The history of American beer is primarily an immigrant’s story. Sure, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson made a few ales, but brewing really took off when guys like Eberhard Anheuser, Adolph Coors, Frederick Pabst and Joseph Schlitz arrived in the 19th century. They built their breweries around homesick immigrants who wanted lager with their schnitzel, bratwurst and pretzels.
This story has continued with every wave of immigrants. If they can’t find what mom or dad use to make in the Old Country, they perfect it themselves. That’s the case with Alan Zweig and Reinhard Breuning. After working all day as contractors, they’re turning a passion into a small business, making traditional Bavarian pretzels for restaurants, brewpubs and bars.
Reinhard Breuning and Alan Zweig
Breuning emigrated from Munich, Germany, in 1984, the heart of Bavaria, where pretzels can be served at any meal or special occasion. When he was sick as a child he fondly remembers his mom giving him pretzels in bed. Zweig was raised in a German household by parents who arrived after World War II. Together they would travel weekly to a German deli and bakery in Tacoma, WA, and back to Europe once a year where his uncle ran a gasthaus.
The two men recently crossed paths, in of all places, a meeting of alcoholics anonymous. According to Zweig, “We were both functioning alcoholics, but you get to a certain age where you can’t do what you use to do. Getting sober actually helped us achieve our goals.”
During that time they quickly bonded over heritage. One day Reinhard told Zweig about his authentic Bavarian pretzel recipe and they started making them for fun. Once they fine-tuned the ingredients and slowly perfected the process over 6 to 9 months, they started sharing the results with family and friends. Reinhard’s sister, who happened to be visiting from Germany, was shocked by the authenticity of the pretzels. She thought they tasted better than what she could find in Munich.
Positive reactions like that one piled up, which made them think about a greater goal. Zweig said, “People were telling us that it was the best pretzel they’ve ever had. During the wintertime it’s our off-season for carpentry and you sit around the campfire on a rainy day saying, ‘Maybe we should do something with the pretzels?’ I come from a business and sales background and told Reinhard, ‘Let’s take this to the street.’” This past winter they formed Bavaria Brez’n.
Bavarian pretzels are a far cry from the soft doughy versions you find at a ballpark or buy in a bag at a grocery store. They’re typically no larger than six inches, have a reddish orange color, a thin crunchy crust, and a flavorful nutritious interior. The shape is also very important. It can’t be oval or square, and the double twist of the dough has to be just right. For serious pretzel makers, aesthetics are critical.
As for the ingredients, the list is very straightforward: flour, water, yeast, salt and a little bit of butter. Once it’s all mixed into a blob of dough, the yeast starts to slowly rise and needs to rest several times between cutting, shaping, and placing the pretzels on non-stick perforated baking sheets.
Before baking they cool down in the fridge anywhere between 2 to 24 hours. This allows the dough to obtain a particular firmness so they can be dipped in a liquid containing 5% lye and 95% water, before salting and baking. The lye gives the pretzel its distinct color and crusty exterior. It becomes inert during the baking process.
Lye wasn’t always used in Germany to make pretzels. It came about in the 19th century during what you might call, a happy accident. According to historians, a bakery assistant accidentally dipped the pretzels into a cleaning solution containing lye. The pretzels were already in the oven when the mistake was discovered, so the head baker decided to wait and see what happened. Needless to say, they were pleased with the results.
Bruening and Zweig are faithful to this process and create their pretzels almost entirely by hand. The only exception is their use of an industrial mixer, which saves time, energy, and ensures everything coalesced in the dough. They work at small bakery in downtown San Anselmo in the evening, since they both work day jobs. While it’s convenient for their schedules and this stage of the business, it keeps them from working with clients who want early morning deliveries, like Andronico’s.
Traditional Bavarian pretzels are a product that should be ideally consumed within four to seven hours after baking. If pretzels sit around too long, they lose their crispy crust and the salt begins to melt. They still taste great, but it’s not optimal. Therefore, Bruening and Zweig are marketing their pretzels to the happy hour crowd at bars and restaurants. They get baked just after 4pm, and then get promptly delivered.
Their first client is Leopold’s in San Francisco, which brands itself as a traditional gasthaus serving food from the Alpine regions of Northern Italy, Austria and Bavaria. According to Zweig, “They immediately recognized the flavor as authentic and unique. They knew right away what we had. That initial enthusiasm really got us excited as we went to our next accounts.”
The duo has been primarily pitching to German restaurants and breweries throughout San Francisco and Marin. It was a logical first step, but they’re considering other venues as they carefully grow. Zweig said, “We did the math and figured out how many pretzels we would need to make. The business can run profitably at two to three hundred pretzels per day with employees, but we need to know the inside and out before we teach anyone.”
As their list of clients expand and they make more money during the evening shift, then they can start weaning themselves off their day jobs. Right now they’re letting the business slowly unfold and are cherishing the process. Zweig said, “The experimental aspect of developing and growing a cottage business is a great distraction from the regular daily rigors. My wife keeps asking me, ‘So when are you going to give this thing up?’ I’m not, this is my hobby and it’s also a second passion.”
If you would like to learn more about Bavaria Brez’n or acquire some pretzels, contact Alan Zweig at azweig1 (at) mac.com