A Freiberger Quartet

Review of four Freiberger beers sampled at the brewery’s taproom and restaurant in Dresden’s historical city centre.

During a recent, previously chronicled visit to Dresden, I treated myself to a scrumptious dinner at the Freiberger Schankhaus.

Literally translated, Schankhaus connotes a house where something is given or poured ˗ in other words: A pub. In the traditional mould, to be specific.

According to the city map I had been given whilst checking into my hotel the previous evening, the Freiberger Schankhaus served the best Schweinshaxe (or roasted pork knuckle) in town. Having always been partial to a good Haxe, I easily succumbed to the superlatives and moseyed on down to Neumarkt (New Market) in the heart of Dresden’s historical city centre on a Wednesday evening.

Ground Zero

Its slightly elevated position above the flood-prone Elbe meant that the Neumarkt area was one of the first to be settled on the river’s left bank. However, the village that rose on the spot would remain outside the Dresden city walls until 1530. From that point on, the burg encompassed two market squares. The other one, located around the Kreuzkirche, was renamed Altmarkt (Old Market).

During the reign of Augustus II, more commonly known as August the Strong, reputable architects from across the continent were commissioned to design grand Baroque structures that would give Dresden the allure and stature of the regional capital it had become. The Freiberger Schankhaus stands on the site of one of them.

Originally built in the 1750s, the building’s distinguishing feature was a figurine of King Solomon fitted to its facade. Hence, the pharmacy that occupied the ground floor of the premises for almost two centuries was called Zum König Salomon (To King Solomon).

Almost two centuries. Not even the patronage of an ancient monarch could prevent the near complete destruction of Neumarkt ˗ and the old pharmacy along with it ˗ when Dresden was bombed in February 1945.

The Stone Bell

The most prominent of all the unique buildings engulfed by the firestorm that gained intensity with every falling incendiary was, without a shadow of a doubt, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady).

Built between 1726 and 1743, and standing 93 metres tall upon completion, the Baroque church formed the centerpiece of the Dresden skyline’s distinctive silhouette for over two centuries. In allusion to its rather unconventional cupola, the majestic structure became known as die Steinerne Glocke (The Stone Bell).

An engineering feat comparable to the dome of the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Frauenkirche’s 12,000-ton sandstone cupola rested on eight disproportionally slender supports. Despite initial apprehension, the construction proved to be remarkably sturdy. Witness accounts dating from 1760, when Dresden was under siege from the Prussian army, mention more than 100 cannonballs bouncing off the cupola without causing much damage at all.

In the immediate wake of the inferno that reduced much of Dresden to simmering rubble in 1945, it appeared that the Frauenkirche had defied yet another attack. However, after 40-odd hours of exposure to temperatures of up to 1,000°C, the pillars of the burnt-out nave succumbed and the Stone Bell also came crashing down, just like everything around it had already done. Only two sections of wall remained upright, separated by a mound of rubble 13 metres high.

The citizens of Dresden, who have always been fiercely proud of their city, started petitioning for the Frauenkirche’s restoration as early as April 1945 and 600 cubic metres of stone had been salvaged, measured and catalogued by 1949.

Unfortunately, the communist authorities that would govern East Germany ˗ or the German Democratic Republic (GDR), as the newly created state was officially called ˗ after its formation on October 7, 1949 were unwilling to support these preliminary rebuilding efforts.

At a certain point, the powers that were proposed turning the site into a car park, resulting in ferocious public backlash. The people of Dresden had watched their city burn and the fire raged on within them; they would not stand for any further, cynical desecration to their home ˗ even at the hands of an authoritarian dictatorship. In the end, a compromise was reached and the ruins of the Stone Bell were left practically untouched for four decades as an anti-war memorial.

The beauty of humanity also came to the fore when, as early as 1956, Dresden entered a twin-town relationship with Coventry. A centre of military and munitions production during the war, Coventry had suffered some of the worst Luftwaffe raids on any city on British soil, losing 1,200 of its citizens and its own historical cathedral in the process.

