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Friday, December 09, 2011

Around the World in 80 Drinks: Drinking Smoke -- Rauchbier in Bamberg, Germany

Bamberg Rathaus
Around the World in 80 Drinks is a regular feature of Lyke2Drink that explores drink culture by visiting the places where great beer, wine and spirits are created and consumed. In this edition we explore Bamberg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site tucked away in Germany's Franconia region.

What it lacks in size and big city glitz, Bamberg more than makes up for in charm and beer. Bamberg is a fairytale place with centuries-old buildings that luckily went untouched by World War II. The narrow lanes that criss-cross the Regnitz River climb up and down the seven hills that make up the city.

Bamberg is a city known for flavorful beer and food. The city's 70,000 residents have nine breweries to quench their thirsts. If they tire of these, nearly 100 more are in nearby Franconian villages like Memmelsdorf. The brewing tradition runs deep in Bamberg. The Reinheitsgobot (Bavarian Beer Purity Law of 1516) is widely recognized, but it was preceded by the Bamberg Beer Purity Law of 1489 dictating that local brewers could use only hops, malt and water to make beer. Prince Bishop Henry III Gross of Trockau had become frustrated by the use of herbs, berries and even mushrooms and decided to take a stand.

Walking around the ancient city of Bamberg is a delight for photographers.

Located to the north of Munich and east of Frankfurt, Bamberg would own a rightful place on the world beer map for brews like Fassla’s Bambergator Doppelbock, Mahrs’ Ungesspundete Lagerbier and Keesmann Herren-Pils, but it is the Rauchbier (smoke beer) that puts this city on every serious beer tourist’s itinerary. All told, there are nine breweries in the city: Ambräusianum, Brauerei Fässla, Brauerei Greifenklau, Brauerei Kaiserdom, Keesmann Bräu, Klosterbräu, Mahrs Bräu, Schlenkerla Brauerei Heller-Trum and Brauerei Spezial. A tenth brewery, Maisel, closed in 2008. Fassla Keller now operates at the former Maisel location.

Mahrs is just one of nine Bamberg breweries.

Much like Bamberg itself, Rauchbier is taste of history. Two of Bamberg’s breweries continue to make Rauchbier and both export to the U.S. Schlenkerla, home of the world famous Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, and Spezial, which dates back to 1536, both use beechwood fueled fires to create a mellow smokiness to the malt.

A visit to either Schlenkerla or Spezial is a classic German brewery tap experience. Unlike the massive beerhalls of Munich, these multi-room locations feel more like a friend's home. Entering from the street into a wide hall, you open a second door that brings you inside the tavern. You will not find a traditional bar. Instead, you will be taken to one of a series long tables and there you will join strangers already enjoying beer or in the middle of a meal. This feels odd the first time you do it, but that soon passes as you get the feel for the Bamberg beer culture. A busy bartender is visible at a service bar, expertly pouring half liter “Willy” glasses, and waiters and waitresses fill trays, whisking them to the tables.

The Spezial Keller is a great place to rest and hydrate after a walking tour of the city.
In warm weather months outdoor drinking is popular in Bamberg. Bierkellers or Sommerkellers are tree-shaded affairs that make for pleasant gatherings with friends. The Spezial Keller is an 800-seat beer garden located high on a hill, oddly not far from where the rival Schlenkerla in brewed. The Greifenklau Brewery also has a wonderful outdoor terrace that overlooks the red tile roofs of Bamberg. Service at these locations can be a bit slower than at the pubs in Bamberg, but relax. Half the experience is slowing down to enjoy the beer, view and atmosphere.

Bamberg is known to many brewers in the U.S. because it is home for Weyermann Specialty Malt. The company traces it roots back to 1879 when it was little more than a roasting drum under a tarp. Today the massive maltings, located across the railroad tracks from the Bamberg station, is a complex of buildings. The company ships specialty malts around the world. The Bamberg facility has a test brewery where lucky visiting guests get to taste pilot batches of beer.

Smoking barley for rauchbier is a different process than roasting barley. Roasted barley is what gives beer some of its flavor and produces the dark color in stouts and porters. The roasting process halts germination, which makes sugars available to the brewer. Roasting barley, which is similar to roasting coffee beans, is done with indirect heat at higher temperatures. The smoking process purposely allows flavors from wood fires to infiltrate and impart flavor.
Weyermann Specialty Malt calls Bamberg home.

