Ten years ago, I found a rock-bottom airfare from Detroit to Frankfurt. And with it, an excuse for an impromptu vacation.
The easy part was getting time off; that’s one of the benefits of being self-employed. But then came the hard part: Making eleventh-hour plans during what was very much the pre-Internet era. I spent a snowy weekend in the library, rummaging through every guidebook and rail timetable on the shelves.
I was looking for German cities with culture, history, and local beer that couldn’t be found back home. Topping the list was Bamberg, a city of 70,000 a short train ride east of Frankfurt.
Bamberg has a 1,000-year history with a rich cast of characters, including bishops who ruled with an iron hand; and, more recently, Romantic poet E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose stories inspired the ballets Coppelia and The Nutcracker, and philosopher George W.F. Hegel. The city’s cultural attractions include a theater named for Hoffman, and a concert hall where the renowned Bamberg Symphony Orchestra performs.
Residents boast that their city is built on seven hills like Rome; has a network of waterways like Venice, complete with fishermen’s houses on its banks; and its Old Town is as beautiful as Prague’s. The city center, which largely escaped bomb damage during World War II, has been named a World Cultural Heritage Site by the United Nations.
And then there’s the beer. Bamberg is the birthplace of Rauchbier, the dark-colored lager its residents have enjoyed for centuries. Brewed in the Märzen style, it’s on the malty side, with medium alcoholic strength. What sets it apart is its intense taste and, especially, aroma. Rauchbier, in English, means “smoke beer.”
Rauchbier’s smokiness comes from kilning barley malt over the wood of beech trees that grow in the region’s peat-rich soil. The wood, when burned, gives off a intense aromatic smoke. Some locals insist that the style was invented by accident. Their story goes like this: Centuries ago, fire swept through a monastery, covering its barley supply with smoke. In the spirit of waste not, want not, the monks used it anyway.
Today, Bamberg is the home of nine breweries, two large malting operations, the world’s oldest manufacturer of brewing systems, and a regional brewing museum. In addition to Rauchbier, the city turns out more than 60 other varieties, including local riffs on classic German beer styles.
My homework in the library paid off with another discovery: Two breweries, located across the street from one another, carried on the ancient tradition of welcoming guests, and at a price that saved me enough money to cover my bar tabs. On the train from Frankfurt, I flipped a 50-pfennig coin to decide between them. Heads it was.
Heads It Was
I presented myself at the front desk of Gasthof Fässla (Obere Königstrasse 10), collected my key, and found my room—a cozy refuge from the weather that had followed me across the ocean. Once inside, I drank in the sensation of staying amid 350 years of brewing heritage.
Warm once again, I pushed my jet-lagged body through the city center and up the hill to the cathedral standing guard over the city. This imposing Romanesque-Gothic structure houses the only papal tomb north of the Alps, along with Germany’s most famous medieval sculpture, the “Bamberg Rider.” This mysterious, mounted symbol of chivalry has become the city’s unofficial trademark.
The reward for all that walking awaited me at Brauereiausschank Schlenkerla (Dommanikanerstrasse 6). It’s a rambling series of beer halls, one of which was originally built as—you guessed right—a monastery in the 14th century. The rooms have white-topped wooden tables; low, dark ceilings; and intricate wood carvings worthy of closer inspection.
The name comes from an old German expression meaning “not walking straight,” which was used to describe one of its brewers. What isn’t known is whether his crooked walking was the result of a physical disability, or simply a few beers too many. Schlenkerla’s Rauchbier has become so popular that brewing operations have been moved to larger quarters outside the city center. But a photogenic 500-liter keg still stands guard in an inner courtyard.
Later that evening, I visited Brauerei Spezial (Obere Königstrasse 10), the brewery across the street from Fässla. It turns out a milder-tasting, less-carbonated version of Rauchbier, along with a smoked wheat beer, a lager, and a bock. Tradition reigns here, beginning with its gold-leaf street sign that features a Star of David, the ancient sign of the brewer’s art; and a lion, the symbol of strength.
Inside, customers sat at communal wooden tables. Long-standing custom dictates that when newcomers arrive, their tablemates briefly exchange pleasantries, then go back to their conversation. Beer was still poured the old-fashioned way, out of wooden casks. And the old building retained its quirky charms, which included a window where bar staff refilled growlers for locals.
Unfortunately, my stay in Bamberg was marred by a minor disaster, one that befalls most travelers: My camera disappeared. The only images of Germany to make it home were postcards, and word pictures summoned from memory.
Back to Bamberg
But those images were enough to persuade my wife to accompany me on a return visit. She outdid me in the travel sleuthing department, not only finding reasonably-priced hotels but also unearthing one of Europe’s best rail deals—an all-day pass for two, good on local trains throughout Bavaria. The cost: 21 euros.
After another visit to Spezial and Schlenkerla, and a stroll through Old Town—even more charming in the wake of a freak spring snowstorm—we negotiated a maze of cobblestone streets and eventually found Klosterbräu (Obere Mühlbrücke 1-3). As the name suggests, it, too, began life as a monastery. Brewing operations began here in 1533 by decree of the bishop.
The monks are long gone; their home has been turned into a cheery beer hall—a perfect place to spend a long, lazy afternoon. But the bishops are still around. With a puckish sense of humor, Klosterbräu honors them by putting their pictures on glasses into which the specialty of the house, Braunbier, is poured. I counted 10 other beers on the menu, including Bamberger Gold; Schwärzla, the house version of a Bavarian dark beer; a bock; and an even stronger Maibock.
We ended the day at Fässla, where I’d begun my first visit to Bamberg. Its beer hall had a more contemporary atmosphere than its friendly rival across the street, and it didn’t serve Rauchbier. Instead, the beer lineup included several lagers, including Zwergla, a dark beer named for its trademark dwarf; and the formidable Bambergator which, at 8.5 percent ABV, is the biggest beer in town.
Fässla’s customers included working men and retirees, along with a trickle of international beer pilgrims. Perhaps more than a trickle, now that the European Beer Consumers Union has named Bamberg its first World Beer Heritage Site.
My favorite memory of Fässla—the name means “little keg”—was seeing the regulars turn up when it opened at 8:30, then seeing the same people drinking in the evening. I was told that some of them stayed until the owners turned off the lights. Looking around, I could swear that I recognized several faces. And, no, I hadn’t touched a drop of Bambergator.
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor and researcher who travels as mush as his budget permits, visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed. Photographs by Maryanne Nasiatka, www.sabat.com