The Long Road to M-Dorf
Joris Pattyn reveals Franconia’s Hidden Treasures
October 6, 2005
Written by JorisPPattyn
Say you have been given another year at best by your GP. Of course, before giving the bow to this sad little planet, you want to give the last and the best of you to your favourite site, i.e. Ratebeer. And whilst you’re at it, you might enjoy yourself a little bit in the mean time. Then again, time is short, and money scarce. You’ve got one more trip to go on.
Where would you go to?
A lot of you, I’m sure, would decide that whatever trip it is, it ought to include Bamberg. Named cultural heritage site of Europe by whatever E.U. overpaid organ deems itself qualified to do so; named cultural brewing capital of Europe by EBCU, most of us would agree to your choice. And if yours truly (who hasn’t seen his GP in years) went yet another time to the Franconian beercapital this month, it certainly is not going to be me to dispute your choice.
Yet. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re really ill. Your brain, colon, breast, or whatever appendage is being eaten away daily, and your story would make a rock weep. Well – in that case, I might find myself to be convincible that you ought to be told that you’re close – but not quite. You’re short 12 km.
Yes, I know, I’ve lost you. So – let’ s revert to as normal a language as my (mental) pen can come up with, and tell you about a trip I did, and discovered Heaven. On this miserable little planet of above.
For dramatis personae, take one completely shifted RB admin, his long-suffering wife, and an American brewer working as a project consultant, and deeply in love with European beerculture. The last named is on tour in Europe once more, and has convinced (with about a quarter second of armtwisting) yours truly to accompany him to the Bamberg Ophir-of-beers. In the end, the M.I.O. of me was coming along, in order to drive the car (a styling horror, and sporting the same roadholding as Bambi on his frozen-pond outing, but it has plenty storage space for beer – in different varieties) for us two professional drunkards. There’s more D.P.’s coming along, but I’ll tell about them as the story unfolds.
So, we set out in the early afternoon of a rainy Thursday – not with the ambition of Franconia yet, but with a little stop along the road. In all honesty, I despise driving, and especially in large towns. So when I choose Bonn for our carriage to reign in, it was partly because I didn’t think my wife ought to risk Köln or Düsseldorf just for our pleasure (Bamberg and region was asking enough). But neither was it totally innocent. You see, in the second edition of sieur Jackson’s World Guide of Beer, there was already this strange shaped glass, filled with Kölsch (or rather, Wiess, unfiltered Kölsch) that couldn’t be called Kölsch – as it is brewed in the former Bundesrepublik capital before the Wende. Bönnsch is a kind of Kölsch, anyway, and it intrigued me. Yet, it was auspiciously absent on the database. And I set out to introduce it.
I’ll give it to you fair and square – I found it. And nearly wish I didn’t. It was so much nicer on the tantalising picture in the book. As it turned out, it’s a gimmick for a place that wants itself to be the “must” in the Bonner Innenstadt. It’s all about massive amounts of food, for not-quite-só-young people with money to burn and little ideas about good quality. The service was abysmal, young students knowing not the first letter of the alphabet of servicing. The beer was in the same style: I’ll never know what it was meant to be, as the glass that filled my hand contained worts in full fermentation, reeking and tasting of greenmalt, and the hops coming as an afterthought, breaking in instead of blending in. Terrible. Somebody who knows told me afterwards that Bönnsch Brauhaus is changing brewmasters as a young mother diapers.
We saved ourselves, and went out to find some other place I’d seen on the net: Bierhaus Machold. Talk about a contrast. Machold doesn’t brew, but did at one time: a beautiful but dusty old brewery was in the back, the old fermenters’ locks worked into a wall. They still offer a Hausbier on draught, care of the Bergischer Löwenbrauerei (Köllner Brauereiverbund). Just as this one, the other beers (Kurfürsten, Jever, and two Schneider Weissbier) were all served to perfection. At least somebody knows how to treat beer in the Beethoventown. Exiting, the gates of Heaven emptied above us, and we fled into the hotel.
