Essential German souvenirs: a Bembel from Frankfurt

Bembel in a wreath
Bembel in a wreath

Essential German souvenirs: a Bembel from Frankfurt

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

When it’s time to imbibe in Germany, a drinker faces decision time: a mug of frothy beer, likely brewed in accordance with the 500-year-old Beer Purity Law, or a glass of wine—chilled crisp white Riesling, perhaps?

As if that wasn’t a delectable choice enough, visitors to Frankfurt soon discover a beverage of another sort has captured the hearts and minds of the local population: apple wine, also known as Äbbelwoi or Ebbelwoi in the local dialect. Not quite wine and not quite cider, this fermented fruit drink is quite sour in nature and definitely an acquired taste. Therefore, it’s a common custom to cut it with carbonated mineral water (sauer gespritzt) or sweet, sparkling lemony soda (süß gespritzt), and most locals wouldn’t look at you askance for doing so.

Although it’s possible to sample a glass almost anywhere in the city—there’s even a special tram dubbed the Ebbelwei-Express, which whisks tourists past sights associated with the city’s signature drink—the hands-down best neighborhood in which to sample apple wine is the Alt-Sachsenhausen district, where a number of traditional taverns serve much the same food and drink one’s German grandparents might have enjoyed in their day. If the establishment displays a wreath, it’s a sign that they make and serve their own apple wine. A word of warning: should the staff offer service with a snarl, don’t take it personally; instead, consider it all part of the authentic experience.

Should the apple wine fail to win over any converts, the vessel in which the drink is served is likely to fare a whole lot better.

Apple wine is served in a Bembel, a squat and hearty ceramic jug that’s instantly recognizable thanks to its grayish-white background color livened up with splashes of cobalt blue. The typical pattern is a curving, slightly abstract leaf and flower motif. A forerunner of this stoneware can trace its history back to the 15th century, when potters from the Rhine region began to settle in the nearby Westerwald and refine their trade. Fired at extremely high temperatures and covered with a salt glaze that makes it watertight and oven- and microwave-safe, this type of pottery, while not quite indestructible, is pretty sturdy.

It’s not much of a challenge to find and pick up a Bembel and the glasses that go with it. Souvenir stores in Frankfurt and much of the state of Hessen sell authentic Bembels made locally, in keeping with the old traditional ways. They’re also widely available online. Töpferei Seifert, for example, sells a brand-new, two-liter Bembel with four glasses for 39.50 euros, postage not included. In addition to Bembels, one can buy items from butter dishes to ashtrays to lidded pots and even request a personalized text to be written upon it.

For both some nice pieces and recollections of a fun day out, consider making the journey to Frankfurt in late August, when the annual Apple Wine Festival is in full swing. Not only can one try apple wine in endless variations from pure to as the base ingredient in a cocktail, all the hardware needed to serve up apple wine in perfect style is readily available too. 

While there may be a good argument for purchasing one’s Bembel brand-spanking new, there’s no shame, and perhaps some added cachet, in acquiring one with history. As a type of pottery that really stands the test of time, it often turns up often at flea markets and secondhand shops. An example with text alluding to a decades-ago fest or an unknown couple’s 25th wedding anniversary has an air of mystery and personal touch. And what goes better with social drinking than a good story, whoever’s it might be?


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