The Swabian community of Schömberg is home to one of the world’s most prominent beard and moustache clubs. This is a story about facial hair and its consequences.
It’s eight o’clock on a Friday evening, and I’ve got an appointment at Gasthof zum Plettenberg. Dark wood panelling adorns the inn’s walls and ceiling, and patrons are passing glasses of fresh draught beer across tables covered with embroidered cloths. The air is filled with a din of voices and the smell of beef broth. The menu features such fabulous fare as cheese spätzle, Maultaschen, roast beef with onions, Schwobamädle, and something the inn simply calls the “Man’s Plate”: schnitzel, Wurstsalat, and chips. That’s right – we’ve come to the type of place that somehow succeeds in joining the words Wurst and Salat in delicious union. It’s more sausage than salad, to be fair. Perhaps this is the secret behind the success of Schömberg’s very own beard and moustache club. Bold though the theory might be, that which causes dangerously high cholesterol levels and constricted coronary arteries elsewhere does seem to help the men of the Swabian Mountains grow luxurious facial hair.
On this particular evening, 15 of the club’s 100-odd members have made their way to the inn. The men are decked out in their official uniform: starched white shirts, bright red vests bearing the club’s logo, and countless pins – one for each event in which they have competed. And each member’s natural face-warmer, of course. I see lush beards that extend all the way down to the chest, but still look as soft and bushy as a lovingly drawn Father Christmas. There are also impeccably styled ’staches, expertly combed coverings of the cheeks and chin, and cropped full beards topped off by neatly twirled handlebars. It truly runs the gamut of the finest facial frippery.
One of the first lessons I’ll learn over the course of the evening is that when it comes to particular categories of beards, it’s more the face that determines the right way to go rather than the man behind it. “Once you have some success with a particular style, you tend to stick with it,” explains Markus Bross, the club’s founder and president (and the owner of an exceptional beard of his own). That said, Markus happens to be the only member of the group who has sported seven different types of beards, five of which have won him world championships in the respective categories. “Bah, I’ve won them all before. I’ve actually lost count,” he claims. The other members nod and murmur in deference to their undisputed chieftain. Somewhere within his lavish full beard (current category: freestyle), Markus allows himself a serene smile. Meanwhile, the number of award-winners gathered around the inn’s tables this evening is actually quite high in general. Franz Pill: five world titles, six European championships, and 12 German titles in the categories Full Beard (Natural) and Full Beard (Garibaldi). Rainer Maute: one world championship, two European titles, and two German championships in the categories English Moustache, Dali Moustache, and Imperial Moustache (along with top-three finishes in a total of 27 competitions). Rudolf Wilczek: three world titles and two German championships in the category Goatee (Natural). I could go on and on. In fact, every one of the members present has successfully taken part in competitions at various levels.
The definition of success varies depending on whom you ask, as it turns out. Over beer and coffee, a heated discussion suddenly breaks out. “Anything less than third place is unacceptable!” one member contends, which sets some others to muttering, shifting their chairs, and shaking their heads in disapproval. “If everyone thought like that, half of us wouldn’t need to bother signing up in the first place!” Nods, snorts, and claps on the shoulder. “Nobody does this just for fun – it’s about competing, too!” comes the retort. That these ambitious gents take their hobby very seriously is the second key lesson of the evening. “You do see some contention between people in the same category,” one member reveals. “They get along fine before and after a competition, but it can get frosty in between.” I then learn that there are a range of touchy subjects among facial hair enthusiasts. Some of this animosity relates to the divide between the discipline’s classic competitors and unruly upstarts, who are typically young Americans with enough hair to pull off designs that can be rather unsettling. Who could forget the entrant who used a metal support and cosmetics to turn his beard into a dog’s muzzle? There are also enhancements that are considered unfair, such as wire or hair that is not one’s own. Some contestants bring along stylists who groom them for up to four hours before a competition. You’ll find jury members of all stripes, as well: The upstanding ones examine each magnificent display from every angle and sometimes use their hands to check whether an entrant is cheating. The lesser sort nod their approval without bothering to leave their chairs and probably happen to be relatives (or at least in-laws) of the leading entrant. That brings us to lesson number three: Any bearded or moustachioed man worth taking seriously handles his own blow-driver, follows the rules, and avoids the dubious trends of the moment, whether it be Christmas tree ornaments, glitter spray, or the snout of some animal.
