There is no more natural place for a museum of beer and brewing than Bamberg, and yet nowhere that needs it less.
Up on Michelsberg, one of the seven hills that surround the old city centre, a former Benedictine brewery now hosts the Franconian Brewery Museum. It is tremendous fun, full to overflowing all the way down into its old ice cellars with artefacts from the monastic brewery itself and the region beyond: stately, ornamented beer barrels; fermenting vessels ancient and modern; shelves upon shelves upon shelves of Keferlohers and Maβkrugs, from the most modest to the most ornate and wildly ostentatious; rusting old hunks of machinery, whose purpose is lost to the obscurity of time and the incessant march of technology.
But Bamberg itself is the true museum of beer. Walking through the doors of this hilltop museum is like slipping into a more sharply-delineated version of the city below, a city that, with eight breweries in its centre and dozens peppering the surrounding region, lives and breathes beer as if it were air.
That air carries the meaty aroma of beechwood smoke.
Before the introduction of indirectly-fired malt kilns in the mid-nineteenth century, it is likely that many beers arrived at the drinker’s lips with a hint of the campfire about them. Since then, outside of the whisky industry, smoked malt has retired into the background, a source of experimentation for craft and homebrewers, and an acquired taste for beer lovers.
There are well-known examples of smoked beer brewed outside Germany, such as the Alaskan Brewing Company’s Smoked Porter. I have used smoked malt myself, twice, for an autumnal “Bonfire Night Porter” recipe. All these beers take their inspiration from Bamberg, where Rauchbier has been enjoyed for 500 years, and where Weyermann Malting produces most of the world’s Rauchmalz for global export.
The two most famous Rauchbier breweries in the world sit like unassuming pubs on the tourist-bustling streets of the old city centre. The most emblematic is Heller Brӓu Trum, better known by the brand name of its beers, “Schlenkerla”.
While the beer is brewed (and the barley malted and smoked) at a facility on another of the city’s hills, it is still served behind the newly-restored medieval façade of what was, when built in the 14th century, a tavern named Zum Blauen Löwen. When the place was acquired by Andreas Graser in 1877, his awkward, shuffling gait soon lent its name, “Schlenkerla”, to the Brauhaus itself. The jolly looking chap, a walking cane in one hand and a foaming Keferloher in the other, adorns the brewery’s rosette-like logo to this day, and his family still taps the beer.
Destroyed and rebuilt in the Thirty Years’ War, and painstakingly restored on many occasions since, the Schenkerla Brauhaus is nothing short of a living museum. Its cosy, busy riot of stout black timbers and rustic furniture echoes, not only with the chatter of the surprisingly large number of modern-day punters, but with the joys and sorrows, the jokes and quarrels, of centuries of drinkers past. It is impossible to tell where the aroma of those beechwood smoke-steeped timbers ends and that of the handsomely-piled platters of pork begins.
Schlenkerla is so firmly rooted in this place and its traditions that one of its “smoked” beers, the Hell, does not use Rauchmalz at all. It gets its subtle aroma from its yeast, which has been re-pitched after fermenting the brewery’s genuine Rauchbiers. Beechwood smoke is almost literally embedded in this brewery’s DNA: it couldn’t brew an unsmoked beer today, even if it wanted to.
Heller Brӓu Trum produces around 15,000 hectolitres of beer per year, and its bottled, ink-black Mӓrzen is a fairly common sight in specialist beer shops around the world. At Schlenkerla itself, however, drinkers enjoy the rare privilege of tasting the brews tapped straight from their lagering barrels. Perhaps it was due to the atmospheric setting, perhaps it is something about the barrels themselves, but to my palate, the beer seemed less aggressively smoky here than from the bottle, more subtle and balanced, brilliantly moreish.
The Mӓrzen is a heady mix of coffee, caramel, mace, nutmeg and fried-bacon beechwood smoke, with a graceful bitter finish. By comparison the Weizen seemed dull at first, but as it warmed its clove-like phenols and banana esters came forward as a very effective complement to the smoked malt.
Finally, I sampled the Krӓusen, a seasonal offering for June, July and August. This bright amber beer with its huge fluffy foam is created by mixing the young Hell with the lagered Mӓrzen, delivering a refreshing mix of high carbonation and the grassy, lemon-zest bitterness of noble hops, with a soft smokiness of similar intensity as the Weizen’s.
Every one of these beers is excellent. The Mӓrzen is simply sublime. But what else would one expect from a brewery that’s had half a millennium to hone its craft and perfect its ingredients?
Brӓuerei zum Spezial, Bamberg’s second most-celebrated Rauchbier producer, is within a cobbled street’s width of Schlenkerla when it comes to experience, having been documented as a brewery as early as 1536. Unlike its more famous neighbour, however, it barely exports a bottle beyond the Franconian border.
Unfortunately, the Merz family, proud owners of Spezial for 120 years, were on their holidays at the same time as I was on mine. That meant I was denied a view of the interior of the Spezial Brӓuereigasthof. I made up for it by climbing one of the city’s hills to visit Altenburg Castle, and built up a keen thirst with a stroll halfway down again, through quiet suburban streets, to the brewery’s leafy Bierkeller.
Looking out to the historic city below us, I enjoyed the Mӓrzen and the Weizen. The former is sweeter, hoppier, fruitier and less smoky than Schenkerla’s – indeed, served in a porcelain Keferloher one could almost mistake this for a pale beer rather than the Dunkel that it is. It is delightfully quaffable, and far and away the beer that the locals preferred. For my money, however, they were severely under-rating this brewery’s Weizen.
