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. 

Dropping into Spezial for a quick Seidla before exploring the town, the Lagerbier is crisp: deep amber-bronze, lightly smoked and tasting of sweet malt and wood. Sadly, it’s too fizzy. The Ungespundetes on the other hand, a pale lager described as “hoppy, with less CO2”, is a revelation. Aromatic with citrus, it smells like something a pale ’n’ hoppy brewery such as Oakham back home might have made.

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.

Which is just as well, because they open early too. After a hearty breakfast involving garlic sausage, we find ourselves in Fässla’s Gaststube – and we are definitely not the first or only customers. At Fässla they brew more superficially conventional beers, but on tasting them they are definitely idiosyncratic. The Lagerbier is crisp and fresh with a Burton-like minerality – the water in Franconia is hard. Cold and malty, it’s a perfect post-breakfast beer.

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.

 We’re not here for Klosterbräu anyway. A new opening in this part of town is Eckert’s, a plush, modern bar and restaurant for the stylish and upmarket. Being Bamberg, of course they offer regional beers next to the prosecco. (I can think of several would-be upmarket establishments back home in Glasgow that could learn from this example). Eckert’s has a view over the river (it is actually built on a bridge) looking down to the old town hall. Inside the décor is ultra-modern with mood lighting, light jazz and pine. It’s a place for Kaffee & Kuchen and fine dining, yet for once the beer list is comparable in quality with the wines on offer. A whimsical nod to tradition are the wooden screens in the loos with cut-out hearts, Hansel and Gretel-style.

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.

1 comment:

  1. I must admit to being confused on my first, whistle-stop visit to Bamberg, which only allowed time for a few quick Seidla's at Schlenkerla. I was sitting in the lobby, enjoying my beer when a group of very respectable looking elderly ladies came in. After sitting down and ordering their drinks, they fished out a couple of bags of rolls and meat, obviously bought from a nearby delicatessen, and sat their enjoying their snacks along with their beer.

    I was familiar with the Bavarian Biergarten rule which allows customers to bring their own food along, so long as they buy beer from the host, but didn't realise it extended to the interiors of certain pubs in Franconia as well.

    What a brilliant idea, and what a fantastic atmosphere at Schlenkerla as well. Despite my limited German, I was soon drawn into conversation with this group, plus a visitor from Coburg, and it was a shame I had to leave to rejoin the coach party I was traveling with. I have since made up for this fleeting stop with several longer visits to Bamberg.

    ps. Have to agree about Klosterbräu beer, although their brewery tap is quite a gem, and the food there is very good.