Preserving a family tradition keeps urbanite Johannes Weber grounded
Interviews > Preserving a family tradition keeps urbanite…

How a small distillery in Germany’s south sets a standard for preserving old orchard meadows.

Johannes Weber enjoys learning new things and always works on different projects. His association Stadtbienen e. V. protects wild bees in urban Berlin. As an employee of the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), the 34-year-old helps to develop alternative and sustainable electricity concepts for areas with weak infrastructure in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Now he is taking over his grandfather’s distillery in southern Baden-Württemberg.

The distillery stands on a small orchard and is a remnant of the agriculture his family ran there. Johannes’ story reflects questions about family values, family traditions, intergenerational relationships and the desire to make something with one’s own hands; questions that many people of his generation are concerned with.

Meckenbeuren is a community of 13,000 people near Lake Constance. Here, the landscape is gently undulating, small forests alternate with fields, and Switzerland comes to the south. Not far from Meckenbeuren lies the orchard meadow that Johannes Weber has known since he could think. He is familiar with the smell in the air when the first apples are ripe: “A mixture of crushed apples with an almost sweet, fuzzy smell and damp grass,” he says. Between the tall, filigree trees there are hums and buzzes and when the meadow is a little higher, “there are lots of hornets and all sorts of insects, that is for them a dream habitat,” he says.

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In 1985, Johannes was born in Tettnang and he grew up in the area. He graduated from school and trained as a communications electronics technician. After his civilian service in Berlin, he traveled to South America at the age of 20. After his return, he studied renewable energies at the HTW in Köpenick and has lived in Berlin ever since, working for the GIZ. However, he has never lost the bond to his home. Almost every year, if it’s possible, he helps with the harvest on the orchard. Each year, on a weekend in early autumn, the family comes together here: Uncles, cousins, his parents, all of them help out when the different varieties of apples are ripe again. “For me there are many memories tied to this meadow. When there were cherries and other fruit here, we were always allowed to sell some of the harvest as children and supplement our pocket money,” Johannes recalls.

A central reason the family comes together for the harvest is also Grandfather Franz. He has been distilling his fruit brandy here for decades—a tradition he is now passing on to Johannes. “I can become such an active part of our family history if I learn this distilling craft and take over the distillery. In addition, this way the meadow will remain here,” Johannes explains his motivation. There are around nine million fruit trees in Baden-Württemberg. That is half of the fruit trees in all of Germany. Due to structural reforms in agriculture, the stock has declined by up to 50 percent since the 1960s. Today, small distilleries contribute to the preservation of the orchard meadows, which in this region are just as much a part of the cultural landscape as “Käsespätzle”, a regional dish, that has to be on the menu of every decent restaurant. It’s also the feel of this area that draws Johannes back home.

“A fruit brandy can also be complex. In a kind of whiskey glass, it gets more space, develops a different taste.”

People in larger conurbations often feel a love-hate relationship with their cities. This may be especially true if they come from rural areas. If you’ve been in Berlin for a couple of years, for example, you might feel a desire for a quieter place. A farm in Brandenburg, or simply the return to the seemingly more manageable home in Northern Germany, in the Palatinate or the Lake Constance district. Even though Johannes is emotionally attached to his home, he knows that this distillery cannot be sustained just with voluntary work: “I can’t take two weeks off every year to harvest, distill and then bottle the schnapps here.” While others may paint a romantic picture of returning home, Johannes has a pragmatic view of the situation. He has a task to work on.

The family schnapps has a long tradition around Meckenbeuren. People here know and appreciate it. Johannes is now considering how to get the annual 250-liter edition to other interested people. But first he has to sharpen his skills. That’s why he watches his Grandfather Franz in the distilling process. Johannes describes his first memories of the distillery: “I sat with my grandfather on the bench in the shed. Outside it was a bit colder, inside it was warm. We inspected the firing machine, I tasted the clear liquid that ran off and thought ‘wow, hard stuff!’” Today he’s right in the middle of it: The harvested apples are dumped into a fruit crusher, at the other end comes out mush which is stored in clay barrels. Johannes and his grandfather prepare the mash in them. Then, the mash is stored and fermented for several months before it can be distilled.

“I can become an active part of our family history by learning this craft.”

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A distilling cycle takes around two and a half hours. Johannes and his grandfather manage to do four to five turns per day. In between, plum or yeast dumplings are served in the family’s dining room. Not everything that comes out of the distilling machine is edible. The last part is tilted away, but the first part is used by Grandfather Franz “to rub his feet with it,” laughs Johannes. “I think it’s good for the circulation and should prevent rheumatism.” Slowly but steadily Johannes learns more about distilling, and his grandfather often relies on his intuition. He learned the craft of distillation from his mother.

Around 1850, the Wagner family’s history of agriculture begins. “It all started with my great-great-great-grandfather. My great-grandfather had chickens, cows, pigs and geese here, he grew turnips, potatoes, flax and cucumbers,” Johannes says. That’s how you imagine a real farm. But his Grandfather Franz never wanted to take over the farm in the first place. When the two older brothers died in the last years of the Second World War—his father died in 1945—it was his turn, “although he would have preferred to become a mechanic,” Johannes knows. After the war, however, farmers only had the option of investing, growing, selling more products on the market, or looking for another job.

Johannes’ grandfather takes the middle course. The fruit cultivation and the homestead remain, as does the distillery, which has been in operation since 1926. Grandpa Franz becomes a certified demolition engineer, muskrat catcher and he works for the regional water management office. “With his boat, the Seekuh (Sea Cow), he always crossed Lake Constance to separate the sea grass. That was a lot of fun for him,” says Johannes. Franz also has a good workshop, welds things together, “like a real grandpa.” One might think that the pronounced inventiveness that is said to exist in Swabia is having an impact here. Last but not least, Johannes is also a character who likes to push new projects and always wants to learn something new. “It’s something that connects us,” he says.

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Others in the family do not quite understand what Johannes wants to do with this “old liquor” as he says and, according to the sceptics, people would rather get cheap booze at the store. “On the one hand, this has to do with the dilemma of a fruit brandy. It’s more often than not tipped down so people can stand the taste,” Johannes analyzes, “but a fruit brandy can also be complex. In a kind of whiskey glass, for example, the fluid has more surface area and if you sip it more deliberately than toppling it down, it also develops a different taste.”

Johannes’ uncle runs an inn in the premises of the farm, there are a few guest rooms and people have already talked about tearing down the old fruit trees. So the philosophies about what to do with the place diverge. However, this piece of land has a long history that Johannes wants to preserve. “Some in the family can’t even imagine why people are interested, where a fruit brandy comes from, how it is made, why it should interest them at all, what raw materials were used and how they are cultivated,” explains Johannes.

This story here, from the damp, noisy meadow and the old trees, from the shed and the copper distillery, continues. Maybe Johannes will be drawn here again fully, sometime. Grandfather Franz, Johannes estimates, “will not be able to rest when he knows that I work outside in the distillery. As long as he can, he will also be there again and again.” If Franz is gone, his fruit brandy will perhaps have changed, the bottles will perhaps look different, perhaps someone will enjoy it in Buxtehude, way up north in Germany. But they will know that a part of Franz has remained, a part of this orchard, somewhere near Lake Constance.

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Johannes’ projects are always guided by the idea of sustainability. Whether it is about the bees in urban areas, as you can read in our earlier story, the work in Sierra Leone and Liberia or the preservation of a good of the Swabian cultural landscape. The density of distillers in southwest Germany is very high and now has a new representative in Johannes own Schnaps which has been christened Weiler.

Text: Fabian Ebeling
Photography: Robert Rieger