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.