October 14, 2004 Written by rauchbier
Isle Of Beer, ENGLAND -
If you stand on the Obere Brücke in Bamberg late on a Friday evening and throw a stone at the passing crowds chances are you will hit someone responsible for ensuring the continuing survival of the local beer scene. You may hit someone who works for one of the two thriving Bamberg maltings, or maybe one of the ten breweries. It could be someone from Kaspar Schultz, a well-known local manufacturer of brew plants, it could even be one of the brewers themselves, but more than likely it will just be one of the many locals who steadfastly support the breweries by drinking Bamberg beer. International brewers spend millions on advertising in an attempt to win brand loyalty, but in Franken they spend the money on making excellent beer and developing links with the local community. Brand loyalty soon follows and is handed down from father to son and mother to daughter. Although the number of breweries in Bamberg has dropped from over 70 in the 19th century to “just” 9 at the turn of the 21st century the locals are still amongst the biggest consumers of beer per head in Europe, possibly the world. In the past few years there have been rumours that some of the towns breweries were about to close, or be taken over, but so far these have proved to be unfounded. Still, when I returned to Bamberg this summer I did so in the knowledge that it may have been my last opportunity to try some of the wonderful beers available in the town. What I found there surprised me, far from being threatened by closures the local beer scene was expanding. A brand new brewpub was opening, and I found out about two other breweries in the town that could soon be making beer on a more regular basis.
Because there are so many breweries and beers to try in the town it is best to spread your drinking over a few days, this way you get to stay relatively sober and can plan your trips to avoid the Ruhetag (closing day) that most bars have. How annoyed would you be if you turned up on a Tuesday and discovered that the Schlenkerla was closed?
The local tourist office has an excellent Bierschmecker Touren brochure available, with an essential map showing the location of the brewpubs, and for only 20 Euro you can get the booklet, a glass, some beermats, five free beers and a Bamberg rucksack. The booklet is only available in German at the moment, but the freebies are worth far more than the cost, and the map is essential.
I normally try and get accommodation at the Fässla because it is relatively close to the station and is cheap. The Spezial directly across the road also has rooms available at a similar price but not as many so tends to fill up quicker.
The Fässla follows a design that soon becomes familiar as you make your way through the town. You enter through a large doorway into an internal courtyard or alleyway with a serving hatch where you can get a quick beer, or maybe a bottle or two. There are normally a couple of rooms either side that open as and when trade demands and there is often an open seating area at the back where you can relax in the sun. In the case of the Fässla you sit in a little open space sandwiched between the bar and the brewhouse. On a fine summers day sipping at a glass of Zwergla with the smell of brewing beer swirling around you is a great way to pass the time. If its wintertime you are probably better off in the warmth of the wood paneled bar with a Bambergator in front of you on the scrubbed pine table. At 8.5% abv this is the strongest beer available in Bamberg and another good reason to have a room upstairs as it can be a long walk to the center with a litre of this inside you.
Like most of the brewery taps it opens around 9am and surprisingly there are people ready for a beer even at that time. It doesn’t have a Ruhetag as such, but closes at dinnertime on a Sunday.
Straight across the road is the Spezial, one of the two regular producers of Rauchbier in the town. The Lagerbier, Weissbier and Märzen are normally available all year round, with a Bock appearing around November time. All of these have varying levels of smokiness that are a little more restrained than the “liquid ham” of the Schlenkerla beers, but are produced in a similar way by smoking malt over beechwood logs in the brewery at the rear of the bar. They also have an unfiltered “Ungespundetes” in January and spring time, which is unsmoked. Despite appearances otherwise, the rauchbier served in the Spezial apparently comes from cellar tanks. The impressive wooden barrels on the bar are just there for show. If you want the beer served from the wood you should go to the Spezial Keller during the summer months. Another oddity is the little immersion heater on the bar so the waitress can warm up beer for those who don’t like it too cold. Shuts early on Saturdays.
