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Friday, October 31, 2008

Arriving in Bamberg: First Stop is Spezial

I spent Wednesday evening with my wife, Sandy, roaming the medieval city of Bamberg, Germany. After an overnight flight from Charlotte to Frankfurt, we snacked on a bratwurst and plastic cup of fresh Bitburger Pils at the airport rail station before boarding a train that took us east to Wurzburg, where we changed to a local that deposited us in Bamberg in a light rain.

Bamberg is located along the Regnitz River in the upper Franconia section of Bavaria, at a major crossroads for traditional trade routes. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, Bamberg has nine breweries to serve the needs of 70,000 inhabitants. The brewing tradition runs deep in the city. While the Reinheitsgobot (German Beer Purity Law of 1516) gets most of the press, the Bamberg Beer Purity Law of 1489 was actually the first to dictate that only hops, malt and water could be used in brewing. Prince Bishop Henry III Gross of Trockau had become frustrated by the use of herbs, berries and even mushrooms in the making of beer and decided to make a stand. Bamberg’s place as a brewing center was established.

Obere Konigstrasse, where our hotel was located, was one of the main routes for thirsty trades in the Middle Ages and was once home for 23 breweries. The street’s brewing heritage is kept alive today by Baruerei Fassla and Brauerei Spezial, located just across the street. After a brief break to freshen up at our hotel – Brauereigasthof Fassla (more on this brewery hotel later) -- we met up with Bamberg guide Stephanie Weiss.

Our first stop on our beer tour of Bamberg was the Spezial Brewery, which dates back to 1536. All of the breweries we visited in Bamberg have good restaurants serving hearty German meals. If you visit during a time when the kitchen is closed, each will usually have fresh pretzels and bread available -- or you can buy a sandwich from a nearby shop and bring it in to enjoy. At Spezial we got our first taste of fresh Rauchbier, a Bamberg specialty. Rauchbier – or smoked beer – gets its name from how the barley malt is dried using direct heat from beechwood fires. The smoke from the wood marries with the grain and shows through in the beer. If you wonder what beers tasted like before the mid-1800s, you can search for clues in a glass filled with a smoked beer.

The smoked beer at Spezial is a nice amber brown color. The smoked flavor is more subtle than I expected. It is certainly present, but it is more a part of the flavor than the flavor. Spezial Rauchbier has a nice soft malty character and leads you to think of having a second, but we had places to go and beers to try.

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