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Hiking the Black Forest's Trail of Self-Serve Schnaps

A network of help-yourself schnaps stations in southern Germany makes for happy trails indeed.

Schnaps trail Black Forest Germany hills and cattle

Tippling and walking in the Black Forest may just have you over the mooooon.

My first sip of blutwurz makes me want to do two things: first, have another sip. And then, figure out what I'm drinking.

I'm standing outside a half-timbered farmhouse festooned with geraniums in the northwest corner of Germany's Black Forest, just upstream from an old mill house. The Blutwurz is from a cluster of bottles held in a stone trough cooled by burbling water and protected from the elements by a shed-like enclosure of knotty pine. A small honour box hangs nearby for depositing coins for my drink — a delicious, slightly bitter crimson-ochre liqueur.

Schnaps trail Black Forest Germany Sasbachwalden

The Sasbachwalden schnaps springs are self-serve and payment is by honour system.

The illustration on the label suggests it was made from a root of some sort. "Blutwurz means 'blood root,'" says an older woman with bright fuchsia hair who suddenly appears at my elbow. She explains that it's made by taking the root of a plant related to a rose, chopping it up into small pieces, then infusing it in high-proof alcohol.

 

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"Don't give away the whole recipe!" yells a man in denim overalls as he walks over. Franz Maier, 72, owns the farmhouse with his fuchsia-haired wife and operates a tiny distillery in their barn. After giving me the once-over – and, evidently, satisfying himself that I'm not engaged in any industrial espionage – he invites me to have a look.

Schnaps trail Black Forest Germany bottled schnaps Hagenberg

Local bottled schnaps.

In the back of a dim room, he shows me a small copper still. With its bulbous dome above and hammered steel casing below, it looks like something from Jules Verne. Nearby are chest-high cylindrical tanks, in which Maier infuses the Blutwurz and ferments other matter. He unscrews the hatch on one tank. It's filled with tens of thousands of bobbing cherries looking every bit like the picture on a can of cherry pie filling. I bend down and breathe in; I expect jam, but instead get a snoutful of something sharp and medicinal. Maier laughs, suggesting I'm not the first to make this mistake. He tells me the fermented fruit will sit until winter, when he'll make an ethereal, cherry-flavoured spirit called Kirschwasser, keeping a centuries-old tradition alive.

Schnaps trail Black Forest Germany forest road

Seeing the light in the Black Forest.

In so doing, Maier is also part of a relatively new tradition. Perched in the hills outside the village of Sasbachwalden, which is about 90 minutes south of Stuttgart by train, Maier's farmhouse-distillery is just one of many I visit on a spirited walk through this part of the Black Forest. The practice of putting out self-serve liquor samples in Schnapsbrunnen, or schnaps springs, began about three decades ago, and has spread throughout the region. Think of these as farm stands that can give the unwary a hangover. (What prevents the underaged and the lush from helping themselves and leaving without paying, you might wonder? Nothing, other than culture and tradition. My German companion on this trip assesses the situation at our first Schnapsbrunnen: "This would not work in Berlin.")

If there's a finer way to spend a sunny afternoon than walking through sun-dappled woods and hilly vineyards, stopping from time to time to sip something tasty made from those very woods and fields, I have yet to find it.

The Black Forest is a thumb-shaped region running about 160 kilometres in length in a corner of southwest Germany, close to the French border. It's noted for cuckoo clocks, riesling and pinot gris, chocolate cake and piney hills. Not to mention goblins and trolls. In the early 19th century, the Brothers Grimm set out with pen and paper, immortalizing the fables and fairy tales of the common folk hereabouts.

Schnaps trail Black Forest Germany Franz Maier

Franz Maier in front of his half-timbered farmhouse.

This part of the country is less well-known for its long and rich distilling culture, yet it's home to some 10,000 farmer-distillers. Many are from families that have been at it for generations: They crush their apples, cherries, apricots or peaches in a tank, let yeast have its way and run the mash through a still. The schnaps that comes out preserves the bright flavours of the harvest through the winter and beyond. In North America, the term "schnapps" (often with an extraneous "p") usually describes hooch that's been doctored with fake peppermint or root beer or cinnamon, along with considerable sugar. This is unfortunate. In Germany, schnaps is what in other places is called eau-de-vie, French for "water of life." At heart, it's simply distilled fruit – flavourful and potent.

To get my fill of as many of these liquors as possible, I set off on a network of organized footpaths that connects schnaps springs with one another. Two looping trails (one is seven kilometres long, the other 12) called Schnapsbrunnenwege link existing farm roads and trails. While they do have signs, I learn first-hand that it's not hard to go astray – and I swear this is unrelated to what you drink along the way. But plans are under way to add dedicated markers that should keep even tippling walkers on the straight and narrow.