As we are still north of the Main-Donau-Kanal it is worth taking a trip out to Wunderberg where the Keesmann and Mahrs breweries share a street. The easiest way to find them is to walk along the north bank of the Kanal until you spot the orange painted church in one of the side streets. Next door to this is Mahrs Bräu, which you reach through a small beer garden. Inside is a maze of wood paneled rooms but it is much more enjoyable to sit outside under the chestnut trees, watching the locals and working your way through the beers. By far the most popular is the Ungespundetes Lagerbier, known to the regulars simply as “U”, but if you want to taste a really fresh Pils try and get there around 5pm during the week when they open a wooden cask ready for people stopping off for a quick one after work. Mahrs is open every day, but it is worth bearing in mind that Brauerei Keesmann almost directly across the road shuts from 3pm Saturday and all day Sunday.
Keesmann has a fairly cluttered looking front with a mass of green shuttered windows. Inside the bar is quite modern by Bamberg standards (1950’s rather than 1850’s) and it has a rather utilitarian beer garden out the back alongside the brewery, but the beers are well liked throughout the area and the Herren Pils and the unfiltered Sternla are both worth making the trip for.
Even further out of town is Maisel Bräu, which is large and industrial with an impressive range of beers and a brewery tap next door that is open every day, but unless you really want to see the brewery it is probably easier to taste their beers at the other main outlet, Bamberger Weissbierhaus which is on the same street as the Spezial and Fässla. The only other bar of note that I have found this side of the Kanal is Café Abseits, which is in a side street the other side of the railway. It is quite a walk but well worth seeking out as it has an ever changing beer of the month and a range of tap and bottle beers from small Franconian brewers. It also has the advantage of staying open well past midnight, unlike the brewery taps.
Up to this point all the breweries covered have been in fairly modern parts of town, but as you cross the Kanal the buildings start to get a little more impressive until finally you reach the Obere Brücke, which crosses the Regnitz River. This bridge is unusual in that half way across it is the Rathaus (Town Hall). Once you’ve got to this point you are within about 100 yards of the Schlenkerla tavern.
The Schlenkerla is a justification in itself for visiting Bamberg, a delightfully atmospheric bar that seems untouched by the centuries. It is divided up into three or four rooms, each with their own style and clientele, but is surprisingly small. Despite this you can usually find a place to sit, the locals all being more than happy to invite you to sit with them. All the Bamberg brewery taps have food available, ranging from a simple plate of bread and cheese to huge knuckles of pork but in the Schlenkerla the combination of world class beer served direct from wooden casks, excellent food and atmosphere combines to make this a truly magical place to eat. Brauerei Heller itself moved away from the Schlenkerla tavern many years ago and is located about half a mile away on the Stephansberg, one of Bamberg’s seven hills.
Klosterbräu is about a five-minute walk from Schlenkerla through a maze of cobbled streets and is the oldest brewery in town, although the actual brewery tap has been open in its present form for less than 20 years. A range of beers is available, including three seasonal bocks and the excellent Schwärzla, and they have a shop where you can pick up bottles and other souvenirs. From the Klosterbräu it is a short walk to the Stephansberg.
Stephanberg is the site of three of Bamberg’s finest beerkellers, and is the place where in years past the Brewers would store their beers in caves during the warm summer months. The Spezial Keller naturally has Spezial Rauchbier available (from the wooden cask), has superb views over the city and is a great place to watch the sunset, if you can still focus by then. The Mahrskeller is well known for its superb food (and the “U”) and the Wilde Rose Keller is unusual in that it has house beers, brewed to special recipes by Maisel. The Wilde Rose used to have its own brewery, and you pass the old building as you make your way up the Stephansberg to the Keller. This building now holds the little known Brau Haus Robesbierre, operated in his free time by Robert Pawelczak on a purely non-commercial basis for the time being, although the beer is occasionally available at the Wilde-Rose-Keller. I managed to sample a bottle of his unfiltered kellerbier, courtesy of Frank Wetzel, and I would be happy to see it more widely available. Robert can often be found in the Stöhrenkeller, a small trendy bar close to the Spezial Keller with a modest but excellent range of local beers.
