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Taking the waters?

How a country brewery became a giant

The waters Veltins brewery uses are in a designated Natural Park

How often am I invited to visit a source of water? Often, at whisky distilleries; but rarely at breweries. It happened at a brewery recently, and I was glad of the chance to stretch my legs.

From my office in London, there had been a painfully slow cab ride to Stansted airport (nearer Cambridge), a cramped commuter plane to Dortmund, and an hour's car journey from there.

Dortmund is the capital of the old coal and steel region on the Rhine and Ruhr. The first time I visited the city, it had half a dozen big brewing companies; now it has two, plus two brewpubs.

Not only have the Dortmund brewers seen their sales to thirsty miners and steelworkers diminish with the decline of those industries, they have also suffered from the shadow left behind. Industrial cities can be dirty, and Germans are very keen on cleanliness. As the old working-class fades away, the new middle-class heads for the hills. In this case, the hills and valleys of the nearby region known as Sauerland.

To the city-dwellers of any nation, the idea of fresh air, tree-clad hillsides, babbling brooks, and pretty villages can be potent. To the inhabitants of the densely-populated Rhine and Ruhr region, a weekend in Sauerland means relaxing at a half-timbered tavern, with its gilded sign and rustic interior, and eating wild boar washed down by the local beer.

Back in town, the city-dweller often enough develops a new loyalty to the beer he enjoyed in Sauerland. This urban thirst has led to the spectacular growth of some village breweries there. With no local style of beer, all specialise in Pilseners. My recent visit was to Veltins, the brewery that led the movement. I had long wanted to look into Veltins, and a chance meeting with its American importer, the splendidly-named Joseph Heller, had led to an invitation.

The environment

Once out of the Rhine-Ruhr, the road sped through sweeping green valleys to the town of Meschede and the nearby village of Grevenstein, home of the brewery. As we wound through the hilly village, I admired the whitewashed houses, with their steeply-pitched roofs, but my host from the Veltins brewery wanted to show me his company's waste-water purification plant. "The environment is very important to us," he explained, not for the first or last time.

Village brewery...Sauerland style
Suddenly, the brewery itself appeared, a V-shape of shimmering towers in a white aluminum, set into a hillside. Closer inspection revealed that the site had been blasted into a cliff-face. As I contemplated the graywacke rock, a hard sandstone, I saw water filtering through.

The brewery dates from 1824, and has been in the Veltins family since 1852. It was originally a brewpub, at the Becker Hotel in the village. The hotel still stands, and offers the beer, but the brewery moved to the present site, a few hundred yards away, in the 1930s, when the company decided to specialise in Pilsener-style beer. The original attraction of this location was the water: near at hand, impeccably clean and soft.

I was driven up a rock road in a steep valley lined with pines, oak and beech, to the principal source. At the head of the valley was a pretty reservoir, with a birdhouse. Farther down, a neat cabin hid an underground pumping station that could have passed for a public swimming bath. A wet milling system is employed at the brewery. Summer barley from most parts of Germany provides the malt for a single decoction. The stainless steel mashing vessels are of the square type popular in the mid 1970s. The hops, from the Hallertau (Perle and Magnum varieties), Tettnang and the Czech Republic (Saaz), are used as pellets, in three additions. Veltins employs a permanent specialist in the Hallertau to monitor the hop crop, and has its own test gardens there.

At the brewery, the stainless steel boiling kettles are of a more traditional shape, but in the modern, angular style. They have a floor to themselves, in a hall with a cobalt colour scheme, at times with a pointilliste finish. I was tempted to call it the blue room. This part of the brewery dates from the late 1980s and 1990s, and is decorated with polished sculptures and mobiles by the Dortmund minimalist-constructivist Harold Becker. These were acquired by the brewery's owner during those years.

The biggest surprise for me was a much older feature: a fermentation system that begins with a continuous phase, albeit a very short one of 24 hours. The rest of the fermentation and maturation is conventional: a seven-day primary in cylindro-conical; and three to four weeks' lagering in a separate cellar. The beer has a starting gravity of 11.8 Plato (1047), and emerges with 4.8 per cent alchohol by volume (3.8 by weight).

Research into continuous fermentation was fashionable throughout the brewing industry worldwide in the period after the Second World War. Fully continuous systems were eventually thought by most brewers to pose more problems than they solved. The best-known large-scale system, developed by a brewer of German origin operates at the Dominion brewery, in New Zealand.

The original idea of continuous fermentation was to save time and money. This much more limited system, designed by the brewing scientist H.J.Wellhöner, may confer more benefit in the freshness of the yeast. My impression is that, having installed it decades ago, Veltins stays with it rather than risk changing the taste of the beer.

The flavors

Beer in hillside
Beer blasts into the cliffside
While Pilsener-style beers from Bavaria can be quite big and relatively malty, and those from the far north extremely hoppy, the Sauerland examples have tended to be hop-accented but well balanced. Veltins Pils fits into that category, but with elements of its own.

I have always found its precise character hard to define. Over the years, my notes have suggested that aroma is grassy; the flavors quite robust, with some sweet maltiness; and the hop bitterness in the finish austere and elegant. Having taken a closer look, I think I understand the beer better. Those robust flavors? Some fresh-bread maltiness, perhaps? Or crusty bread fresh out of the oven? And a lot of influence from the Tettnang hop, with its fragrant, vanilla-like, flavors.

Much of Veltins growth in sales was under the directorship of Rosemarie Veltins, from the mid 1960s to the mid 1990s. After her death, the succession again fell to a woman, Susanne Veltins, the sixth generation of the family. The brewery produces 2.3 million hectolitres a year, despite a German beer market that is flat overall. A 35 per cent stake was recently acquired in the wheat beer brewer Maisel, to add a second style to Veltins' portfolio in the taverns it serves.

The single-mindedness of the Sauerland Pilsener brewers has served them well in building their names but this philosophy has gone as far as it can. A greater choice of beer-styles is now required as Germans' unquestioning loyalty to beer is shaken by a growing connoisseurship of wine.

Published: MAY 21, 2001
In: Beer Hunter Online

Beer Review - Brewery Review

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