Heller Brau (Schlenkerla), Bamberg, Germany
What’s the history of the Schlenkerla tavern and brewery?
The building dates back to 1405, so it’s a little more than 600 years old. At the time of its first recording, it was owned by coopers, people who make barrels. In Bamberg, coopers and brewers were united in one guild, so very often the coopers were brewers at the same time. Their vow, loosely translated, was to make good barrels and fill them with good beer.
America was discovered in 1492, 87 years after the Schlenkerla building was constructed. That same year, there was a beer purity law issued in Bamberg. At the time, Bamberg was under church rule by an archbishop. Amongst other things, he made food laws to protect his servants. The first German cities passed food laws in the 12th century—the city of Augsburg was one of the first—and Bamberg then followed in 1492. So the Bavarian purity law as we know it was preceded by the Bamberg purity law by about 20 years.
I’m the sixth generation of my family in the Schlenkerla Brewery Tavern. The official brewery name is not Schlenkerla, it’s Heller Brau or Brewery Heller. The name Heller dates back to the 17th century, and in that respect, I’m the 15th brewmaster of Heller.
You grew up in the Schlenkerla Tavern, didn’t you?
Right up stairs. All six generations were born there and lived there until old age. What generally happens is the older generation moves next door, or to another part of the building. So the family always kind of stays close to the brewery and the tavern, and the generation that runs the tavern stays right on top of it.
When did you step into this position?
I went through my normal school time, which in Germany goes up to age 19 or 20; then you have to do one year of military service, and then I went to university for business science and afterwards for brewing science. So I got both perspectives—making beer and selling it. In 2003, I was done with my studies and stepped into the business.
I was a part-time worker, so to say, for ten years before that, doing translations or computer work for my parents, helping out in the kitchen, helping out in the tavern tapping beer, or even up in the brewery filling barrels. But this was more like a holiday job.
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.
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.