Last night I was drinking in Munich until 2am and then I woke up at 6am to get a three-hour train north, so my first steps in Bamberg should be painful, weary, disinterested by the prospect of drinking more beer, but they aren’t. I leap off the train, already excited at having seen a malting plant on the way in, and eager to see how this new end of town merges into the postcard-pretty centre.
With a population of 70,000, a fifth of whom are students, Bamberg has 9, 10 or 11 breweries, depending on who you do or don’t count. There is also a brewery manufacturer, two maltings, 36 churches, a cathedral, rivers, seven hills, a Benedictine monastery, museums, markets and much of the town is UNESCO listed.
Say Bamberg to beer lovers and they will think rauchbier. The name flashes into my head a picture of that old white building hanging over the river and I imagine that the air smells like smoked sausage.
Rauchbier is a curious drink. Made with malt smoked over beechwood fires, it takes on a distinct smoky meatiness. Challenging and unusual, I don’t really like it; it’s an olfactory assault which takes hours to clear, as if the smoke is stuck in my nostrils like last night’s bonfire clinging to an old coat. But mention Bamberg and otherwise blokey brewers go all gooey and weak, so if I’m going to start liking the style then this is the place to fall for it.
I’m staying at Fässla Brauerei and during the short walk from the station I notice, to my disappointment, that the town doesn’t smell of meat. I’ve been conditioned by beer geekery to assume that Bamberg means bacon. All I can smell is clean, fresh Franconian air which hangs with the threat of sleet and rain. Where’s the bacon?
You enter Fässla through large doors into a covered courtyard. Five men are standing in here drinking beer – it’s about 10.30am, by the way. I’ve read about this place and I’m intrigued. It’s called the ‘schwemm’. A curious local thing, a few of the breweries have this and it’s a crafty way for men to go to the pub and get a beer without having to go inside the pub. So when their wives ask if they’ve been in the pub, they can honestly say that they haven’t: they were standing outside it. The small serving hatch passes through full pints to the waiting men.
I dump my bags in the cosy, comfortable room upstairs (it’s very affordable, by the way – when I return to Bamberg I’ll stay here again), take a shower, get dressed because I’m still in yesterday’s clothes, and then decide that I might as well just go downstairs and start drinking.
Not quite in the mood for vertical drinking in the schwemm at 10.45am, I go inside where there’s only one free table – they start drinking early in Germany. A bright bar in the morning light, the dark wood panels and tables presumably turn this into a cosy evening drinking den. I choose the Lagerbier and it’s gold with a thick, creamy foam, it has a bright fragrance and the rich malt texture of Bavarian beer which is full yet still somehow light. It’s finished before 11am. One brewery down, lots more to go...
Opposite Fässla, on Konigstrasse, a street which once had 23 breweries, is Spezial Brauerei, with its handsome frontage and blooming window boxes. This is where I can get my first taste of rauchbier in Bamberg. I probably should walk all the way into the city centre to start with Schlenkerla, the most famous smoked beer, but I’m outside already and my pre-noon thirst is surprisingly large.
The clock runs 10 minutes fast in Spezial (though you’ll probably still end up being 10 minutes late to wherever you’re going next), there are stag horns on the walls and it’s mostly single men sipping in silence. I join them and I order the Rauchbier Lager. Amber with a thick white foam, there’s soft, sweet smoke in the aroma, like bonfires and smoked meat. The beer is incredibly clean and smooth, some background bacon depth hangs around and gives a savoury meatiness, there’s a hint of lemony freshness and the smoke is surprisingly elegant. By the time I’m halfway through it, I barely notice the smoke anymore. It’s a wonderful beer.
As it’s only midday, I decide to take a walking tour of the city. Heading towards the river, the main shopping area still has small stalls set up in the middle, a reminder of when this was the busy market place. Look up and around and the buildings are tall and varied as the winding streets lead closer to the thing I really want to find: the Old Town Hall.
The famous image of Bamberg is the building hanging over the river; this is the Old Town Hall. Much of the architecture in town dates from the 15-18th century and is a mix of Medieval structures and Baroque facades, meaning you now see timbered buildings and elaborate frontages side-by-side. This famous old bridge is the best place to see both together.
