September 9, 2004 Written by rauchbier
Isle Of Beer, ENGLAND -
I suspect that anyone with a genuine interest in quality beers will know what Bamberg is famous for. Some of you will also know that apart from Schlenkerla and Spezial who produce Rauchbier, there are seven other breweries in a town that has only 70,000 inhabitants. What is less well known is that in the surrounding countryside, in what is known as Franconia (Franken to the locals), there are well over 200 small breweries each producing their own range of beers. The place is a beer drinker’s heaven.
On my first visit in the late 1980s I had only heard about Rauchbier. I arrived ready to be amazed by the intense flavour and the wonderful atmosphere of the Schlenkerla Tavern. I left Bamberg with some great memories and a book that amazed me even more. Stephan Mack’s “Fränkische Brauereikarte” listed all the Franconian breweries still in production (380 at the time) and provided a map of their location. The villages surrounding Bamberg were teeming with brewers, many of them supplying only a few bars locally and most small enough to be considered microbreweries. Unfortunately since then the number of breweries has been dwindling, by 1996 it was down to 330 and today it is around 270 but that is still a phenomenal amount of brewers for an area little bigger than the state of New Jersey and with half the population.
This summer I spent a few days in Franconia as part of a group of likeminded beerhunters on a trip organised by my good friend and mentor John White (www.whitebeertravels.com). Our main destination was Bamberg, but we found plenty to interest us elsewhere. Hopefully this and the following article will convince more people that this relatively untouched area of Bavaria is worthy of further attention.
If you are heading to Franconia you will inevitably pass through Nürnberg as this is the capital city and the main transport hub of the region. Nürnberg airport is small but has direct flights to many larger airports across Europe such as Charles de Gaulle and Schiphol, and is only 10 minutes from the city centre. There is a strong temptation to catch the first train out to Bamberg but it is worth spending a day in the city.
Throughout our trip the weather was glorious, if a little on the warm side, but our first brewery visit started in a rather unorthodox location. Beneath the city streets of Nürnberg’s old town there is a maze of tunnels and caves dug out hundreds of years ago. The temperature is refreshingly cool and for precisely this reason they were for many years used by local brewers to brew and store beer. Huge blocks of ice would be cut from frozen rivers in the winter and packed into the vast caverns, melting slowly during the spring and keeping the caves (and beer) close to freezing. As the number of brewers in the city dwindled the caves fell into disuse until the Second World War when they became vast air raid shelters for the local population. There were far fewer casualties in Nürnberg than in similar raids in Dresden and the people were thankful of the ex brewer’s caves. It was said at the time that Beer saved lives in Nürnberg.
At the end of the tour we surfaced into the sunlight and heat in the shaded courtyard of the Hausbrauerei Altstadthof. We had a brief but interesting tour of the brewery before moving next door to the small bar. Inside, at typical Bavarian scrubbed wooden tables you can order a sampler set of the brewery’s available beers or buy bottles to take away. They have a basic range of four beers (Helles, Rothebier, Schwarzbier and Weisse) with Bocks in May and winter. For those of a more adventurous nature the brewery also makes a range of Bierschnapps from the different beers, as do many German breweries. I was not feeling that adventurous. The Altstadthof has a selection of meals available at reasonable prices but a much better option is to move a few doors along, up the hill towards the old city walls and visit the Gaststätte Schranke Schlenkerla. Although not owned by the Heller Brauerei in Bamberg, it was granted permission to use the name a couple of generations ago, and naturally has Schlenkerla Rauchbier on tap as well as one or two unusual beers from local breweries. Unlike the Bamberg outlet, where the beer is served by gravity from wooden casks, here it comes from kegs with gas dispense and this seems to intensify the smoky aroma and flavour more. There were also some hard to get bottled beers from the Brauerei Bub in nearby Leinburg. The other attraction of the Gaststätte Schranke Schlenkerla is the wonderful menu that includes the local speciality, Nürnberger Bratwurst. A plateful of grilled spicy sausages, sauerkraut, and a glass of Rauchbier. It wasn’t quite heaven, but it was close.