Schnaps trail Black Forest Germany pear-cherry and apple refreshments

Distillers leave their pear-, cherry- and apple-flavoured refreshments in springs to cool.

On my first day I start out from the centre of Sasbachwalden. I hike through vineyards still swaddled in ground fog, before ascending into the Gaishöll, a gorge studded with beeches and oaks. I weave upward, crossing a babbling brook via 13 wooden bridges, each like something from the Grimm fairy tales. With an insistent raven quorking in the leafy trees, it isn't difficult to see why villagers of centuries past believed the woods were filled with sprites and spirits.

When the path emerges above a set of rolling pastures with views west into France, I come across the first of my four morning Schnapsbrunnen. Reaching down into the spring, a few dozen metres from a farmhouse, I pour myself a swig of Kirschwasser and Obstler (a delicate mix of apple and pear schnaps). There's a theory that the word "cocktail" comes from the phrase "tales of the cock" – that is, it was a morning drink – and at this moment that makes utter sense.

Schnaps trail Black Forest Germany Hermann Zink

Hermann Zink and his family have been distilling fruity booze for generations.

A couple of hours and several more samples later, I sidle up at the fourth spring, where I sip Topinambur, distilled from Jerusalem artichokes. I'd been warned it's an acquired taste. Apparently I'm the acquisitive sort – I instantly find it delicious, with a long, dry finish. The distillery owner, Hermann Zink, is working a tractor through his fields, but stops to show off his still. I ask how many bottles he sells in a year, and he just looks at me vacantly, telling me he has no idea. He's been distilling for 40 years, carrying on from his father and grandfather before him. He's just a ripple in a long river, and who counts the ripples?

On my second day of walking and drinking, I begin by climbing to Brigittenschloss, the ruins of a castle built sometime in the 11th century and abandoned in 1524. What's left is an unimpressive chimneylike spire of weathered rocks, but it's surrounded by a magical forest of lichen and moss-covered boulders, like a colossal set of neglected marbles in a forest that casts a pale-green lambent light.

Schnaps trail Black Forest Germany hills and church

The two established schnaps hikes wend over hills and dales studded with trees and church spires.

From here I walk along a side valley, past pastures and apple and cherry orchards and through tidy woodlots lined with neat stacks of firewood. It's exactly as I had imagined it would look when woodcutters made cameos in Grimms' fables. An hour later I arrive at Hagenberg, and what turns out to be my favourite Schnapsbrunnen. It doesn't hurt that the trail passes a "ranch" stocked with ostriches and preening peacocks.

The spring here is located not far from a farmhouse amid a lovely setting arrayed with benches facing valley views. I pour myself a swig of a liqueur made of sour cherries and sit down in the sun. As I sip, I consider: Is there a downside to hiking and schnapsing? Yes, I conclude. This well may have spoiled me from ever wanting to have a drink in a dim bar again.

 

 

Tags

BLACK FOREST     GERMANY     SCHNAPPS TRAIL GERMANY    

Comments… or add another

Patricia Miller

Monday, June 1st 2015 12:22
I never considered going to Germany until I read this article. I have sent it out to friend to see who wants to go. Best time of year to go?

Jordan Blair

Monday, July 27th 2015 11:42
I'm a pilot with Air Canada Express, and I must say I usually casually scan the En-Route articles while dead-heading, however this topic caught my eye. I must say a very BIG thank you to Wayne Curtis for writing this article.

I packed my backpack within a month, along with my very excited girlfriend, and headed to the Black Forest. I have to say everything was exactly as advertised! From the rich green "Grimms-Fairytale-esque" forests, to the gently winding streams that feed the chilled pools of the Schnappsbrunnens, and gently nurture these rich potions made with love. We had an absolutely magnificent time, and took some truly gorgeous photographs which can be seen here:

https://www.facebook.com/jordan.blair.94/media_set?set=a.888302687915000.1073741847.100002058305733&type=3

Thank you SO SO much for writing this article, inspiring our creativity and exploration, and guiding our path through this magical region.

Cheers,
Jordan Blair
Montreal, QC

Rae Brietzke

Saturday, August 22nd 2015 10:34
I would like to know what time of year you were in Germany for this article. My cousin and I really want to do this trail after reading your article but he is afraid that if we go in May, as planned, that the Schnaps may not be ready from the previous years harvest. I'm thinking that it will be available all of the time. Thanks!

Sheldon Archibald

Thursday, October 22nd 2015 16:58
After reading the enroute article, I decided to put this on my must do list for Germany. We visited the area the second week of October 2015. This was a great time of year to go. There were several stations with Schnapps. There are several hiking trails in the area with varying degree of difficulty. I did get lost a few times but was able to pick up the trail again. Signage was not as good as advertised.
My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I would highly recommend this activity. We did not stay in Sasbachwalden, however I would definitely recommend the area.
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