In a world divided along political ideologies, this symbolic statement of camaraderie between two razed cities that had once stood on opposing ends of the battlefield showed just how far a little bit of empathy can go.

The Resurrection of an Icon

Several months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, on the 45th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, a group of prominent local residents reached out to the rest of the world in search of support to help rebuild their fallen icon.

This so-called “Call from Dresden” pleaded for the Frauenkirche’s resurrection as a symbol of peace and set an international fundraising initiative in motion. One by one, a long list of bureaucratic hurdles was overcome and the Dresden City Council also committed itself to the project in early 1992.

The clearance of the ruins lasted a full 18 months. A total of 22,000 cubic meters of stone and other architectural elements were salvaged from the humongous pile of rubble and carefully catalogued. By the end of May 1994, the cross-shaped layout of the Frauenkirche’s cellar had become visible; reconstruction works could finally commence.

Around 40% of the original building materials salvaged were found to be suitable for re-use. A team of architects analysed old photographs with the aid of modern 3D software, a crew of masons repaired and remodelled the selected stones where necessary.

The Dresden Trust, a British charity formed in 1993 to help raise funds for the project, also made significant contributions to the Frauenkirche’s new facade. One of them was an 8 metre high orb and cross in which medieval nails recovered from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral had been incorporated, and had partially been crafted by the son of a RAF pilot who had actively participated in the air raids on Dresden.

The result is an impressive patchwork of stones in various shades ˗ from pristine, sand-tinted crème to soot-like black, and everything in between. This contrast sees to it that Dresden’s darkest hour can- and shall not be overlooked, but that its shadows need not be all-encompassing either. As Kierkegaard put it: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

View of the Frauenkirche by day

The new Frauenkirche was formally consecrated on October 30, 2005, ahead of schedule and in time for Dresden’s 800-year jubilee in 2006. All around the church, a brand new replicated Neumarkt had risen too.

Various organisations and societies had been calling for reconstruction works to be extended to cover the entire historical city centre, where possible, since 1999. These intentions could count on widespread public approval, so much so that the city council decided to rebuild most of the Baroque buildings in the Neumarkt area in accordance with historical designs ˗ the building that had once housed the old pharmacy, and now the Freiberger Schankhaus, included.

On That Freiberger Flex

When I reached the Freiberger Schankhaus on that Wednesday evening around 8, there was no space left for me in their expansive downstairs dining area. There was, however, a small table available in the Schankraum, or public parlour.

The hunched over bodies engaged in spirited conversation along the stretched-out, curving bar positioned in front of ceiling-high pharmacy shelves made for a refined yet cosy ambiance; I was genuinely pleased to be there, and not only because I was famished.

Since I had already committed myself to the Haxe, all that was left to ponder was my choice of drink. No difficulties there ˗ the Freiberger Schankhaus has four beers on tap, I decided to try them all.

A quick glance at the drinks menu revealed that the whole quartet on offer is concocted by the same brewer ˗ the Freiberger Brauhaus, to be exact. Freiberg is an old mining town located some 30 km south-west of Dresden, on the northern fringes of the Ore Mountains.

The local brewery is the oldest in Saxony, the first written record of its existence dating back to 1266 when Margrave Heinrich III declared that Freiberg had the sole right to supply beer to other mining communities in the area. Beer has been a major industry in town ever since, something that did not change when Freiberger Brauhaus was incorporated into the Radeberger Group in 2006.

Kellerbier (5.5% ABV)

The first draught beer listed on the drinks menu at their Schankhaus in Dresden is the Freiberger Kellerbier (literal translation: Cellar Beer). A hazy, bright golden brew that smells of bread and cereals, I found its taste to be fairly dry and grainy.

However, hints of lemon and a medium to high carbonation give the Kellerbier an unexpectedly refreshing finish. Nothing out of this world, but definitely not a bad start to the night either. I had just about emptied my glass when the Haxe was served so I made use of the opportunity to order another beer.

Both staff members on duty in the “public parlour” that evening, two young gentlemen whom I presumed to be of Arabic descent, would continue to display this type of exemplary timing for the rest of the evening.

