In Berchtesgaden at Germany's only mountain burner

If Max Irlinger wants to watch the fruits of his labor being transported away, he has to tilt his head back.

In Berchtesgaden at Germany's only mountain burner

If Max Irlinger wants to watch the fruits of his labor being transported away, he has to tilt his head back. He watches as the helicopter rises, along with the huge transport bag dangling from a rope. It contains a good 900 liters of schnapps in small canisters. It is the total annual production.

Max Irlinger watches the helicopter for a long time as it hums up from the mountain meadow into the sky and then disappears through the mountains of the Berchtesgaden National Park in the direction of Königssee. "If it loses its charge," he says with a grin, "then there won't be any Bergbrenner masterwort for a year."

Since 1692, Irlinger's employer has been sending a master distiller like him up into the mountains above the Königssee. There, in impassable terrain, the basis of his products is hacked out of the ground: the roots of gentian, masterwort and bearwort. Yellow gold, finely branched, up to two meters long and weighing a few kilos. The distiller then distils these roots into specialties.

There are four distillery huts around the Watzmann. In order to give the sensitive masterwort stocks time to regenerate, the Bergbrenner does not manage all the huts every year, but concentrates on one or two. The others are barricaded up to be weatherproof and wait to be used in the years to come. They are operated by the distillery Grassl from Berchtesgaden - Germany's only manufacturer that produces schnapps in such a complex way. And there is only one person left who bears the job title "Bergbrenner": Max Irlinger.

Three of the four kilns are located in what is now the Berchtesgaden National Park. The hiking trails that connect them are among the most spectacular that the German Alps have to offer. Paths lead through pine forests, steep sections, untouched high mountain landscapes. The best: impressive panoramas such as the Watzmann massif or the Königssee.

The Brennhütte at 1600 meters above sea level on the Funtensee, where the lowest temperatures in Germany are measured in winter, is located in the Steinernes Meer near the Kärlingerhütte. It can be reached after a sweaty four-hour walk from St. Bartholomä after crossing the Königssee by boat. That's why the liquor is actually flown out.

This year Max Irlinger is working at a different hut, at the Priesberg-Brennhütte at an altitude of 1400 meters. Since 1849 it has been on the east side of the Königssee near the Jenner mountain, in a depression between meadows and a sparse forest.

Max Irlinger pushes one log after the other into the combustion chamber under the boiler. Again and again he touches the copper cauldron, which gradually heats up. "My hand is the sensor," he says. "If I can leave it on the kettle for two seconds, the water in it is about 60 degrees. If I can just touch the cauldron before I burn myself, it's about 90 degrees."

Irlinger wears gray work pants, a plaid flannel shirt, and a dusty baseball cap. The whitewashed ceiling in the Brennhütte is low; if the 32-year-old stood on tiptoe, he would touch it with his head. In the still, seven small cloth bags filled with finely chopped masterwort roots float in a water-alcohol mixture. "It's basically like a tea bag," explains Irlinger, "the essential oils of the roots in the bags give the taste, the alcohol is the tea water."

Here is the art of firing. In addition to the quality and quantity of the roots (trade secret), there is the right mixture of water and pure alcohol (trade secret) and, above all, the heating rate (trade secret).

"Heating is a gut feeling and the key to success," says Irlinger. Lukas Schöbinger, 26, also nods. He is Irlinger's predecessor as Bergbrenner. After three years in the huts, he decided to study in 2019. The unique job became vacant for Max Irlinger.

On this day, Lukas Schöbinger walked the three hours up to his old distillery on the Priesbergalm to visit his successor. "When I drink a gentian or masterwort," says Schöbinger, "then I can taste who distilled it. Max, I or even our predecessor. It is like your own signature that the distiller leaves behind in the taste.”

Schöbinger misses the distillery and his old place of work. The two men look at the vats of gentian mash at the back of the hut, discuss which trees Max Irlinger will cut down in the area to get firewood for the stove, and inspect the small stream that flows right next to the hut. With a couple of planks, the burners dam up the water, throw in the roots, and wash away the soil that's clinging to them.

The hiking trail leads directly past the hut. Again and again a climber stops and asks what the two are doing there. "That's our root washing machine," says Lukas Schöbinger and gets some disbelieving looks. Max Irlinger calls it a "spin cycle" when he stirs the roots particularly wildly with his pitchfork. The hikers move on, some take a quick photo, some buy a bottle of schnapps.

After two hours of burning, liquid trickles out of the thin copper tube into a metal bucket – at first just a little, then a clear, thin stream: the masterwort brandy. Max Irlinger tastes it again and again, that's his quality control. Burning takes a good three hours. The Bergbrenner manages two, sometimes even three fires a day.

At the end of the Middle Ages, masterwort was referred to as a "remedium divinum", a divine remedy for almost everything. Poisoning, epilepsy, colds, asthma, toothache. It was used to treat wounds and stomach problems.

In Tyrol, the farmers smoked their rooms with masterwort at Christmas time, which was supposed to keep demons and witches away. The plant was used in the form of pills, powders, tea infusions, tinctures, bath additives, ointments, even in the form of amulets. Today the masterwort has become rare, it is consumed almost exclusively as a schnapps.