<IMG border=0 SRC=images/features/02.jpg> Casks in Altstadthof courtyard
As our time in Nürnberg was limited, we headed back down the hill towards the main station. Walking through the centre it is hard to believe that by the end of the Second World War most of the buildings had been flattened and much of what you see today was rebuilt in the post-war years. One such building houses the Hausbrauerei Barfüßer brewpub that has been open around ten years. It is an imposing looking structure with an impressive frontage and a myriad of windows but the brewery itself occupies only the basement. The atmosphere reminded me of some of the Köln (Cologne) or Düsseldorf brewpubs, with busy waiters serving people in little seating areas either side of a central corridor whilst a harassed looking woman constantly fills glasses from barrels in the centre of the building, just opposite the shiny coppers and pipe work of the brew plant. The beer range is limited to a Helles and a Schwarze, but you can order a 5 litre wooden cask which is delivered to your table for you to pour your own drinks from. One strange feature of the bar is the mass of English pub signs that decorate the place. They look about sixty years old and are exactly the places allied bomber crews would have stopped off for a quick pint in the spring of 1944 before climbing into their Lancasters to bomb this very building.
As you leave the Barfüßer and head back towards the station you immediately pass the posh looking Hotel Deutcher Kaiser, which hides a nice surprise. The main bar and restaurant is called Der Andechser and has a selection of Klosterbrauerei Andechs beers on draught. Even better is the fact that you can get a five-glass sampler board of the beers. I missed this treat as I lingered too long in the Schlenkerla bar, but maybe next time…
A Brief Diversion
I know this is supposed to be a slow train to Bamberg, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity whilst in Nürnberg to visit Neuhaus/Pegnitz.. It is about 40 minutes by train, passing through Lauf (Brauerei Simon and Privatbrauerei Dreykorn) and Hersbruck (Bürgerbräu Hersbruck) on the way. The town is best known for Veldenstein Castle and Kaiser Brewery, both of which dominate the village. Much more interesting to beer lovers is the local Kommunbrauhaus. It dates from 1556, when local families were given rights to use the brewery to produce their own beer. They would then convert their living rooms to a bar and open it up to other villagers until the beer had gone. To signify that they had beer available they would hang a “Zoigl” star above their door (the same as the Star of David). These days only three or four families still exercise their brewing rights, but there is usually at least one of the bars open. The first two bars I found to be closed and I stopped briefly at a cheerful looking pub called “Hexenhäusle” which served an excellent Zwick’lbier from Bayreuther Bierbrauerei. The owner very helpfully explained, in English, a little of the history of the local “zoigl” beer. He pointed me in the direction of the ramshackle Kommunbrauhaus that apparently is no longer in use, but the beer is still produced elsewhere in the village. I couldn’t find out its new location but did eventually come across a house with the Zoigl star hanging outside, albeit from a Kaiser Pils sign. Inside it certainly didn’t look like a normal bar, very open plan and easy going, and the beer was a good solid yeasty Märzen but the Kaiser connection troubled me slightly. Maybe that is what the man at the Hexenhäusle had meant by “elsewhere”. There is some discussion as to whether this should be considered a Zoiglbier at all, the designation normally used only in the Oberpfalz region between Franconia and the Czech Republic. The concept is the same, local brewers using a shared brewhouse and serving from their own homes to anyone who wants it, but it is difficult to find a true example. There are bottled versions, I have tried the Rawetzer Zoiglbier from Brauerei Nothaft in Marktredwitz, but the fact it is in bottle and from a commercial brewery precludes it from being a true Zoigl. My search for a true Zoigl continues, yet another reason for me to go back.
Back on Track
The train from Nürnberg to Bamberg normally takes around 45 minutes but if you stopped at each station along the line that has a brewery nearby it would take you at least a day to get to your destination. First stop is Fürth with the massive Tucher, whose beers are readily available all over Nürnberg, so little reason to get off here. Next up is the university town of Erlangen which has the medium sized Brauerei Kitzmann with a good range of beers and numerous outlets in the town, and Steinbach-Bräu which is a brewpub with some interesting and unusual beers including a Weizenbock called Ladykiller , and a whisky malt beer called Scotty.