Pils (4.9% ABV)

Brew number two that night was the Freiberger Pils, a crisp pilsner with a healthy dose of hop. Prepared with the soft, crystal clear water from the Ore Mountains, its golden straw hue and hoppy nose are a compelling prelude to a clean and dry mouthfeel. Most importantly, the beer complimented my Haxe with cabbage salad and local mustard exceptionally.

One of the gentlemen in charge of the bar dropped by my table to enquire whether everything was to my liking and, despite having plenty of other guests to tend to, took the time to show some interest in a solitary wayfarer. Now, I have grown accustomed to eating meals on my lonesome and really don’t have any issues with this ritual but the bartender’s inclination to provide me company at that moment was greatly appreciated.

As the evening progressed, I couldn’t help but notice how in tune both bartenders were with their clientele. The place was packed but their manner remained leisurely, every table tended to was left behind in laughter. Even the people they were forced to turn away due to lack of space left the public parlour with smiles on their faces.

Schwarzbier (4.9% ABV)

For desert I tried the Freiberger Schwarzbier (Black Beer). From his starting position behind the taps, one of the bartenders had clocked that my glass was empty. With an inquisitive look, he tipped his outstretched thumb and index finger towards his mouth; I hollered my order from across the bar in response. None of the other guests took notice, the bartender gave me a thumbs up. A moment later, I had a fresh beer in front of me.

And a very tasty beer at that! The highlight of the night as far as brews are concerned, the Schwarzbier caught me off guard in the best of ways. Its dark, spent-oil shade of black tone and beige head suggested a sweet and creamy palate ˗ to me, at least. Its nose, dominated by aromas of roasted malts and coffee, did little to contradict that assessment.

Pint of Freiberger Schwarzbier

However, against all expectations, the Schwarzbier turned out to be dry and fresh. The flavour of roasted malts is prevalent at the tip of the tongue but develops into mild herbal notes at the finish, giving the brew a thirst-quenching quality uncommon to dark beers ˗ in my humble opinion, of course. This quality is solidified by its body, which is slimmer than its colour would lead to believe.

Bockbier (7.1% ABV)

Halfway through my Schwarzbier, one of the bartenders showed up at my table to see how I was doing. After entertaining my praises about the beer I was drinking, he informed me that his personal favourite was the Bockbier. He excused himself and, within the space of a minute, returned with a half pint of the stuff. “On the house!”, he said with a grin, before responding to another table’s attempts to get his attention.

The Freiberger Bockbier’s pour is mahogany brown with a fast-dissipating head, its subtle nose exudes malty sweetness; these malts also, along with notes of caramel, define its equally subtle taste. In line with the formula applied to the rest of the Freiberger range, the Bockbier’s finish packs an unexpected twist of its own ˗ a refreshing hint of hoppy bitterness that goes down easily and leaves you wanting more.

Half pint of Freiberger Bockbier

When the bartender returned to check on my progress, I remarked that my tolerance must have risen to alarmingly high levels because I was not able to discern a trace of alcoholic content in the strongest drink of the night. He concurred, and warned of the dangers of this deception.

The public parlour had quietened down a bit so he was at liberty to spend more time at each individual table. During our conversation it was revealed that he hailed from Syria but had lived in Germany for almost a decade. He did not specify why or how he had come.

Several years after arriving, he was joined by his brother, the other gentleman running the show that evening. When I asked about their parents, his face lit up. The rest of the family had remained at home, but they were safe.

After settling the bill and exiting the Freiberger Schankhaus, light-footed and fully saturated, with a big smile on my face, I walked across a practically deserted Neumarkt and marvelled at the Frauenkirche for a while. At that instant, I decided there was nowhere else I would have rather been.

View of the Frauenkirche by night

By Christopher Andel

Born in Bangkok to a Dutch father and German mother, Christopher has spent much of his life pedalling back and forth between Europe and South East Asia. A true ‘Jack of all trades’, he has worked as an environmental consultant, language tutor, and roadie for the Chippendales, just to name a few. He currently resides in the Netherlands and is patiently plotting a return to greener pastures.

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