Oberpfalz? Do you know whether there are still Gemeindebrauhaus operating as communal breweries?


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