The Schlenkerla sign is a beacon for many beer tourists.

The Schlenkerla pub retains its traditional feel.

Tasting Smoke

If you wonder what beers tasted like before the mid-1800s, you can search for clues of brewing’s smoky past in a glass filled with a Rauchbier. To be used for brewing barley must be turned into malt and that germination process must be halted at just the right time. In the past brewers had really two options: spreading the grain and allowing either the air, wind or the sun to help dry it, or employing open flames fed by wood to assist the process along, much like Scotch distillers us peat.

Schlenkerla Rauchbier: This 5.1 percent alcohol by volume Bamberg classic is dark amber with a thin, but lacing head. Light and refreshing, it offers immediate smoke up front that lingers throughout.

Schlenkerla Urbock: This fall seasonal tastes slightly less smoky, with more hop character and more malt. This 6.5 percent alcohol by volume beer has a sweet alcohol edge.

Spezial Rauchbier: Amber brown color, this brew has a soft malty character and its subtle level of smoke leads you to think of having a second.

“Rauchbier is historic beer. Beer as it used to be,” says Matthias Trum, the sixth generation of his family to run the brewery where Schlenkerla is made. Trum says that today’s smoked beer is a throwback to the middle ages when brewers did not have access to the heat exchangers developed during the industrial revolution.

Planning Your Trip

The best air connections from the U.S.  will take you to Frankfurt or Munich. German trains are fast, clean and convenient. You can be drinking a rauchbier in just about three hours after landing in Germany.

The Bamberg Tourism and Congress Service has packages designed for beer lovers. They also can arrange for guides with a great knowledge of local history and familiarity with Bamberg’s brewers.

A number of tour groups also make stops in Bamberg. I recently lead a group organized by BeerTrips.com on a visit to the city as part of a fundraiser for the Pints for Prostates campaign.

Where to Stay

You will not find the usual glut of chain hotel in Bamberg, where most lodgings are small family-run operations. Hotel Brudermuhle at Schranne 1 is located along the river and a short walk from some of Bamberg's best places to grab a beer. If you want to stay even closer to the beer, Fassla Brewery at Obere Konigstrasse 21 has basic rooms right above the brewery and beer hall. It also happens to be located directly across the street from Spezial.

What to Do When You are Not Drinking

Visit the Franconian Brewery Museum which is located in the former Saint Michael's Benedictine Abbey overlooking Bamberg. The former abbey, now a home for senior citizens, once had a brewery dating back to 1122. The museum has a great collection of earlier brewing equipment, signs and other memorabilia.

Eat a Bamberg Onion. Like Rauchbier, this baked onion stuffed with ground pork and spices, is a flavorful treat you will not find in many other places. Here's a Bamberg Onion recipe if you would like to try making them at home.

Take in the four tower Bamberg Cathedral, which was consecrated in 1237. It is the final resting place for Emperor Henry II and Pope Clemens II. Among the art in the cathedral is the Bamberg Rider.

Find your sweet spot at the Cafe am Dom on Ringleinsgasse, which makes a great chocolate filled with a Schlenkerla Rauchbier creme.

Walk the city with your camera looking for the perfect Bamberg photo. For many it is the Bamberg Rathaus  (old city hall) that was built literally hanging off a bridge. For others it is the rose garden at the Prince-bishop Friedrich Karl von Schönborn residence across from the Bamberg Cathedral. You will come back with plenty of great photos.

Bamberg's narrow streets are great to roam.

Fassla offers guest rooms right above the brewery.

Matthias Trum runs the famous Schlenkerla Brewery.

Spezial Rauchbier is a local treat.


Richard ZInno said...

Sounds like a fantastic trip. Great write up of what sounds like a fantastic city.

Kyle Smith said...

Nice write-up. The girlfriend vetoed Bamberg during our trip to the region in 2010. I'll keep checking back for more... I think beer is best understood in terms of places and travel!

Rick Lyke said...

Richard & Kyle
Thanks! Bamberg is one of my favorite cities for beer in the entire world. Worth a visit if you find yourself in northern Bavaria.

Beer Club said...

Bamberg is amazing! The trip sounds really great. Thanks for all the photos.