Sunday, 13 April 2014
Retreat to Bamberg
The whole of Bamberg is a place of pilgrimage. The devout visit the cathedral, which looms over the town from its site atop a hill. Even in December, day-trippers wander around in groups, following their tourist guide. The locals brave the biting cold to stand in the snow drinking mulled wine at any of a dozen stands. For me, it is like a retreat. As far as I am concerned, this is the home of beer.
It is a walk of only ten minutes or so from the railway station to Obere Königsstrasse, a run-down street in the process of redevelopment, but home to two breweries. Directly across the street from each other are Fässla, maker of Bamberg’s strongest beer, and Spezial, the lesser-known of the town’s two Rauchbier breweries.
The beer is so good that a quick Seidla turns into two and then dinner. I just can’t resist the Kloß, the strange bouncy, springy potato dumpling that comes with the roast pork. I’ve spent ten years trying to make these damn things at home with no success.
This pub alone would make any town a respectable beer destination. But we have only just started. A pleasant walk across the river into the city centre and out again takes you past half a dozen defunct breweries, if you know where to look. Bamberg still has ten breweries today, but in the past it had scores of them.
Many pubs in Franconia feel a bit churchy, due to the habit of hanging a crucifix on the wall. The huge Schlenkerla tavern in Dominikanerstraße is positively ecclesiastical. The dark panelled walls everywhere you look give it a monastic feel, while the beer drinker can find his or her own rapture on drinking deeply from the plain half-litre tumblers in which the Rauchbier is served. I have drunk so much of this stuff that I barely notice its intense smokiness any more, but I do get dry wood, vanilla and chocolate. It’s silky smooth too. Draught Märzen from the wood in the church-like surroundings of this tavern is as close as a beer lover can get to praying.
The pubs close early in this town, so it’s an early night.
Into town again, turn left at the cathedral. Next to God, Schlenkerla dominates the town; so much so that even the cathedral souvenir shop sells bottles of Rauchbier.
But the next stop is Klosterbräu. It took me several visits to Bamberg before I was able to reliably locate this tavern. It is easily visible from various places in the town; just finding the right narrow street to wander down is the difficult part.
I’ve never yet been impressed by Klosterbräu’s beer and this visit did not improve their rating. The Pils is thin and metallic with little aroma and quite aggressively fizzy. Stir a bit of the gas out of it with a fork and you discover soft, sweet malt. A scratchy bitterness on the finish is presumably what makes it a Pils. But the tap room is nice in a rather shabby, monastic way.
The house beer is brewed by Drei Kronen in Memmelsdorf a few kilometres away. But it’s the Zwickel-Pils that impresses me. Andy Gänstaller has been brewing outstanding beers for years, first at Beck-Bräu in Trabelsdorf and now at his own brewery. It’s the first beer I’ve had under his own label. All thoughts of Klosterbräu disappear – this is what a Pils should be like. It’s not hazy as the Zwickel- would lead you to believe and appears to have been filtered. In character it’s not too far from the Spezial Ungespundetes from last night – I have thought for some time that there is a definite Franconian style of Pils alongside the other local beers. Huppendorfer Vollbier, another ultra-local brew, is quite different: bready, sweet and malty with an intense aroma and a short, only slightly bitter finish.
There is more Franconian Pils out to the east on the oddly named street Wunderburg – “Miracle Hill”. It is truly miraculous, for it is home to two more breweries. Keesmann Herren-Pils is possibly the bitterest Bamberg beer with herbal, minty hops. Over the road, Mahr’s Bräu has the perfect complement, the malty beer known only as “U”. Sadly, by this stage we are too drunk to fully appreciate it, but we enjoy the cosy tavern nonetheless.
The next morning we say goodbye to Bamberg, but there is one more thing to do.
One of the most delightful customs in Franconia, even better than the early opening pubs, is the fact that many taverns allow you to bring in your own food. Since the local bread and sausages are every bit as good as the local beer, this is a very good thing indeed. In the side room of Schlenkerla in the mid-morning there are people at every other table with a glass of beer and a little parcel of goodies just purchased from the butcher along the street. My choice is the Franconian salt pretzel, smaller than the Bavarian Brezn and without its glossy brown skin, and a slab of Leberkäse, smooth and very salty.
And then, it’s time once more to head to a railway station.