It’s a handsome sight and what you never get to experience on those postcard pictures is that there’s more than just this building here. You can see the slopes of the seven hills surrounding Bamberg, there’s river-lined terraces of tall buildings and the river itself splits and rushes in different directions, giving the nickname of ‘Little Venice’. The origin of the Old Town Hall supposedly comes as the townsfolk were not given any land to build a communal hall on, so they decided to build it over the river.
Next I follow the cobbled streets to the enormous Cathedral. In a small city like this, it’s unexpectedly vast. The Sunday service has just finished and people stand around outside and talk. Inside it’s dark, lit like a kaleidoscope from the stained glass. Here you’ll find the only pope buried outside of the Vatican.
Up what I assume is part of one of Bamberg’s convergence of hills is Michaelsberg Abbey. It’s now holds the Franconian brewery museum for half the year (I’m there in the half when it isn’t a brewery museum) and there are well-kept rose gardens leading to a view over the old town, showing off the orange roofs, the flow of the river and the steeples of the churches. In the distance are the towers belonging to the maltings. It’s a magnificent sight.
Photos taken and tourist stuff ticked off, I pick one of Bamberg’s seven hills and walk up it (I choose the one which leads to a brewery, of course). Just a few minutes from the bridge and it’s into the suburbs. At the top is Greifenklau. The lights are off and there’s a hand-written sign on the door. It’s closed.
Down the hill again and my thirst is growing by each cobble-stone step. I check my map and follow another hill (I think so anyway, it’s hard to tell where each of the hills begins or ends) which gets me to Klosterbräu, the oldest brewery in town. I sit next to a young American couple who are eating pig knuckles bigger than their own heads. This place does 0.3l pours, so I try the three house beers. A fresh lager, a textured and malty braunbier that’s not quite dunkel and more chocolatey, and a very excellent Schwarzbier that makes me wish I had a spare fork to help myself to the leftover pork knee beside me.
Next up is the place I’ve been waiting for all day. I could’ve started here, I know I could, maybe I should’ve, but I like the extra satisfaction that comes from delaying gratification or teasing out expectation, which is why my first stop in Schlenkerla is my fourth brewery of the day.
If you haven’t been to Schlenkerla’s tavern, then you might have an image in your head of what it’s like. I certainly do. I picture it as the Old Town Hall. Whenever Bamberg and Schlenkerla are talked about, there’s always an image of that building, so I associate them as the same place and I was looking forward to getting a seat with a view of the river. Combining that with a clichéd image of a huge beer hall, I expected Schlenkerla to be very different to how it is.
In the centre of the old part of the city, Schlenkerla tavern, home to Brauerei Heller-Trum, is a simple, slated-window-fronted building around some tight streets. It’s inconspicuous, really. Inside it’s dark, almost like a cave, there’s lots of doors and levels and wood, and my eyes see a fog of smoke in the air but I don’t think it’s actually there. The ceilings are tall and arched like an altar, an appropriate shape for a building on the beer pilgrimage map. I find a seat that allows me to look over most of the bar and I order a Märzen, the famous flagship brew.
It’s a really deep red-brown with a thick off-white foam. Lifting the tankard, the smoke fills the senses straight away, aromatic and woody like bonfires with leftover barbecue (and much less like the bacon I expect). This beer is poured from wooden barrels and the body is so soft and pleasing, it has such an alluring, intriguing depth of flavour and I feel like I’m getting sucked into the charms of rauchbier. There’s dried fruit and bitter candied bacon; it’s far, far better than any bottle I’ve tasted. And it’s odd: the smokiness feels like you’re drinking it while sitting in a smoky room, rather than the beer itself having a smoked flavour. It’s evocative.
|Photo from here
I probably should stay for another but I’ve still got other places to get to and one is next door. Everywhere else I’ve been to today has been busy with people drinking. It’s early-afternoon on a Sunday and Ambräusianum is empty, which probably should’ve forewarned me about what the locals think of it... A little brewpub, the only brewpub in town, with nice copper kit in the middle, it feels like an ersatz German brewhouse which is ironic because it’s a genuine German brewhouse. I order the small-pour safety of a sample flight and that was enough for me. If you’re passing – and as Schlenkerla is next door you will be – then tick off a brewery visit and have a quick half, but there’s better places to linger.