Our assembly has since moved on to wallowing in maudlin tales of fellow aficionados who couldn’t cope with the harrowing defeats they suffered in competition. “That one’s been gone since Schluchsee,” one member says, referring to an event held down near the Swiss border. “He was so disappointed after that championship, he shaved his beard clean off,” chimes in another. The club also recalls a competitor whose fury led him to throw his second-place trophy straight into a skip, and another who quit the club in protest to start his own. Let’s recall lesson two: There’s no shortage of serious ambition in the beard business.
At the same time, however, competition isn’t the only concern of Schwäbischer Bart- und Schnauzerclub Schömberg e.V. (as the club is officially known). Though these aren’t considered official meetings, its members also gather once a month for evening training sessions on beard and moustache care. According to the club’s bye-laws, this is meant to promote the sharing of experiences regarding growth, maintenance, forms, classifications, and styling. They may hail from deep in the Swabian Mountains, but the 15 fellows in attendance at Gasthof zum Plettenberg this evening are also locksmiths, maintenance men, and long-distance lorry drivers who have been halfway round the world. They’ve seen places as diverse as Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Alaska, Texas, Norway, Austria, and the Netherlands. In 2000, Schömberg’s best beards even organised a friendly competition for the NATO soldiers stationed in Sarajevo, of all places. The men are proud to have had the experience, and to this day they enjoy bantering about the heightened security regulations they encountered. “Soldiers from 28 nations took part in that beard championship, and the atmosphere was bombastic!” one quips. Years after its successful event in Sarajevo, the club also received an invitation to Kabul, Afghanistan, but its members baulked at the risks involved.
Its members are currently saving up for New Zealand, which is where the next world championships are set to be held in 2021. “Before you know it, a week like that will run you a few thousand euros,” one member points out. “The flight, accommodation, and you still want to see something of the country...” While they usually love a good argument, the men do agree on one thing in this regard: “None of us would go that far on our own; journeys like these we never would have made without our beards!” Ah, our fourth lesson: Men with beards are unpredictable. Just when you think you’ve found the right pigeonhole to put them in, the whole desk falls apart right in front of you.
I decide to ask Markus Bross whether his beard gets in the way from time to time. “Not really, no; you get a lot of attention, and it’s a conversation-starter,” he replies. “People ask me about it all the time.” The rest nod before Franz Pill, the reigning Full Beard world champion, adds, “When you’ve got a beard, you have a lot more contact with those of the female persuasion.” The nodding intensifies noticeably, including among the wives in attendance. So, a beard can aid communication, as well … “You can get something caught in there when you’re eating a burger, though,” admits Pill, who looks like a grizzled sea captain and lets out a laugh that nearly brings down the lights hanging from the ceiling. “Or a kebab!” adds moustache champion Rainer Maute. After a roar of laughter and more claps on the shoulder, the men set about putting the white beards on their smiling faces back into place. This evening, Gasthof zum Plettenberg is also playing host to a ritual of friendship, or at least solidarity. It was back in 1991 that Markus Bross founded the Schwäbischer Bart- und Schnauzerclub. Most of those present joined shortly thereafter or were roped in by friends or relatives. Just recently, its members appointed Ralf Schulz to serve alongside Markus as the club’s co-president after an astounding 26-year run.
There I sit, surrounded by men on the other side of 50 somewhere in the Swabian Mountains, listening to them discuss their self-concocted beard care products, the dangers kebabs pose to moustaches, and their upcoming New Zealand adventure. The fifth and final lesson writes itself: Whether it’s a Hungarian Moustache, a gallant Musketeer, or a freestyle Full Beard, facial hair has the power to bring people together and broaden their horizons.