Beer or wine? Brewers on a journey through Saxony's vineyards

T he brothers André and Erik Winkelmann are passionate about beer – brewing it and drinking it. We accompany them on a journey through the traditional wine-growing region of Saxony

15. August 2019

There are a few either/ or questions that everyone gets asked at some time in their life: Beatles or Rolling Stones? For a long time, a litmus test of your taste in music. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich? But perhaps the most important question of all is “Wine or beer?”

For André and Erik Winkelmann at least, it is a no-contest: they are beer drinkers out of conviction. So great is their passion for the amber nectar that the two brothers got together with friends to start their own brewery. Vier Vogel Pils (Four Bird Pilsner) was a fanciful idea they conceived in 2012 during an extended stay in Colombia.

Meanwhile, their craft beer is proving to be a hit in the wider region outside the city itself, with more than half a million bottles sold each year – and this in a region which is traditionally associated with wine.

With beer drinkers at Wackerbarth castle

Saxony is the easternmost wine-growing region in Germany. Some of its vineyards are on the slopes behind the castle of Wackerbarth at Radebeul. The Sächsisches Staatsweingut (Saxon State Winery), which attracts more than 190,000 visitors each year, is the first stop on the short wine tour that we embark on with these two dyed-in-the-wool beer drinkers.

Almost defiantly, the pair of them are sporting the logo and motto of their brewery on their chests as they get out of the car. “Con mucho cariño”, it says on the grey Vier Vogel T-shirts. “It means ‘with much love and devotion’,” says André Winkelmann, a shaven-headed young man with a three-day beard, just like his brother. Because that describes the way they brew. Their beer used to be available in only a few establishments such as the Horst (a pub in Dresden Neustadt) and in the brothers’ own Café Bishop, but in the last couple of years, it has started to appear in specialist shops and on the shelves of the Kaufland chain of stores.

Nonetheless, the Vier Vogel Pils project remains primarily a hobby: the six friends who make up the collective continue to earn their living as electrical engineers, IT experts or media designers.

Now Erik and André Winkelmann are standing in the middle of the vineyard. Beneath them is the baroque complex with the almost 300-year-old castle, the restaurant and the new glass-and-steel vinotheque, and standing next to them is Jürgen Aumüller. “With love and devotion” could also be the motto of the cellarmaster at Schloss Wackerbarth. That becomes immediately apparent as he explains how the vines are tended, how the bottles of Sekt (sparkling wine) in the cellar are turned every day, and how the wine matures in the barrels.

With Jürgen Aumüller in the wine cellar at Schloss Wackerbarth

On those occasions when Aumüller, who grew up in Bavaria, drinks beer, he does so out of a wine glass: “Because of its bulbous shape, it allows the bouquet to develop much better.” He believes that beer should be enjoyed in the same way as wine.

Brewer André Winkelmann finds the ceremonial aspects slightly over the top. He tells of studies that show beer has even more flavours than wine.

Aumüller’s job is not only to produce the best possible wine and sparkling wine on one of Saxony’s largest estates. After a chequered history, in which it went through various changes of ownership, a couple of  wars and most recently collectivisation in the GDR, Schloss Wackerbarth is now owned by the Saxony State Ministry of Agriculture. Its mission is to raise the profile of Saxony as a wine-growing region.

 

Here the „Societé des antisobres“ has its roots

What characterises the local vineyards is the cultivation of extremely steep slopes, a feature that is gradually disappearing from the other winegrowing areas of Germany. Today, it also functions as a living museum and venue for hire, with daily tours, tastings and other events.

The estate was first planted by Count August Christoph von Wackerbarth, Minister of State and confidant to Augustus the Strong. Together, they founded the ‘Gesellschaft zur Bekämpfung der Nüchternheit’ (“Society for the Abolition of Sobriety“) which regularly convened in Dresden.

A society in which the brewers of Vier Vogel Pils would certainly have felt amongst kindred spirits. We have arrived in the cellar, and the tasting session is about to begin. Aumüller opens several bottles of the finest Wackerbarths. Erik and André Winkelmann expertly suck the wine through their teeth and then spit it into the vase-like spittoon provided.

In the subsequent search for taste associations, the brewers turn out to be as imaginative as wine expert Aumüller: Does the wine taste like brioche or yeast? Is that a citrus note, or rather banana? Passion fruit, lychee, pear?

The cellar master explains how a cuvée is blended from different grape varieties and from different vines. He explains the characteristics of his vines, talks about the soil, the grape varieties and the amount of work that goes into getting a wine to taste right.

The brewers tell how they experimented with different types of hops, until finally they had found exactly the taste that they wanted for their pilsner: a full hoppy flavour and fine-pearly lustre. “We didn’t want to simply tip a hop extract from the canister into our beer,” says Erik Winkelmann. “Actually, our beer is also a cuvée,” adds his brother.

 

Next stop: Klaus Zimmerling, self-taught winemaker

Klaus Zimmerling’s estate is located south of Dresden. Zimmerling started out the same way as the Winkelmann brothers: without much expertise, but with all the more idealism for that. Klaus Zimmerling did not like the wine that was produced in the GDR, so he started to plant vines and make wine himself. Self- taught like the creators of Vier Vogel Pils. “We had no idea about brewing before,” recalls Erik. “Only about drinking. In that particular discipline, we were professionals.”

Klaus Zimmerling laughs. For him, those days are long gone. After thirty years as a winemaker, he is one of the top two or three in Saxony. The critics have heaped praise on his wines which he grows on nearly four and a half hectares. By comparison, the Schloss Wackerbarth estate extends over 92 hectares. Zimmerling’s vines are all on the hill known as Pillnitzer Königlicher Weinberg and mostly on one of the famously labour-intensive steep slopes: “This is an absolute top location, but we have to do almost everything by hand. I am able to achieve what I want from life here, and having more doesn’t necessarily make you happier.”

In the middle of the vineyard are his family home and the cellar, a small wine shop and a bar via which more than half of the annual production is sold. It’s diffcult to decide what is more spectacular: the view across the Graupa valley, the award-winning wines or the intricate works of art sculpted by his wife, Małgorzata Chodakowska. They also adorn the labels of the wine bottles. “So people have three reasons to come to us,” says Zimmerling, “the panorama, the art and the wine.”

 

Beer from the washing machine

Beer is too bitter for him, says Zimmerling. Nevertheless, the top winegrower and the two craft beer brewers quickly find common ground. Both wanted to produce for themselves in the first instance, then for friends, and thereafter the demand grew. The two brewers recount anecdotes from their early days. For example, how beer escaped from a washing machine that had been converted into a brewing vat and flooded rooms in a shared flat, and how they later expanded a small garden arbour to become a microbrewery. Nowadays, Vier Vogel Pils is made by a professional brewery according to a proprietary recipe.

Klaus Zimmerling opens a bottle: “This is our simplest variety.” André and Erik Winkelmann put their noses into their glasses, then they sip. There is no spittoon here; the two brewers swallow the wine and nod with satisfaction. So, what is the answer to the age-old question: wine or beer? “When you have wine, you have friends,” says Zimmerling. “It’s no different with beer; everyone gets thirsty,” says André Winkelmann.

Not every question has to have a definitive answer.

 

 

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