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Alten und Neuen (Bamberg)


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, 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!


July 20, 2013 · 2:29 pm

Worlds Collide (Helsinki)


Every other year my beer life and my map life collide- when the International Conference on the History of Cartography moves to its next host city. I skipped the 2011 Moscow version, so my last one was in Copenhagen, where I collaborated with a (pre-celebrity status) Shaun Hill on a beer for the conference when he was with Nørrebro Bryghus : Arctic Wit, labeled with a map from the opening exhibit.


Thanks to Matthew Edney (a rock star in the map world yet unknown in the beer universe) who sent me a link to the Helsinki Beer Trail, Kaisla was my first stop. It’s deceptively small because it is made up of a maze of cozy rooms- lots of brick, stone, and wood- which I learned is the Finnish way.




Not only do they have beers that are either hard to find or unavailable in Massachusetts (Alaskan Smoked Porter, Cantillon Vergnonne) they also strive to feature Finnish craft beer on draft. Huvila Pekko pale ale was my favorite: clean, well conditioned, and plenty of hops. The Keisari 66 (“American Pale ale”) and Plevnan Amarillo Weizen were also super.

Beer and maps were intertwined all week. Near the opening reception at the National Museum of Finland is a little bar called St. Urho, where I first tried the Finnish native beer called Sahti. It wasn’t on the menu- I asked for it everywhere I went. It’s unstable (hence doesn’t travel well) but a true local flavor. It smells like raw sweet dough and strawberries. It’s cloudy and sweet- almost like wort but hot. This particular one was 8%, which is higher than most.



Matthew’s tips were spot-on, yet another map/beer geek, Nick Millea of the Bodleian Library at Oxford- found the newest gem: Bryggeri Helsinki.


If you only have time for one beer destination in Helsinki, stop here. All four house beers are fantastic, the food is quite good, and the service is top notch. Plus they carry other Finnish craft beers so you can really get a taste for the scene.


The house beers were a pils, weizen, altbier, and summer ale (a light IPA). I could drink the summer ale for days. Oh wait- I did!



To top it off, Bryggeri Helsinki serves sahti from Lammin. The glass of it below says “enjoy” not “naughty”!


Every now and again I come across a special place and think – wow, this is what a beer bar should be. That’s Teerenpeli.


The outside isn’t promising, but once inside it’s open, hip, warm, modern, cosy- all at once. And the second floor has a secret terrace- very private compared to the sidewalk space near the entry. And the beer! After a brief conversation my waiter brought me a taste of an IPA still in the fermenter. Heady Topper watch out! Did I mention they distill their own whiskey?



I stopped in several other wonderful craft beer gems in Helsinki: Bruuveri and Villi Wäinö stood out. But I was pressed for time (having as my primary purpose the International Conference on the History of Cartography, with lecture after splendid lecture by day and special exhibits every night) and thought I would have to miss the RB #1 rated beer destination in Helsinki: Olutravintola Pikkulintu. It’s a few kilometers out if town.


But thanks to my Swiss/Albanian friend Endrit, I made time. RateBeer has it wrong though- this is a whiskey destination. The beer is Finnish craft: Siperia stout aged in a spirit barrel, Panimiravintolic from Tampere. But the single malt selection- dominating every millimeter of space- stole the show. Gëzuar!

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July 11, 2013 · 10:44 am

Through Belgian Glasses (Portland, Maine and Cambridge)


I haven’t gone anywhere lately- hence the dearth of travel notes. So when my dear friend Yvan de Baets visited from Belgium, I decided to take a look at my town through his eyes. (And yes he really does wear glasses!)


Yvan is a brewer at Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels, and he makes beers with something quite daring in Belgium: hops. His beers have a cult-like following in the US, but he believes in providing beer to his own market first, so finding it can be sporadic. If you find it, drink it!


Starting with Tupelo across the street from me in Inman Square, I proceeded to show Yvan all of my favorite places. Some host I am! Maybe five days into his visit and 10 extra pounds (East Coast Grill, Bergamot, Lord Hobo, Cambridge Brewing Company, Deep Ellum– and the Hyper-Local Craft Brewfest- see above with winningest homebrewer in New England Alastair Hewitt) it finally occurred to me to ask Yvan what HE wanted to see, eat, and drink.

