The Big Bavarian Dig
by Ron Givens
Note to archaeologists: just because the dirt doesn’t have a head on it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t test for beer content.
If scientists excavating in a suburb of Regensburg back in 1978 had only analyzed the soil coming out of their second century A.D. dig, they might have proven that malting (as modern brewers know it) began well before monks made it fashionable in the Dark Ages.
Instead, experts can only speculate that this tidy arrangement of three holes in the ground and one basin—neatly preserved in its own shed by the Roman museum in Regensburg—served some higher purpose.
A deep hole (a well, for example) would have provided water for soaking grain in the basin. A second hole would have been used for building a fire. And a third hole, connected to the second, would have collected heat underneath a surface that would have held the germinated grain until it dried.
Mashing might have taken place in a space just right for a kettle, and perhaps fermentation close by. But no one really knows for sure.
No such doubts exist for the amphora on display at the exquisite beer museum in Kulmbach. The crock, which was unearthed within an eighth century B.C. gravesite near the city in 1934, contained a residue that proved to be dark wheat beer, produced from a loaf of dark, flavorful bread.
Food for thought, as well as world-class suds to wash it down—an unbeatable Bavarian combination.
by Gregg Glaser
“Right, that’s the meat beer category, isn’t it?” asked my vegetarian friend, Gerry.
“No,” I patiently explained, “It’s not ‘meat beer.’ It’s smoked beer, and you can’t have any.” My refusal to share the four hand-carried bottles of German rauchbier (smoke beer) with Gerry or anyone else on the tasting panel didn’t matter. None of them wanted even a sip. Wussies.
In the area of Germany known as Franconia (the northern part of Bavaria, where it’s not good to call a Franconian a Bavarian any more than it is to call a Scotsman an Englishman) lies the city of Bamberg. This architectural jewel, split by the River Regnitz, boasts beautiful architecture from the Middle Ages to the Baroque period. Once called the German Rome of Bavaria, Bamberg was built on seven hills. It was the capitol of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation at one time. Today, Bamberg is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. It’s also home to two marvelous rauchbier breweries: Schlenkerla (aka Brauerei Heller) and Spezial-Brau.
Each brewery malts its own barley over open beechwood fires (the wood comes from the Franconian forests), imparting wonderful smoky aromas and flavors to the beers. Spezial-Brau, dating from 1536, brews five rauchbiers, all of which can be sampled from wooden kegs at the brewery’s pub on the right bank of the river. The flagship beer is Rauchbier Märzen (5.3% ABV), sweet and malty in aroma, with a trace of soft smoke and a clear, deep copper color. The taste is subtly smoky, slightly malty with a dry finish. Other year-round rauchbiers from Spezial are Lagerbier (4.6%) and Weissbier (5.3%). In the spring and fall there is Ungespundetes (unbunged, meaning most of the carbonation is allowed to escape from the conditioning tank) and in November only, Bock Rauchbier (6.9%). All Spezial rauchbiers are brewed from organic barley.
On a small island in the middle of the river is the old Schlenkerla tavern, dating to the 1300s. The dates are a bit confusing, because part of the tavern (the old private chapel of a Dominican monastery) dates to 1310, while the rest of the half-timbered building dates to 1405. The brewery, Brauerei Heller, dates to 1678 and is located on Stephansberg, a hill just a few minutes’ walk away.
The beer that made Schlenkerla famous is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen (5.1%), aged for two months and served from oak barrels. The color is dark ruby and clear, and the aroma is of intense smoke, which is also powerful in the taste, along with a lovely balance of sweet malt. The finish is dry and, well, smoky. Schlenkerla’s beers are the smokiest in Bamberg.
Two other year-round beers are Lagerbier (a 4.3% helles lager that has no added smoked malt, but picks up residual smokiness from the brewery’s grain mill) and Rauchweizen (5.2%). From Ash Wednesday to Easter there is Fastenbier (5.5%) and from October to January, Urbock appears (6.5%), a bigger, more intense, slightly more malty version of Märzen.
Some people have described the taste of rauchbier to that of smoked meats—an understandable comparison—and Gerry still can’t have any.