Swabian pretzels are Northern Kentucky baker's specialty

Posted at 8:00 AM, Jun 06, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-06 08:00:19-04

CINCINNATI -- Bavarian-style soft pretzels are familiar to Cincinnatians, but many likely aren’t as aware of Swabian-style soft pretzels.

Tuba Baking Co. founder Drew Rath’s ancestors hail from Swabia, a region in southwestern Germany that is part of the state of Baden-Württemberg. Swabia borders the state of Bavaria in the southeastern corner of the country.

“I’d never seen anybody selling Swabian pretzels in Cincinnati,” Rath said. "It’s weird, because everything here is Bavarian for the most part.”

A Northern Kentucky native and former sous chef at the University Club of Cincinnati, Rath now stays home in Fort Thomas to look after his three young children and bakes pretzels out of Newport's Incubator Kitchen Collective.

In the 1800s a Swabian baker named Ernst Kurfiss introduced Cincinnati to Swabian pretzels, yet more than 100 years later Swabian pretzels here have been almost erased.

Baking is in Rath’s blood — he comes from seven generations of German grain millers, and the matriarchs of his family baked, too. Being a stay-at-home dad inspired him to start baking breads in his kitchen. However, he got the idea to start Tuba Baking — he named the company for his love of brass bands — almost six months ago. He was inspired by hanging out at Fireside Pizza in Walnut Hills, where he would bake bread afterhours for fun -- “It became a party thing,” he said.

One night representatives from MadTree Brewing came in and asked him if he wanted to work on a pretzel recipe. In creating his own pretzel recipes, he translated more than 30 Swabian recipes (Swabian German is different than standard German) and considered what a Swabian pretzel must taste like. (He hasn't been to Germany yet.)

Tuba Baking Co. founder Drew Rath poses with his Swabian soft pretzels before they go into the oven. (Photo by Garin Pirnia for WCPO)

Rath described the difference between Swabian and Bavarian pretzels as Swabian having a higher fat content and containing rye (his pretzels are milled from local rye berries), as well as in how the pretzels are formed.

“When you shape Swabian pretzels, instead of going down toward the bottom, they go out to the side, and they have skinnier arms,” he said. “You have two different experiences: You get a chewy experience and a crunchy experience.”

Swabians slit the “belly” of the pretzel before baking, whereas Bavarians let the belly split on its own. Rath bathes the raw pretzels in food-grade lye, which starts the Maillard reaction (browning) and gives the pretzels a dark-brown crust once cooked.

Catch-A-Fire Cafe inside of MadTree serves his Nati’ Twist pretzel — a figure-eight-shaped combination of Bavarian, Swabian and Philadelphia pretzel styles. Blue Ash-based Queen City Brewery of Cincinnati approached him to make pretzels, so Rath makes sourdough pretzels — whole fat European butter, sea salt, diastatic malt powder and sourdough — and serves them alongside Kentucky-style (cold) beer cheese. And Urban Stead Cheese just added his pretzels alongside its house-made Kentucky beer cheese, made with a quark (German cheese) base.

Rath said he plans on making his own mustards and possibly putting toppings on pretzels, like cheese, Nutella, everything bagel seasonings and a few “wild cards.”

He might be one of the only local artisanal pretzel makers who is baking his soft pretzels for breweries, other establishments and special events. Starting June 6, he'll begin selling his pretzels every Wednesday at the Fort Thomas Farmers' Market.

Aside from wanting to make people aware of Swabian pretzels, Rath's other goal is to eventually open a brick-and-mortar location so he can focus on obscure German breads.

“If I had my own little bakery somewhere, I’d be beyond thrilled,” he said.