Lobster. A school bus. A truck with “the room the driver lives in”. A trashy beach bar. Armsby Abbey. Only the last one was guessable, since we both love the bone marrow there.


After a visit to Mystic Brewery in Chelsea (pictured above with brewer Bryan who adamantly resists making an IPA) we went on a quest for lobster “with a view of water”. We found Belle Isle- which serves beer in plastic cups (see below with the flashing and vibrating crustacean that summons eaters to pick up their food), half pound lobster roll choices of all meat or tail only, and a view of some water. Yvan was in heaven.


Apparently Yvan is not the only European who harbors a fascination for American yellow school buses. The Shelton Brothers arranged for such a bus to provide transportation between the hotel and The Festival in Portland, Maine. They were all excited. They asked me if I took one to school as a kid (yes) and if I sat in back and caused trouble (no). How do European children get to school?


Yvan is a brewer’s brewer. He has formal German technical training, yet refers to his yeast as “she” and speaks of her like a lover. On one visit to his brewery he explained his fermentation tank choice. “Wide and shallow so she will not be distressed by so much weight on her.” Wow.

Yvan started his US visit on the other coast and drank through Philly Beer Week before arriving in New England. His main focus here was The Festival, but he managed three collaboration brews here as well (Allagash, In’finity – pictured below – and Cambridge Brewing Company) in addition to a promotion night at Lord Hobo.




It didn’t hurt that our table was next to Hill Farmstead and Shaun was generous with a few special bottles.


And visits with some old friends.




Yvan’s favorites:

Meal: Duck Fat, Portland
Beer he made room in his suitcase to bring back: Resin
American bar (meaning, with greasy food and TV) Nosh, Portland
Dive bar Bud Lite: Boulevard, Revere Beach


And of course- smelling the lobster boats. Really!


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June 26, 2013 · 7:40 pm

Mass’ Newest Brewery… for a few minutes. (Boston)


There they are. See them at the top of Kinsale’s draft list? Four beers that quietly announce the opening of a mini-nano brewery in Norton called Bog Iron. With new craft breweries opening seemingly weekly around here, Bog Iron is special for two reasons.


First- in these growingly absurd times of extreme this and imperial that- Bog Iron launched with four fairly low alcohol brews, including a tasty, clean, gimmick-free mild properly served from the cask by hand pump. Bravo!

Second- full disclosure here- one of the three brewers is Brian Shurtleff. The same Brian Shurtleff descended from that early Massachusetts transportation cartographer you ask? Why yes! But that’s got nothing to do with beer. Back in 2008 when I was president of the Wort Processors, Boston’s fantastic homebrew club, he was the pres of another regional club of beer makers called South Shore. I’ve spent many an evening at his and wife Courtney’s splendid house bar- tasting batches of aptly named “ass beer” (he went through a nasty period of forgetting to bleed the last of the sanitizer out of the lines) to some really lovely one-offs. He and two others from the club (pictured below, Brian center) all with serious day jobs- decided to dump all of their free time, money, sanity, and talent (possibly in that order) into a brewery. My only contribution was to suggest the flame on the logo. Come on- it’s cool!


The other three beers were a refreshing black steam beer, an IPA, and a blonde. I am torn between the steam beer and the mild as my favorite- but it doesn’t matter because all four kicked on launch night. So if you want to try the beer, it looks like you’ll have to visit Brian’s too!

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February 20, 2013 · 5:29 pm

Last Minute French Beer Class!


JUST got a call from Cambridge Center for Adult Ed asking me to teach a three-part class on French Beer, starting tomorrow, Thursday, Jan 17, from 8-10pm. (Someone backed out last minute- yay!) Of course I said yes! (See all posts in this blog under “France” to see why.) There are a few spots left- join the class to try some beer I brought back that’s not available here! PS- It will not be in French as they originally planned. My French is getting better, but it’s not that good!

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January 16, 2013 · 12:28 pm