Those gates weren’t ready with us. As if angered by us going out to the forbidden realm, knowing where we’d end, they kept on trashing us from above the next day on what ought to have been a pleasant ride through mid-Germany towards Bamberg. It resulted in a gruelling five hours of constant downpours, choking traffic, constant roadworks and a tiring driver. I cannot say I would congratulate the efficiency of the German traffic authorities. Instead of avoiding queues, they cause them to appear out of nowhere. They have electronic systems all above the lanes, which detect different things, and then send out messages as “Warning! Queue danger!”, and for good measure, immediately impose some arbitrary speed limit which causes the cars to slam down on their brakes, causing a wave of spreading braking cars, and queue. Ingenious. And since I’m throwing flowers with the pots attached – what was endangering the national security of the great American nation that much, that despite all this traffic, we encountered one caravan of US Army vehicles after another? I’m absolutely sure the downfall of the Texan dwarfmasters’ country would have been imminent if those trucks hadn’t been driving along the Autobahnen that day. Just as they did on Sunday (!), upon our way home. Or were they just burning the taxpayers’ allotment of expensive fuel?
Finally, grumpy as hell, we arrived at Bischberg, just NW of Bamberg, where I had booked two rooms for two nights, at 15.30 (having set out at 10.15!). In Bischberg, the brewery is called zur Sonne – Schuhmann. They had warned me that the brewery would be closed during our stay (annual holiday as it turned out), but the Gaststätte would be opened all the same. Well – it was and it wasn’t. There was just nobody around to haul us in. After much cursing and searching (the rooms were +/- 250 rainy meters from the brewery), we found a phone number, on which other side an ancient Bavarian tried to tell me something about ten minutes. Which proved to be the start of the backdoor-sale of beer from the brewery. I got in line, and finally, Frau Schuhmann realised who we were, and helped us to the necessary keys. It was nearly 16.30 when we set out, through Bamberg (not evident, with their surprise one-way streets) and out of town again, to my lieu de pélérinage, Herrnsdorf. You see, Bamberg means Rauchbier to me, but apart from Spezial-Merz and Heller-Schlenkerla, nobody does any in town.
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(<font size=small>photo courtesy David Anderson</font>)
But in the area, some do. And one I remember fondly, is Barnikel – in this Godforsaken village, where we managed to turn three times into a wrong, sometimes dead-ending street. But we got there, and the “Rauchzart” was even better than remembered. The ideal beer for introducing new tasters to the style. Alas, the rest of the beers where less enticing, and we left with no qualms, this time finally for town. Another pilgrimage, as Greifenklau brewery closed before my nose, last time I was there, now already nine years ago. This time, it was open – and with a lot of people inside, we overlooked our first contact of the day. Lodi Swinkels, brewmaster of La Trappe, was there with his MIO, and we had a beer or two together. Thanks to Lodi, we were also in company of the Greifenklau brewmaster, who confirmed what I had been whispered to already: the only beer made on the spot is the Lagerbier, the Pilsner and Weizen being brewed on commission by Göller in Zeil. Nice to know for sure.
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(<font size=small>photo courtesy David Anderson</font>)
Breakfast seemed a lifetime away, so the next stop was definitely chosen with food in mind. And with convenience, as Tapa’s Bar finds itself a couple hundreds of meters downhill. I suppose we had had our end of misfortune for the day, as this place was a hit in any meaning. Not only the food was great – Mediterranean in German portions – the beerlist is impressive, as was the draught Mönchsambacher Lager, or the Brauhaus (Schweinfurt) Weizen and Keller. And lo and behold, my wife’s mobile started making excited noises again. I got the call, as I had a good inkling that I was the intended, and indeed. Isn’t the Ratebeer community not something great? Danish-born Jonas (known on the site as Joss) immediately got himself a weekend in Bamberg, from the moment he learned of my travel plans. Better even, he was calling from zur Sonne, where he too had booked a room (can somebody tell me how it is that in a mid-September weekend, NONE of the central Bamberg classic sleeping places has a room to spare?).