The three National Park distillery huts on the Priesberg, on the Wasseralm and on the Funtensee all have different levels of difficulty to reach, but they are all on established hiking trails. Hikers can therefore easily link the schnapps huts with one another.

However, you should plan between four and seven hours of walking time and be sure-footed, after all it goes through the most unspoilt mountain landscapes in Germany, including fantastic views of the fjord-like Königssee and Germany's third highest mountain, the Watzmann. At least every few hours there is also an opportunity to stop, cozy huts with simple mountaineering food and the feeling of being really far away from civilization.

Max Irlinger spends a lot of time alone. But the best mountain distiller would be nothing without its root diggers, after all the schnapps raw material first has to be fetched from the ground. In order to protect the stocks, the root diggers only harvest about every seven to ten years in the same area. The system has worked perfectly for 300 years.

"It's great that you're here!" exclaims Irlinger when the diggers arrive at the hut later in the morning. They are a sworn brotherhood. In real life they work as toolmakers, carpenters, ministers or IT technicians. They take vacations to dig up the roots or climb up to the remote masterwort areas at the weekend, like Florian Gatz, who is often out and about with the Bergbrenner.

Max Irlinger has shaded on a map where he has seen occurrences of the plant or when the zones have been harvested over the past few decades. "Every season we need almost two tons of roots for distilling," says Irlinger, "you have to get them out of the ground first."

About an hour's walk from the Brennhütte, the root diggers leave the hiking trail and go off-road. They wear linen sacks around their necks, into which they put the dug up roots; on the back a wooden knapsack or a large backpack for transport. Everyone has beer, bread, salami.

They swarm out over a square kilometer, nobody wants to get in the way of the other. The masterwort grows at altitudes over 1500 meters. Gladly where it's humid and a bit more shady, for example under north faces. The season is short, maybe three to four months.

On this day, the diggers chose the downhill ditch, a small creek that leads down. Here grows - oh what, rampant - masterwort in the damp slippery ground next to the trickle. The men work silently in the pathless, steep terrain. They use their hoes to loosen the soil around the plants, dig up the thick stalks and then pull the root system out of the ground. A backbreaking job.

With rucksacks stuffed full, the diggers return to the hut in the late afternoon, sunburned and exhausted. Then comes the moment of truth: scales are attached to the ridge of the roof and the root yield is weighed. 23 kilos, 19.5 kilos, 26 kilos, 29 kilos. Not bad, but far from the 45-kilo daily record from a few years ago, which one of the diggers proudly reports.

While the last distillate of the day runs into the metal bucket in the combustion chamber, the Graber sit down in the tiny living room, drink a few beers and, of course, a shot of schnapps. Most know each other from rifle clubs, from the fire brigade, from the traditional costume association.

Through the windows they watch as hikers, attracted by the smell, stand next to the fountain, pour themselves masterwort and gentian from a bottle, toast each other and leave 1.50 euros for it. matter of honour. "Once," Max remembers, "two married couples came and drank 50 schnapps together. We had to evacuate them.”

Getting there: Berchtesgaden is about a two-hour drive from Munich in the south-eastern tip of Bavaria. It takes just under three hours by train from Munich.

Hike through the Brennhütten: The hiking trails between the Brennhütten are centuries old, well developed and well marked. One of the most beautiful rounds is this one: by boat across the Königssee to St. Bartholomä, then climb up the notorious 36 serpentines of the "Saugasse" to the Kärlingerhaus (about four hours). In the large hut at 1638 meters there is sleeping space for 200 people. The Brennhütte am Funtensee is a few hundred meters away. The next day we continue through the mountain forest in three to four hours past Grünsee and Schwarzensee to the Alpenvereinshütte Wasseralm (40 mattresses, 1423 meters). The local distillery is attached directly to the DAV hut. The path continues above the Röthbach waterfall, Germany's highest waterfall with a drop of 470 meters. It takes a good four hours to get to the Gotzenalm (99 beds, 1685 metres), alpine experience required. From there there are fantastic views of the Watzmann massif and the Königssee, 1100 meters below. The Priesbergbrennhütte, where Max Irlinger is currently working, is about a three-hour walk away. It takes one to two hours to get to the Jennerbahn, which takes hikers comfortably down to Schönau in the valley.

Excursions: Dozens of electric boats on the Königssee bring visitors from Schönau to the much-photographed pilgrimage church of St. Bartholomä – including a trumpet solo on the “Echowand”. For those who are tired, there are short hiking trails to the Malerwinkel (from Schönau) or to the Hirschau peninsula near St. Bartholomä.

In the Berchtesgaden salt mine (salzbergwerk.de), visitors drive 650 meters deep into the mountain. The tour includes miners' slides, salt caves, a "magic salt room" and the underground mirror lake, which can be crossed by raft. Salt has been mined here for more than 500 years. Max Irlinger's employer, the 330-year-old gentian distillery Grassl (enzian-grassl.de), is five kilometers away from Berchtesgaden. Master distillers also show the distillation process in a distillery there.

Further information: berchtesgaden.de

Hiking has been experiencing a real boom for a number of years, including among younger people. But hiking can also be dangerous, especially if you want to climb the mountains with the wrong shoes. The right preparation is everything here, too.

Source: WELT/ Peter Haentjes

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