You would be forgiven for not breaking your journey at Erlangen, as the next station is far more rewarding. Forchheim is worthy of a day trip on its own, with four breweries, one or two other interesting bars and the wonderful Kellerberg just outside town. It is a fair walk from the station into the centre but worth it. Once you’ve found Hauptstrasse with its bizarre midget river and followed it down to the Rathaus you are within spitting distance of three brewery taps. In a block of six buildings, you find the Neder and Hebendanz brewpubs and the town center brewery tap for Brauerei Greif, each of which has at least four beers available. As with most places in Franconia the standard serving size is half a litre so if you want to try as many beers as possible its best to hunt in packs. All three bars are simple and cheap with substantial meals available.
The fourth brewpub (Brauerei Eichhorn) is located within easy walking distance of the others, but was unfortunately closed on the day of our visit, but with good reason, most of the locals were up at the Bierkeller.
To many the word Bierkeller will conjure up the image of a subterranean bar full of rowdy thigh slapping Bavarians, but in Franconia it usually means a beer garden on a hillside close to the caves that the brewers used in the past to store beer during the summer months. The first whiff of spring and the locals are up in the hills drinking beer under the shade of chestnut trees. Some are open all year round but most shut down once the chill of autumn sets in. The area to the south of Bamberg is the best place to sample Keller culture, and there are many excellent books that provide maps and guided walks linking three or four Kellers with which to fill your days. A useful website covering the local beer gardens is www.bierkeller.de. For those of you who think that all that walking cuts out serious drinking time, I would suggest a trip to Forchheim’s Kellerberg, a wooded hill side with 24 individual Bierkellers located on the outskirts of the town. There are at least 8 different brewers represented, including all four from Forchheim, and although food is available many people take their own picnics and make an afternoon of it. For a few days at the end of July the Kellerberg becomes home to the Annafest, and is transformed into a fairground with a big wheel and other rides and stalls. Many of the Kellers have local bands playing and it starts to get a little noisy as dusk falls. It could be compared to a rural version of the Oktoberfest but with more interesting beers and a lot less tourists, the only problem is that they serve most of the beers in 1-litre measures, which seriously slows down your rating! During the Annafest buses run directly from the railway station to the Kellerberg although after three or four litres of Festbier it may be better to walk back.
Before getting the next train to Bamberg it also also worth considering a brief excursion along the branch line to Ebermannstadt, home to two more brewpubs (Gasthof Schwanenbräu and Brauerei Sonne) and a preserved steam railway that operates from May to October.
Back on the Bamberg train, within minutes of leaving Forchheim you are at Eggolsheim that has Brauerei Schwarzes Kreuz, although it is quite a walk from the station. Next stop is Buttenheim, home of the famous St Georgen Bru and the less well know Löwenbräu. Again it’s about a mile from the station to the breweries, but they are right next door to each other. Alternatively there is a Löwenbräu outlet right next to the station. If you are planning to get the next train it is probably best to pay for your drinks as they are served, that way you aren’t searching for the barman as your train is leaving. Next stop is Hirshaid (pronounced, amusingly to me, “here shite”) home of Brauerei Kraus, and finally before we arrive at Bamberg there is Strullendorf which doesn’t have its own brewery but is the starting point for a 9 walk that takes in 3 more breweries, Brauerei Krug and Brauerei Griess (both in Geisfeld) and Brauerei Sauer in Rossdorf am Forst. It also covers a few attractive Bierkellers with even more beers from other local breweries.
Finally you arrive at Bamberg, probably tired and a little drunk. In the trip from Nürnberg Airport to Bamberg, a journey of around 50 miles, you pass through towns and cities with a total of 13 breweries, plus another 10 if you include the diversions suggested above. I only managed to get to about half of them, but that’s just another excuse to go back.
In part two I will take you on a brief pub-crawl around the breweries, bars and Kellers of Bamberg and suggest a few more options for trips in the local area.
If you are planning a trip to Franconia I would suggest the following websites