Schönbrunn im Steigerwald, Germany
Some breweries exist as their own museum. Seelmann Bräu has been in the hands of the Seelmann family since 1608, and the photographs hanging on the gastette wall act as a sort of historical exhibit for this 400 year-old family legacy. It’s a two hour journey by bus to Zettmannsdorf from Bamberg, and Seelmann does not observe regular hours, so it’s not a place you should spontaneously visit using public transportation. Visitors are advised to call or email in advance to arrange a sacheduled visit.
Bräumeister Rudolf Seelmann and his family offer a kitchen, banquet hall, private rooms and outdoor camping facilities, in addition to beer. Such is life as a family business in Franconia, where brewers sometimes have to specialize in one or more other trades. Many brewers work as butchers, bakers, farmers, and inn-keepers; some work as brewing equipment engineers, others as general tradesmen.
It’s difficult to survive solely as a professional brewer in an economy that has left you largely ignored. Brewing is not a lucrative field, proof enough being that the cost of beer in Franconia is laughably low. Drinking beer is as commonplace as eating bread, and the Franconian public does not tolerate major increases in the cost of a Seidla. Price yourself too high and suddenly your competitors will begin receiving more phone calls. What’s more, young men and women understandably prefer the opportunities presented to them by post-secondary education and technical schools. Would-be next generation family brewers are instead leaving for the city to pursue more gainful employment. Unsurprisingly, Rudolf’s young daughter is not excited by the idea of taking over the brewery from dad, though she still has plenty of time to decide.
Rudolf Seelmann operates a 300 hectoliter mechanical brewery, run without electronics. No bottles or kegs are filled, and no gravity barrels tapped on Friday night. Each batch is packaged and distributed in 5 liter mini-keg (Partyfass), sold from the brewery and through their Ebay store.
Seelmann Kellerbier, also known as Unfiltriertes Lagerbier, is hazy golden and pétillant in the Ungespundet way. It has a mineral-forward character with quiet Hallertau lemon oil hoppiness and subtle Pilsner malt toastiness, the body savory and crisp.
Rudolf mentions that he used to brew a hoppier Lagerbier, only the locals rebuked its more aggressive bitterness, so the hop rate was reduced again. What can you do but try to please your customers? Some communities prefer bitter lagers, while others prefer to have a maltier, sweeter, sometimes darker beer on hand. There’s no pattern to who likes what, it’s more about how long a brewer has been established, how long they’ve been serving a consistent beer, good or bad, pale or dark. Consistency is key in Franconia.
We gave Rudolf encouragement to reintroduce a hoppier Lagerbier and perhaps change people’s minds by waiting out their acceptable, but given the already slim margin selling his Lagerbier online, I think he is comfortable with the way things are.
A variety of beer was once made in house, covering a number of core German styles: Pilsner, Vollbier, Export Hell, Festbier, Märzen, and Doppelbock. Today only the Lagerbier remains in year-round production, with the Bockbier served once each year, beginning in early November.
The whole of what the family does, not just making beer, allows the Seelmann family to make a living. One of the reasons so many family breweries go out of business in Franconia, it’s not that the Family goes out of business, rather beer making is dropped from the family’s portfolio to concentrate effort on more profitable endeavours. In fact, Seelmann Bräu shut the doors in the past, and the very well could shut them in the future. Since reopening in 2006 with a restoration of the brewery, the current business model has kept the doors somewhat open. For now, they still exist as a brewery, but consider their status threatened and endangered.