Where did you get your excellent command of English?
English is mandatory in German schools. My generation started at age 10 or 11; I think now they start in primary school at age six or seven. Me in particular, I went on an exchange program to Ontario, Canada in 1992 for one year with the AFS, American Field Service. I was in a good family line with that, because my mom went on the same program in the early sixties over to California. My mom is actually born in Sweden, so she was lured by my father to come to Bamberg.
Do you have brothers and sisters?
I’m a single child, totally spoiled!
So was the future of Schlenkerla riding on your shoulders?
Not really. My parents always said it was my choice whether I wanted to continue in the brewery or not. If I had decided not to, some cousin could have—which is exactly what happened about 150 years ago. When I talk about the sixth generation, I mean direct family line from father to son. But there was a connection between my family and the Heller family—marriage or a second cousin. It’s lost in the official documents, but the talk within the family was always “Well, we are related to them, but we don’t know how.”
So somehow, control of the brewery passed sideways, as it were…
In the old days, brewing was quite a dangerous profession, especially bringing the lagering barrels in and out of the cellar every couple of years to be “pitched,” and there were often accidents. When you look at the records, you will often find that the brewer actually died, and his widow might marry the head brewer or another brewer to continue business.
For the same reason, you will find almost brewing dynasties. If you look at the history of the Bamberg breweries, you’ll find that many of them are interconnected—almost like the noble houses of Europe. You know, the queen of England tries to connect her son to the daughter of the king of Sweden, so there’s no war between their countries. Pretty much the same happened with the Bamberg brewers. If you wanted to knock out competition, you’d combine your family with another brewery family.
Within the Bamberg community, Schlenkerla beers stand out. What makes them unusual?
The flavor is unique. Schlenkerla is not only a brewery, it is also a malt house. We make our own malt in a very historic way. We still use beech wood logs for drying the malt: we have a direct system where the heat and smoke from an open fire penetrates the malt and thereby dries it. This turns the otherwise ordinary malt into a smoked malt.
The beer brewed from a smoked malt has a very strong, smoky taste, almost like smoked ham. Someone who hasn’t drunk smoked beer can relate to it easily by imagining liquid ham in his mouth!
That is very special today. Smoked beers were common 500-600 years ago, because back then drying malt over an open fire was pretty much the only method. Later on, the English invented the technology by which they could dry malt with an indirect heating system, thereby avoiding the smoke. Since that was a more efficient way of drying malt—and because not everybody likes smoked beers—eventually all the smoked kilns worldwide went extinct, except here in Bamberg. What we know as normal beer today—pilsner, ale, wheat beer—has only been around for about 200 years. The smoked beers are a little bit like dinosaurs today—they stick out from the crowd.