With the main middle of the town conquered, I spread west to where I know there’s some more breweries. Keesmann and Mahr's are opposite each other. As it’s Sunday (don’t go to Bamberg on Sunday...), Keesmann is closed, but Mahr's is open. Walking in through the schwemm, the warm old tavern is dark, the tables are huge and busy with big groups and families, and the food smells great. I’ve heard that their Ungespundet is the beer to order. Ask for U (Oooh) and they know what you want. The name is to do with an ‘unbunged’ beer, meaning it’s not packaged under pressure, so you’re getting a kind of kellerbier or unfiltered lager with less carbonation. Dark amber, the body has toffee and toast with a dinner-in-a-glass richness, and it’s as soft as a pillow with a comforting duvet of malt depth.
It’s dark when I leave. And raining. But I’m ahead of schedule and have only one more planned stop. Cafe Abseits is on the edge of town and walking away from the historic centre feels like a different world of fast cars and modern buildings which could be anywhere in Central Europe. This is a great beer bar, busy, buzzing. It has the relaxed feel of a Belgian cafe with six draught beers, four classic German styles and two are more adventurous, there's also around 50 bottles on the menu. I take the Keesmann Herren Pils, having missed the opportunity to drink it at the brewery: it’s remarkable. Peachy and fresh, grassy, dry and bitter, it wakes me up and gives me the energy for more drinking (I love when a beer can do that; I was ready to sleep before this, now I’m ready for more drinking).
Then I order a bottle of Weyermann Schloffegerla. If you drink smoked beer anywhere in the world, then there’s a very good chance it was brewed with malts smoked by Weyermann Malting. They also have a small brewery, where Schloffegerla was made. It’s a wonderful dark smoked beer which is like maple and chocolate smoked meats, deeply smoky and remarkable in how you get a glassful of malt flavour without it being sweet or chewy or overpowering.
I’m still thirsty, somehow, and being in Bamberg I figure I should go back to Schlenkerla, where they have Fastenbier on tap. A spring seasonal, it’s bigger and dark than the Märzen, more woody than smoky, a little sweeter and still as evocative. The bar is quiet tonight, relaxed. I like it a lot. I can sit here for hours, though I’m four pints into rauchbier and think I’m done with that for today.
Before bed, I finish up in Spezial for their unfiltered lager, the only unsmoked beer they brew. Soft, lemony and spritzy, creamy and smooth, it’s amazing and I only wish that I hadn’t been drinking for 12 hours and that I could start again. As I finish the beer I look around and see two other solo drinkers and both are talking to themselves; I can’t help but wonder if I’m doing the same, though they are probably having a laugh at the tourist taking photos of his beer and writing things in a little notebook...
Say Bamberg in the beer world and it means rauchbier, though there are only two (three with Weyermann) breweries in town which make it, which is surprising for a place so synonymous with one idiosyncratic beer. As important as rauchbier, or arguably even more important, is the malt made in Bamberg.
Arrive by train from the south and you pass BambergerMalzerei; arrive from the north and you pass Weyermann (Spezial and Schlenkerla also smoke their own malt). They use barley grown nearby and it’s malted and then shipped to breweries around the world. Not everyone has been to Bamberg, not everyone has drunk a rauchbier, but I reckon everyone will have drunk a beer made with malt produced in Bamberg. This malt has probably made more impact on world beer than the smoked style, even if the smoked malt is the one with the star status. And the Bamberg beers all share a richness of malt without ever being heavy; it’s like the malt flavour is fresher, fuller, cleaner, there than anywhere else.
I expected Bamberg to be an interesting place to visit but I also expected it to be a day of smoked beer. I wasn't prepared for just how much I loved Bamberg. Yes, it’s famous for smoked beer and that tastes better in Bamberg than anywhere else, but you’ll also find more beer choice than any other Germany city and it’s a beautiful, interesting old place which you can walk around. I tried to do it all in one day, which was fine but I wanted longer to linger. It's a must-visit stop on a world beer tour. Bamberg is probably my new favourite drinking city.
As well as those listed (I’ll repeat them: Fässla, Spezial, Greifenklau, Klosterbrau, Schlenkerla, Ambräusianum, Keesman, Mahrs, Weyermann), there’s also Maisels and Kaiserdom breweries. That’s 11 breweries.