Rauchbier, as members of the international beer cognoscenti will know, is a specialty of Bamberg, Germany, a beautiful town that would top any Franconian travel agenda I could fashion even if its many breweries went bone dry. Basically, it’s a lager brewed from smoked malt, which makes it taste, well, smoky. Like bacon or good barbecue.
The Spezial version is neither as strongly flavored nor as famous as its neighbor, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, and it is for both of those reasons that drinking it in the Spezial beerhall was and is such a special treat for me.
Consider for a moment arriving in Bamberg by train at night, with not even basic German to your credit and no local map. You somehow make your way through the twisting roads of the Medieval town to the brewery over which you have booked a room, Spezial, dump your bags and settle in at the brightly lit beerhall for a stein or two of lager and something to eat. You order, and with your first sip a wisp of campfire smoke wafts up your nose and quickly back down your throat. Amazed, you sip again with the same result. You eat, you order more beer, and before you know it, you’re sitting with a table of locals, most of whom know less English than you do German, and having a spectacular time drinking and learning about Bamberg and its history.
As you may have guessed, I don’t have to imagine because that’s exactly what happened to me. And while I’ve since tasted the very same beer several times at that same beerhall, and experienced the same joy, I fear that no bottle of Spezial Rauchbier consumed outside of Bamberg has or will ever afford me that kind of pleasure.
My list of similar experiences can go on and on: cask-conditioned Marston’s Pedigree in Burton-on-Trent; Cantillon Gueuze at the Poechenellekelder in Brussels; cold Dragon Stout on a hot Kingston evening; fresh Pilsner Urquell supped within spitting distance of where it was brewed; Lammin Sahti gulped from a juniper wood haarikka while sitting naked in a wood-fired sauna on the shores of a frozen lake. Some of these brews I can get locally, others I can not, but none will ever taste as good as they do in their own backyard.
I know that I am extremely fortunate to have a job that allows me to pursue these kind of experiences, and that not everyone is so lucky, which is why imports play such a great role in broadening all of our beer horizons. But at the same time, “local flavors” exist almost everywhere, and sometimes experiencing them is less about travel than it is about opening your eyes to the opportunity.