Dark wooden tables in the brew house are already set with cutlery, glasses and white serviettes for a large party. A glass wall offers a view of the brewery’s tall stainless-steel tanks. There, Mario Röhm leans back in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest. The slight singsong lilt of his voice is not from this region. The 31-year-old is originally from Mannheim but relocated to the Lower Rhine area for the master brewer’s job at Schlüffken.
Mario, what do you find most exciting about your job as a brewer?
The product. The variety involved in the work, from modern technology to traditional handicraft. And the contact with the customers when you’re working in a small brewery like Schlüffken. There are 300 people sitting out in the beer garden drinking your beer. Sometimes you can go out and join them at their tables. Sure, you’re not a doctor or a police officer, but the 2 hours the people spend sitting there enjoying the beer you are responsible for, that’s the great thing about it.
How did you wind up at the Furth family’s Schlüffken brewery at Nordbahnhof in Krefeld?
I got my diplomas in brewing and beverage technology and as master brewer at the Doemens Educational and Pilot Brewery in Munich. Johannes Furth was also taking a course there to earn his diploma as a beer sommelier. A colleague introduced us. Later, I met with Johannes at Giesinger Brauerei, where his sister Anne was doing an internship. Over a couple of beers, we talked about their vision for their own brewery.
What did you discuss?
What should the beers taste like? What is a realistic market? Where do they want to be in 5 years? You have to know what steps you want to take to gain a foothold in the hospitality industry and in stores. If your targets are too ambitious, you’ll run out of money fast or the product quality won’t be able to keep up with the growth.
… and in terms of the beer, the chemistry was right between you as well?
Yes, as a small brewery, you need the standard varieties – pilsner, altbier, lager and wheat beer, depending on the region. Those are the most popular brews. If you’re talking about more artisanal products, you’re looking at craft beer . There’s a lot of buzz about those beers in the media, but they only account for a small fraction of sales here in Germany. Traditional beers are best suited to our beer garden, the events and the beverage trade. But there are also other concepts that attract guests to try many different types of beers. You have to know your market.
But you also offer a pale ale. How does that fit into the range?
Most of our customers want a pilsner or an altbier to go with their schnitzel. But you can also look for ways to win over other guests who don’t usually drink beer. Our summer ale was a great success, for example – a light pale ale with 4.6% alcohol. It’s a fruity, naturally cloudy beer that’s popular in the summer, especially with women.
For winter, we have our festival beer. That’s a little stronger, 5.6%. We brew special beers like that to appeal to a younger crowd, too. Young people don’t drink the same type of beer for 50 years like their grandpa did. That’s also an area where, as a small brewery with our own restaurant, we also have an edge over the big operations: people know us because they come in. When we have a new variety, they try it out. The Furth family, our servers or we ourselves when we're giving brewery tours can personally tell the guests something about the beer. Mid-sized and large breweries have to use traditional advertising to do that.
How did that work during the coronavirus pandemic?
During that time, we switched to more bottled beer. We put gift boxes together for Christmas and Carnival, for customers like Krefeld-based companies. Through their staff, we also reach people who don’t live in Krefeld. It’s the same effect as with our events or in the beer garden: people who get to know us recommend us to their friends. The same thing happens when people see one of our cases in the store and take it home – because for them, we’re a brewery with people and a story behind it.
Are there also disadvantages to being such a small brewery?
Of course, especially when you’re just starting out with sales and trying to get into restaurants and stores. You have to charge different prices than the big companies. As soon as you run up against the buyers in stores, things get tough. Restaurateurs are also businesspeople. They have to keep their eye on the bottom lime, or they may already be bound by other contracts. There’s a lot of persuasion that goes into it. But for the past 5 or 6 years, regional products have been on the rise. Restaurateurs want to serve a product where they know the people who make it and who stand behind its taste.
Nordbahnhof tradtional and modern
With Anne and Johannes Furth, a new generation of restaurateurs moved into Krefeld’s Nordbahnhof. That includes their own brewery, Schlüffken, named after the historic steam engine known as ‘Schluff’. The newly built brewery contains 11 storage tanks, 4 fermentation tanks and 3 pressure tanks. Some 3,000 hectolitres of Schlüffken are produced each year. The Furths use METRO’s delivery service FSD (Food Service Distribution) and digital tools from Hospitality Digital at Nordbahnhof. Read the whole story of the Nordbahnhof as a tradition-rich restaurant and a contemporary event location here in MPULSE .
Is there such a thing as a ‘taste of home’?
Taste is a very individual matter. I find it hard to say ‘My pilsner is the best’. Of course, it is certainly true that large breweries sell products in Germany, throughout Europe or even worldwide. A taste that the greatest number of people in the greatest number of places like, is good for sales. By contrast, we small breweries sell within a radius of 5 or 10 kilometres. That means we can produce a much more unique taste.
How do you plan what your beers will taste like?
Let’s take our pilsner as an example: the bitter taste has been reduced in many pilsners for years, to the point that now they are no longer classic pilsners. We wanted to make a pilsner like they were 30 years ago, that still has a nice bitterness and a finely integrated aroma of hops. Then the trick is to get a pleasant bitterness that doesn’t linger too long. The taste should be bitter but fade away after I’ve finished drinking so that I can still taste my food.
And how do you reinvent altbier in the land of altbier?
You take someone like me, who is not a local, and you say: make an altbier. (Mario laughs.) With altbier varieties, either the coffee-like roasted flavour comes to the fore, which you get with the special malt, or they’re very hoppy and bitter. We are convinced that a good altbier has both qualities, but they’re balanced, so you taste both but neither is too dominant. Apart from that, there are also lighter altbier varieties, which are smoother because both the hops and the malt flavours are more subtle. We wanted a balance, and also a fizziness. When an altbier gets to your table, it should still have enough bubbles for a nice mouthfeel.
What is your favourite among your beers?
We’ve had a wheat beer here on tap in the brewery since last year. When the wheat beer season starts here in the beer garden with no pandemic-related restrictions, I’ll be very curious to see how it sells. Sometimes the best thing is also the easiest: a classic, light wheat beer with all the parameters we learned in school. Lots of wheat beer breweries have moved away from that. So a wheat beer like ours really makes a difference. It has the typical banana aroma you can create really well through fermentation in small, open tanks.
What other kind of beer would you like to brew?
I worked at Doemens, in product development at a pilot brewery, so I got to experiment quite a lot, of course – such as with an ultra-strong beer with 20% alcohol from natural fermentation and with 100 varieties of hops. I could actually imagine brewing a Berliner Weisse at Schlüffken for the right occasion. Sour beer is a lot of work to make, of course. If it’s going to be worth it, a small brewery needs a well-planned campaign so you can move the beer out within a week. I’d like to make a wheat bock beer aged in wooden barrels for my own private consumption someday. That’s not a mass-market product, but the ageing in a wooden barrel intrigues me because it can have really surprising effects on the taste.