Why did the Bamberg brewers keep that older technology, when everyone else was getting rid of it?
That’s an often-asked question. In my opinion, there are a number of reasons. First of all, Bamberg breweries are fairly small compared to those in the Northern Germany or the UK. This smaller size resulted in a lack of investability. The breweries lacked the money to stay on top of technology, so they stuck with what they had.
The second reason is that Bamberg as a whole is a very conservative town. If you walk around the city, you can feel that conservative breeze blowing through the streets. You have old buildings everywhere; most people here are Catholic and very conservative in their moral attitudes. They go to church regularly, which is not that common any more, abide by traditions, go with the old ways—and may be a little bit stubborn. Since the drying process was invented by someone in another country, they were like “Ooo, I’d rather be careful with this crazy stuff from overseas.”
Your malt really makes you distinctive.
If you look at malting technology, 200-300 years ago, a vast majority of breweries would make their own malt. During industrialization, a concentration process started. Big malthouses started that could produce more efficiently and cheaply, and probably also had a better quality than many of the small maltings. Hence, it was an advantage for breweries to buy malt from a big malting company rather than make it themselves.
But the big malting companies would not work with the smoke kilns, because on a large scale you would need five or six fireplaces and five or six people constantly shoving in wood to dry a batch of 400 tons. It just wouldn’t be practical. Since non-smoked malt was the easier and cheaper thing to buy, a lot of breweries would shut down their malting operation.
What proportion of your malt do you produce yourselves?
For the classic Schlenkerla smoked beer that was described by Michael Jackson as a world classic, that’s 100% smoked malt—pure, historic, as it would have been centuries ago.
In the Bamberg community, your beer has the smokiest profile. Does that make you the most traditional brewer?
There are 10 breweries in Bamberg, two of which make smoked beer. One is Spezial and as far as I know, Spezial uses a blend of smoked malt and normal malt.
Smoked beer has had quite a renaissance in the last 10 or 15 years. In Franconia, there are now some 15 breweries or so that make smoked beer. And in the United States, I think there are 50 or 60 microbreweries that make smoked beer, at least on a seasonal basis. Usually they get the smoked malt from the Weyerman malting company here in Bamberg.
But Spezial and Schlenkerla are the only breweries that have continuously brewed smoked beer for the past century. So, we are the historic representatives, and everyone else is following a sort of fashion trend at the moment. Who knows? It might stop in a couple of years.
Who makes the beer at your brewery?
The tavern and the brewery are one company, so I have responsible people in key positions both places—I can’t brew the beer and tap it at the same time. I have a total of six people in the production. I oversee that whole thing, final quality control, but not working the kettle myself or filling the barrels usually. We’re a little bit too big for that by now.
What is your official title?
My title is brewmaster. I went to Weihenstephan, the brewing university near Munich. At the same time I carry the title, though I’m not too proud of it, of manager. The important thing to me is the brewmaster, to know how to make a good beer. The business part is absolutely essential these days, of course, but it’s nothing special—a lot of people are good at management, but only a few people are good at brewing.
You live at the tavern; you work at the brewery. What do you do to get away?
I go for a beer somewhere! Most of your readers can probably relate: if you run your own business, you seldom have time for a holiday, but for a true holiday for me, the best would be to hike in the woods and not have mobile reception.
I also meet with friends for beer sampling. We travel to a beer town in Europe—Cologne and Düsseldorf, we were in London, and next year we want to go to Dublin, just to see what’s going on. It’s interesting, the beer diversity we have here in Europe. The States would be an interesting goal as well, with all the microbreweries, but so far, since it’s a seven or eight hour flight, we didn’t really get around to that. Just one-hour flights in Europe.
You know you’d get a huge welcome here in the United States.
I think it’s amazing what America does for the beer community—so many insights and ideas come over from your country. The beer community would be nothing without what the United States is doing regarding beer diversity.
You have one huge advantage over Germany. You’re starting off new, in respect of beer diversity. Twenty years ago, you had the big brewers, and some small ones, and now you have all these people starting with new ideas, not bound by the purity law. They can try everything. And when you try one hundred things, you’re certain to find at least fifty good things among them.
Our strong point, of course, is tradition, so we can shows off: “We’re doing something that was done 500 years ago, and nya-nya-nya you can’t do that.” But regarding innovation, Germany is not an interesting beer state. Even the smoked beer is not innovative: it’s traditional. If you look at Europe and the United States combined, you have the best of both worlds: the traditional styles here in Europe and the innovative new styles in the United States. It’s amazing how many taste profiles there are to explore.