Bamberg has so much more than smoked beer, although that was my initial reason for planning a trip.
Armed with several maps, Steve Thomas’ Good Beer Guide: Germany (only available in England if you’re trying to find it), a rental car, and a reservation at Alt-Ringlein in the city-center, I approached Bamberg a day earlier than planned. I knew I was off to a good start when my hotel not only allowed me to arrive early on a moment’s notice, they upgraded my room. The view from my window is above.
Bamberg sits on top of a hill (or seven…) and is composed of narrow cobbled streets. Charming, but hard to know where cars are allowed. (I still confuse the “no parking” signs with the “do not enter” signs) My hotel had parking, but on my way into town the GPS sent me down a pedestrian-only street. Many non-English speakers enthusiastically made me aware of this. I chucked the misleading device onto the passenger seat, smiled sheepishly, backed up, and navigated with my internal compass across the river to my hotel. I had to then back the car downhill onto a metal suspended contraption inside a parking garage too short to stand in. I told myself I’d fetch the car the next day to explore the beer destinations outside of the city. I didn’t get into the car again until I left for the airport five days later.
And I definitely needed a beer.
After a house helles at Alt-Ringlein (they don’t actually make it there anymore) I ventured out to find what I’d been told is the finest example of Rauchbier in Bamberg: Spezial (above). I was skeptical. I mean how different can smoked beer be?
The beer garden was full, but with what I soon learned is usual Bamberg hospitality, a couple of sippers invited me to join their table. Over my visit I ended up doing this a lot, and always managing to join locals in spite of the dense crowds of tourists.
It turns out smoked beers, like any other style, can be quite different from one another. I tried several other rauchbiers in Bamberg, but I returned to Spezial daily for what I thought was the best to keep my beer-barometer in tune. The smokiness is different than all others: subtle- not choking or charred, somehow a little sweet like mesquite or hickory. The finish is soft and refreshing, even on a hot July day. It makes you crave another sip after each swallow. Really quite fine.
Most of the beer destinations in Bamberg open at 9am, and are fairly
full by 11. Definitely my kind of town. I started early the next day with the longest walk from my hotel (a little over 2 kilometers) to Café Abseits.
This place boasts a 100 rating on RateBeer.com, meaning one of the finest beer bars in the world. It’s easy to understand why. The menu features rotating local craft beer on draft and several exceptional bottles; the service is knowledgable and sweet; if you write things in a notebook while drinking you will get a visit from kindly Gerhard Schoolmann. He will explain everything and make recommendations on where else to go.
The “Bierprobe aller 5 Faßbier” above includes Gänstaller-Bräu Kellerbier, Mönchsambacher Lager, Keesmann Herren pils, Huppendorfer Weizenbier, and Huppendorfer Vollbier. Schoolmann told me about a local brewer who makes the Gänstaller, and said his bar is worth a trip because it has a lot of wonderful local beers I won’t find elsewhere- music to my ears! I had planned to go the next evening for a special beer dinner, but as the time approached to leave I just could not imagine myself navigating back on the tricky streets to the hotel in the dark after sampling beers when I could barely do it sober in the daylight. Nope- too risky. It is my one regret of the trip that I didn’t go.
Below is a shot of the lovely bridge I crossed each day and the river it spans. (No cars allowed!)
Over the next few days I hit more beer destinations than I should probably admit- all within walking distance of the Alt-Ringlein: Ambräusianum, Fässla, Greifenklau, Kachelofen, Kaiserdom, Keesmann, Klosterbräu, Mahr’s, Pelikan, Schlenkerla, Stilbruch, Stöhrenkeller, Torschuster, Wilde-Rose-Keller, Eckert, and (thanks to a kind local with a car) the grounds of the Altenburg castle.
Each one had a story, but I’ll keep it to three.
Thomas Grube (above, with his gal Martina) is a cool cat. He presides over the beer and the music (all on vinyl) at a tiny gem called Torschuster. Unlike most bars in Bamberg (and Europe) there are seats at the bar, and people are encouraged to belly up and chat with Thomas. I love that.
After an evening of fine beer and bonding, I suggested that I return in 10 years to take over. He didn’t laugh. I’ll keep you posted.
Later that week at an outside concert I ran into Thomas and his family again, and he invited me to their home around the corner, below . Do you think I could take over the house too? I’m ready to move now!
The biggest surprise was that in this bastion of German brewing tradition, with an older beer purity law by 25 years than the 1516 Reinheitsgebot, the two best beers I tried were completely non-traditional.
The first was at Greifenklau, made by Siggi (pictured above with his tanks) who can point back to many generations of family brewers here. He made a dry-hopped pils for his sister’s wedding. The wedding was the next day, and somehow I got to try it. (Below) Unlike many American dry-hopped beers that lose all sense of proportion, this was elegant and clean. The dry-hopping added a refreshing bouquet to the underlying pils.
The story of the other great beer- and the best beer of my trip- is a bit longer.
I love wine. The marketing hype of beer drinkers pitted against wine drinkers is ridiculous because a well made fermented beverage is delicious- Period. I find brewers who say they don’t like wine a little suspicious- just like chefs who smoke. It’s not a deal breaker, but to me it’s a strike against their palate judgment and credibility that the beer (or food) will have to overcome. In my experience it often does not.
On the other hand, brewers who embrace wine making (BFM’s Jèrôme Rebetez and Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo come to mind) take beer to another level, often with cult followings and connoisseurs’ accolades.
This is all to say that when I visited Mahr’s lovely little beer garden, I literally ran smack in to brewer Stephan Michel (below). I hadn’t told him I was coming. Stephan is a person with a certain reputation, as am I. I made certain both remained intact.
He handed me a glass with his little experiment, not yet in bottles. Fest Cuvée. Fermented in wine barrels, dried out with champagne yeast. Super soft finish and bone dry- one of the ten best beers I’ve ever had. Stephan told me the price he plans to sell these limited bottles for, and I said I’d gladly pay double. Probably not smart, but trust me you would too!
And both of these edgy beers from Bamberg. Let’s just say that things are changing. Now if I can just convince him to put the U in cans…
One more thing really struck me about this gorgeous city- the sounds of it. The church bells. The non-stop tourist leaders taking their little crowds around. The evening hum of people drinking in the narrow streets. The live music in the plaza- from African drumming to modern oom-pah bands that sneak in Mancici tunes. I am especially grateful to have been introduced to JD McPherson on someone’s car stereo. Give it a listen. He’s playing at the Newport Folk Festival next Friday (July 26). Join me!
As I write this from Cambridge USA, accompanied by a bottle of Weyermann’s Pumpernickel Porter given to me Gerhard Schoolman on my last day at Café Abseits, I need to thank several people. Will Shelton for convincing me to book a room well in advance and suggesting the best places; Yvan de Baets for giving me a book called Brauns Brauerei Atlas – Franken that contains the most useful pull-out map of Bamberg beer destinations; Bernard from 12 Apôtres in Strasbourg (See October 2012) for sound advice and local literature. And of course I’m grateful to all those mentioned in this post for making my first exploration unforgettable. Danke sein!