I told him we were just finishing our meal at Tapa’s (little white lie, as none of us could finish the paella after all the tapas, I was rather finishing my second beer), and we would now search for the Ambräusianum place, so he set off to meet us there. I had high hopes for this place. After all, a brand-new brewpub in central Bamberg, carrying the famous Mahr name, ought to mean something, no? Avast, t’other one said. A huge place, filled up to brim with dinners and drinkers – by the time we arrived, searching in a fully dark Bamberg, we were notified the kitchen was closed. Not that we would manage another bite, and that was probably as well, seen the quality of the beer. Here, we could ask for a “Bierprobe” meaning a choice of small glasses of all the available beers. Despite the small sizes (certainly for Bavarian standards), I didn’t finish a single one. Diacetyl (in GERMANY!), harsh, raw flavours, unbalanced beers, and a Helles that had more wheat character than the Weizen… Jonas, who had made his entrance, was less happy with the absence of the food he was in dire need of. Consoling himself with a pretzel, he finished a quick beer. His comment said it all: “This s*cks”.
He took the lead, searching for our last place for the evening (my idea of finishing in open air at the Wilde Rosenkeller was effectively grounded by the weather), the old Klosterbrauerei. Oldies but goldies – at least the beer here was quite nice, and a cold platter of meat was no problem at all. We sampled Schwärzla, Braunla, etcetera. Now we had to find back our car. Jonas proved to be a lot like me, in this instance. When in a city we’ve been in before, we walk the direction our instinct tells us it ought to be, without really remembering. The more beer we have had, the smoother this thing goes. He soon saw us off at the foot of the hill towards our own car, and went searching for his. I surprised my wife and David no end, finding nearly immediately the way home through nightly Bamberg, after a whole day of missers and detours. They decided there and then, that my breakfast tomorrow would consist of two sturdy litres of beer, so my radar would be on from scratch.
Despite the rather cold welcome in the afternoon, as well as a slightly shabby outward look of our guesthouse, the rooms inside proved to be nice and comfortable. I slept like a log, even when Lut wasn’t agreeing – to her, the mattress was the log (and logs don’t snore). I awoke fresh and eager to go exploring. However, there was something strange in our morning room. Not quite sure what at first, but it became clear to me after some time, that there was a third presence in the room, that hadn’t been there yesterday evening. A little gold circle on the curtain made me enquire…
Gasp. Doubletake. Catch my breath. Stutter. Point.
Instead of the grey overcast drooling clouds, an azure sky spotted a welcoming orange-yellow Indian Summer sun. Zur Sonne, indeed! We had no idea, but the heavens had opened themselves, and we were at the gates of beerheaven. BTW, the real things-all-beery started already at breakfast, when I signified the lady of the house, I did not want to leave, without some beers to take home – lodging in a brewery, and not being able to taste its beers? No way. OK, four beers where bottled, the Bock, alas, was ripening for next month in the Lagertanks… More beers on the Parkplatz when Jonas and me did a little exchange. Jonas was in heaven, as I managed to fill in near all the lambic gaps from his wishlist. In fact, that wasn’t exactly a lot – but he was obviously very anxious for them, as he exchanged nearly a crate of mouthwatering Bavarian specialities for it. Little JPP feeling as a kid in a candystore…
And as such things go, I managed to read the map not too confusingly, and we four found ourselves in the hills in an earthy, crisp air full of gorgeous sunshine, driving into a rather typical, near-empty Franconian village. It should have warned my senses, but one carries one’s modern world cynics everywhere, doesn’t one? We found the desired brewery (there’s two in the most perfect of Franconian villages, don’t you know?) quite easily, and walking in the courtyard, watching the still wet varnished wooden tables and benches, I felt a quiet happiness falling over me. The mood was catching, even when our brewer was more interested in the sacks of raw materials abounding all around. An unmistakable smell of worts invaded the whole courtyard, and telltale vapour trailed into the blue sky from the oldest of the buildings, clearly the brewhouse.
Even before I tried the benches, a guy – the brewer – came around, enquiring if we would be drinking anything? We would, and got quiet when he started summing up the availables. Rauchbier, Festbier, Kellerbier, Pils, and Pale Weizen on draught, and Dark Weizen from the bottle. 5 beers on draught??? Did we hear well? We did, and by the time the first round was ordered, a young Bavarian lass had come round to dry one table for us, and we were seated. Usually we are a quite rowdy bunch, but the first few sips no word was said. Just soft sighs escaping our lips. You know, I’m a sucker for Rauchbier, I concede. So it was no big deal that I thought to be in heaven, with another interpretation of mild Rauchbier. Jonas’ eyes, however, were fairly bulging, sipping his Kellerbier. You know, when this guy isn’t fiddling around with the Hubble telescope, he’s drinking Bavarian beers. You should think he’s seen it all. But he hadn’t. NOT this one. Now when this guy says his Kellerbier was the best ever tasted, one frowns. One might suspect an overdose of enthusiasm, thanks to environmental factors. One suspects ones own poise would soon see things in perspective.