From the Wilde Rose it is a short walk through some side streets to reach Brauerei Greifenklau, but you will need that map from the tourist office. The alternative is to walk all the way back down the Stephansberg and then up the Kaulberg, which certainly helps build up a thirst. Greifenklau is the smallest of the Bamberg brewers, and only has three beers (Lager, Weizen and a Bock in the winter) but has a beer garden in the back yard with some excellent views, and good solid food to set you up for the walk back into the center.
I feel obliged to mention Kaiserdom in passing, as it is the largest of the Bamberg breweries, although is one of my least favourite. They have a wide but uninspiring beer range, with the Meranier Schwarzbier being the most interesting. Schlenkerla apparently brews the Rauchbier available in some export markets. The brewery tap is located some way out of town and with many other outlets in the center is hardly worth the effort needed to reach it. However it happens to be on the way to yet another brewery. Bischberg is a 4-kilometer bus ride from Bamberg and is the home of Brauerei-Gasthof Zur Sonne, a small brewpub with three or four beers on tap. It is closed on Tuesdays, but Sonne Helles is sometimes available at the Stöhrenkeller on the Stephansberg.
Prior to August that would have completed a tour of all the Bamberg breweries, but quite by accident the organizer of my trip, John White of <a hrefhttp://www.whitebeertravels.co.uk/>White Beer Travels, spotted the unmistakable gleam of shiny copper through an open window in a side street close to the Schlenkerla. Later on that night we went back to investigate further and to our amazement found a brand new brewpub, just 5 days prior to its official opening. There were no external signs and the decorating was still half finished but the owner showed us around the brewery and offered us a taste of the three beers they produced. The Helles was superbly hoppy and the Weissbier on a par with any of the other Bamberg wheat beers.
Gasthausbrauerei Ambräusianum is located two doors down from Schlenkerla and opened officially the first week in August 2004, and it will be interesting to see how well it is received by the locals. Interestingly the front page of the website http://www.ambraeusianum.de) has a picture of fellow Ratebeerian FrankenBier sampling their beers, and ratebeer.com is on the links page, I wonder how that happened! Despite its close proximity to Schlenkerla, Matthias Trum (the owner of Brauerei Heller) doesn’t see this new venture as a threat, possibly because the owner of Ambräusianum is a distant cousin of his!
The final brewery visit of our trip was to Brauerei Heller itself where Matthias Trum, whose youth and enthusiasm bodes well for the brewery’s future, gave us a tour around. Unfortunately the on-site maltings were not in operation the day of our visit but we were able to see the rest of the brewing process. Of particular interest was the opportunity to lift the lid of the copper during the boil. The smell was much more like burning wood and much harsher than in the finished product, obviously the boil drives off these volatile and unwanted aromas. We then went down into the caves below the brewery where the beers are lagered and sampled an unfiltered Rauchbier straight from the conditioning tank. It was almost ready for kegging up but had a faint yeastiness that isn’t noticeable in the finished product. It would be interesting to try a much younger version to see how the flavour develops with time.
The area around Bamberg is rich with breweries and many are easily accessible by bus or train. For example, Memmelsdorf has three breweries and is a 15-minute bus ride, Bayreuth has five breweries and is about an hour by train from Bamberg and with a combination of bus and train dozens of brewpubs are within easy reach. Take a look at FrankenBier’s website for more details http://www.franconiabeerguide.com).
As you trudge wearily, and probably regretfully, back to the railway station to catch a train back to whatever beer hell you normally live in don’t forget to make a stop at Vroni`s Getränkelädla. It is a small shop about halfway between the Fässla and the station that sells bottles from small local breweries, at ridiculously cheap prices. And as you stand waiting for the train, look down the line at Weyermann Maltings. Earlier this year a Kaspar Schultz brewplant was installed there and they occasionally brew beers for special events. For their recent 125th anniversary they produced a stout, a weissbier and a rauchbier. With any luck these will become commercially available, but until that time their website tells you exactly how to brew them at home, using Weyermann’s own range of malts of course.
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What I found there surprised me, far from being threatened by closures the local beer scene was expanding. A brand new brewpub was opening, and I found out about two other breweries in the town that could soon be making beer on a more regular basis.