A true banoffee-pie explosion, complete with the smoky cordite aftertaste, this is a delicious beer that really shows the sumptuous possibilities that await the brewer who is prepared to combine the Weiβbier flavour profile with Rauchmalz. A homebrewer cannot help but come away inspired.
Take the train out of Bamberg to the southeast and you will arrive at Hirschaid. A short walk through this quiet village brings you to a countryside of cornfields and woodland. The woods are, of course, predominately beech. As you follow the paths northwest, you can begin a long arc that eventually brings you back to the city, guided by Altenburg, perched atop its hill like a sentinel. As you do so, these trees shade you and guide you, tall and slender and swaying gently in the breeze, or felled at the side of the track as they await the two years’ seasoning that readies them for the malt kilns at Schenkerla, Spezial and Weyermann.
Their life can already be counted in decades, as beech trees grow very slowly. But patience is not at a premium in this part of the world – as the dates above Bamberg’s Brauhaus doors attest.
We absorbed a lesson about patience after walk of six or seven kilometres to Schmausenkeller, a Brauhaus nestled into the edge of the trees near the village of Reundorf.
Primed by the relentless summer heat, we had to wait almost an hour and a half before opening time: as we sat reading in the Biergarten the place slowly came to life with elderly couples, old men bearing their trusty Keferlohers, and families whose children were anxious to run and tumble in the playground, a 12-year old’s paradise of slides, climbing frames and rope swings that spreads transgressively into the gnarly old roots of the surrounding wood.
Owned and run by the Müller family since 1874, Schmausenkeller produces less than 1,000 hectolitres of beer per year, lagered in ice cellars cut beneath the woodland floor. The beers are seasonal: a Kellerbier for the summer, a Bock for the autumn and a Mӓrzen-like “Schmäusla” for the winter. The Kellerbier is lively, fresh and generously-hopped, with a notably dry finish.
Two hours and a few more kilometres northwest, at Brauereigasthof Müller, we enjoyed another very well-hopped, unfiltered Hell (called “Micherla”), which developed a nice fruity finish as it warmed up; an opulent Dunkel, rich with spice and toffee; and a very good Weizen, again on the hoppy side, with a zesty, grassy freshness setting off subtle banana esters and the smallest trace of clove-flavoured phenols.
Unlike at Schmausenkeller, where our beers came with a workmanlike plate of cold cuts and pickles, here we were treated to an excellent assemblage of pig entrails and sauerkraut, called “Schlachtschüssel”. It was a hearty, perfect match for the big-flavoured beers.
We know there are a lot of breweries in Bamberg. But is the beer of uniformly high quality? Alas, it is not. Alongside the sublime we found the pedestrian, the curious and the monstrous.
At the Fässla Brauhaus and Inn we enjoyed excellent Franconian sausages but felt that the gnomes who adorn the walls and alcoves were more characterful than the beer (we took a Lagerbier and a Dunkel-style “Zwergla”).
I would categorise the beers at Brauerei Gaststӓtte Klosterbrӓu among the curiosities. Its Schwarzbier is a strange hybrid of an Irish Stout and a Bavarian Dunkel, offering a little taste of black-malt coffee to begin with but a rather challenging mustiness as it became warmer.
The Braunbier was even more curious, if somewhat nicer to drink. Supposedly a Mӓrzen, this came across more like a Düsseldorf Altbier or even an English cask ale – not unlike the old Young’s Bitter.
Klosterbrӓu claims to be the oldest brewery in Bamberg, dating from 1533, and, rather like that other ancient brewery, Munich’s Augustiner, it seems that centuries of its yeast’s unruly evolution has left a legacy of musty and fruity flavours that one might more readily associate with top- and warm-fermented ales than with lagers. It may be significant that these beers are fermented at the unusually warm temperature of 7-9° Celsius.
The monstrosities were so egregious that I will name the brewery that created them. Suffice it to say that it is a relative newcomer, replacing a string of distileries and restaurants that used to enjoy its prime location two doors away from Schlenkerla. It seems to want to define itself against the cosy, dark-wood traditionalism of its illustrous neighbour, going for lighter, airier décor and laying out its copper brewing equipment for customers to see, as a modern craft-beer brewpub might. Unfortunately, it has chosen to brew traditional Bavarian styles, which it executes extremely poorly – at least at the time when I visited.
We tried the Hell, a thin and horrible mix of sourness and rancid butter, suggesting a high concentration of diacetyl. Never has the style appellation seemed so apropriate. The brewery’s Weizen tasted like cough sweets: a phenolic swamp of cloves, cloves, more cloves and not much else. Finally, we tried the so-called Dunkel, which looked like nothing more than a turbid version of the Hell and tasted truly dreadful, like corn drenched in butter. In these parts, it seems, the quality of the beer is in inverse proportion to the brewing flummery in evidence.
Well, they say that there must always be exceptions to prove the rule.
Did I begin by saying that Bamberg lives and breathes beer as if it were air? That’s true. But it also eats beer!
One of the best places to sit and watch the night fall on beautiful Bamberg, with the play of dusk and lights reflecting on the fast-flowing Regnitz, is on the veranda of the chic little Eckerts restaurant. The food is good, it offers an own-brand beer commissioned from the excellent Gänstaller brewery, and, in a most impressive appliance of cookery science, the menu includes a beer ice cream. Against all expectations, it did indeed taste like a sweet, malty, Munich-style Mӓrzen.
It is a fitting tribute to this picturesque city, surely a contender for the title of Beer Capital of the World.