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(<font size=small>Joris, Lut and Jonas </font>)
One was wrong. It WAS the best ever tasted. One’s poise was shattered, dissolved by this amber-gold nectar of the Germanic gods. No wonder those made war all the time – this stuff makes one feel invincible. As our brewer-in-tow was making enthusiastic muffled noises over his tall Weizenglass, despite it being the umpteenth Weizen of the trip, one was inclined to wager that must be something pretty decent too. Small surprise, it was. As if all this gorgeous stuff wasn’t enough to make us feel giddy, some stout Bavarian cook had taken it upon her to prepare some hefty meal for hungry Bavarian stomachs later on. What she was preparing, we’ll never know, I got wafts of smoked Schinken, nutmeg, fried bread and whatever, it made our mouths water. If it hadn’t been so godallmighty early, and the breakfast sturdy in our stomachs, we might have yielded. Instead, we asked for the other three beers to be served. Wow. Festbier. Pils, such as southern German Pils can be, if treated right. Etc. Wow (bis).
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(<font size=small>Jonas and Joris comparing notes</font>)
Our Germanic leader, meanwhile, was making evermore wilder plans what to do with all this; kegs to be taken home, wild boozing with Münchner friends, visiting this place with groups. David, who knew himself to be returning to Franconia in another week, was preparing himself how to lure his fellow-Americans to these heavenly hills. And I saw triumphal ratings. BUT. This was just too good. Suddenly, we saw those tables full of hungry beertourists, plundering the tanks, and pilfering the Steins. We were starting to give each other squinting eyes and meaningful looks. Was the Beerheaven apt to survive the shock of stardom? We didn’t think so. So then and there, we decided that this place will be known forthwith as M-dorf. Despair, all ye that thought to enter, for it is easier for a camel to go trough the eye of the needle, than for a rating mortal to pass to Cerevisial Nirvana. Na.
But Jonas was not to be deterred from all his plans. And when he joined the rank of knowledgeable locals, coming to haul away crates and kegs of the heavenly stuff; only to reappear, grinning as the Cheshire cat, a keg of beer under each arm, my teasingly uttered suggestion to my dearest, that I’d ought to purchase one too, started to be less and less utopian. In fact, I dashed after the brewer two minutes later. For 5l of Hummel Kellerbier, a “Party-Faß” and maybe its caution, I was asked 8.5 Euro’s. I’ve paid more for 33 miserable centilitres of stuff… This IS heaven.
To verify this statement, we went around the corner, to the second brewery, Wagnerbräu. The Biergarten seemed as inviting, unfortunately, all serving was indoors. Again, a hefty choice of draught beers (4). Jonas discovered another best – Märzen this time, whilst I marvelled at the Pils. The food was just a bit too Klotzy , but the beer was once more, great. If one brewery makes the stuff of the Gods, the other has to follow, one supposes. Instead of heading straight for Bamberg, as was the initial idea, we made a stop halfway – another multi-brewered place, where I missed one-out-of-three nine years ago. As it turned out, Brauerei Leicht did not survive its last brewer, and lets its beer brewed by a larger regional. If one will believe them, to the original recipe. It was OK. Then Jonas had spied a Getränkenlade on the way, where we stopped to fill the booth. For one reason or another, Jonas was predicting a closed Vroni’s Getränkenlädla in Bamberg. As it turned out, he was making his own predictions come true…
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(<font size=small>Lineup at Wagnerbräu</font>)
When we drove past the shop, it was very clearly visible, and the door wide open. By the time we had found a parking space (disputably legal…) in a rather busy station’s quarter of Bamberg, and returned to the spot, we arrived just in time to find the gates closed, and the owner driving away in his 4x4… SCHEISSE! OK, next was a Bamberg travellers’ must, even when not a brewery… Café Abseits ( <a hrefhttp://www.abseits-bamberg.de/>http://www.abseits-bamberg.de/ ) is the only pub in Bamberg, which gives the nick to an all-deciding parent brewery, offering a broad section of Franconian beers, and a rotating set of taps, with various fine Keller-, Voll- and Lagerbeers. I was particularly impressed with the Griess Kellerbier, whilst Jonas was very pleased with the Mönchsambacher, which he had missed yesterday. Apart from Lut, not very hungry, we all had a pretty hardy snack. Lut was the only one that didn’t feel very happy. She never is in this kind of “brown pubs”, and my relating of the drugdeal I just missed in the loo, where I dashed in upon arrival (all these M-dorf beers had to go somewhere) probably didn’t help. David, BTW, went rather easy on the beers – but then he had started on a Doppelbock, here…
After Abseits, more classical stops – the Obere Königsstraße for the cognoscenti. And SCHEISSE BIS! Spezial – my favourite Bamberg brewery - was shut, closed, lockered, bah! So on the other side of the street we consoled ourselves with Fäßla. Mind you, I have never been overly impressed by their beers – the Bambergator excepted, but that one was not yet to be had. In the same street, one of the Maisels-Bamberg (not to be confused with the better known Maisels Dampfbierbrauerei in neighbouring Bayreuth) taps, meant another range of beers-to-be-tasted, but neither very exciting. Was it the M-dorf magic spoiling us? Had we used our luck? Anyway, the last planned stop, Mahrs brewerytap, proved, at least to me, the biggest disappointment of the trip. I had had Mahrs Ungespundetes before, and remembered it fondly as a great Bamberg classic. Instead of this, we found a dull, sweet beer, full of diacetyl, that begged to be poured in the food. Whilst David and Jonas were gorging themselves on Grillhaxen, our rumpsteaks where far from bad, but nowhere enough to make me going. The website from Mahrs had promised us a sheer unending choice of beers, instead we had only a meagre four to choose from. Bugger.
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(<font size=small>Lineup at Fäßla</font>)
As the evening was still young, we started out for a long walk to the most legendary of all pubs, the Altstadt Schlenkerla tap. If it was the expected near-impossible search for some empty chairs, the table full of sedated Germans-on-age proved to be exemplary in Gemütlichkheit and welcoming. The idea of a German Dane, an American and a Flemish couple joining on a Bamberg beertrip enormously appealed to their chauvinism, and we were bestowed with all kinds of good advice, unfortunately a bit tardy for this trip. I filled the not-quite physical gap in my stomach with three Bamberger Bratwurste und Sauerkraut. And the incomparable brown-black liquid that equals a Brotzeit mit Schinken, smoked an’ all. What to do after this? We drove back to our hotel, and whilst I remembered that we drove past Kaiserdom Brauerei anyway, their tap was closed upon arrival. Another diacetylly (is that English?) Mahrs Lagerbier in Bischberg’s Mahrs tavern gave some organpoint to the short, but heavenly trip.
Never mind our trip back. It was still gorgeous sunshine on Sunday, and the lesser amount of traffic made Lut divide the time for getting to the Bonn area by half! Sometimes she made me gasp for breath, as she made that piece of junk-on-wheels soar at 170 kph on the Frankfurt Autobahn. If you, Americans, consider this as unthinkable, well, so would Belgian police. Lucky Germans… Our halfway address (Heeren van Beek brewery in Dutch Limburg) proved closed (can somebody tell those people to ADVERTISE this kind of thing on their websites, for crying out loud?) on Sundays. In the late afternoon, ‘t Waagstuk in Antwerpen saw us settling for a last pint of tripbeer. Trappist, for good measure of contrast… Thus ended the long road to…M.
What? No secrets, here on Ratebeer? No just “read only” texts? Well… We had wanted our little paradise for us, ya’see? And… Oh well, it’s not that big a secret. Before you think so, it is NOT Memmelsdorf. But you have to take that same road out of Bamberg – the one that goes under the railway past the imposing Weyermann Maltings, up into the hills, through Memmelsdorf, in the next village (something on –heim), turn right and drive straight into Beerheaven.
And before you still cry for more, there’s my ratings. We weren’t the first to discover this place. You’ll find both breweries with the name spelled full length; M-
(Oh, and have another look at the pics)
Pics © David Anderson
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