Oktoberfest is a madhouse, but sometimes one wants to enjoy beer at a slower pace and take in the Bavarian scenery. What better way to enjoy traditional German Beer, Frankonian fare, and the history of Northern Bavaria, than by visiting the quaint city of Bamberg. Oktoberfest was a once in a lifetime experience, but Bamberg is a locale that I truly want to visit repeatedly. The city itself is an historical landmark and is populated with a multitude of old buildings, churches, museums, and a giant cathedral called the “Dom.” It’s also renowned for its breweries and beer. One style of beer in particular, Rauchbier, has made it not just famous but notorious.
Rauchbier, or Smoked Beer, is made using a barley malt that is smoked over beechwood. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that it’s an experience. Think liquid smoked gouda campfire. I’m not a not a huge fan of the stuff, but I’ve been told by many people that it’s different at the source in Bamberg. Bottles that make it to the US are traditionally on the older side and have been dealt damage by light, temperature, age/oxidation, and general travel abuse. What does this do to the beer? It increases the smoke character among other things, but for most people the beer becomes undrinkable unless you are one of the few to have a rare affinity for the battle worn verison. Fresh Rauchbier however, is smoother and better balanced. It’s served slightly colder than cask ale and in 0.5 – 1 liter quantities. The most famous of these beers seems to be the Marzen from the two Rauchbier brewers, Schlenkerla and Spezial, but I found the Rauchbier Weizen more palatable. Personal taste. The Bavarian hefe yeast comes through and harmonizes very nicely with the smoked notes. I became very well acquainted with Rauchbier, and I can safely say that it definitely benefits from being served fresh. Whether it’s their Lager, Marzen, Weizen, or Bock beers, drink it at the source or get it fresh somehow, but don’t settle for anything older than 6 months.
Bamberg is known for its two breweries that make Rauchbier, yes, but it’s also home to 6 other breweries (actually 7, but one is in the final stages of closing). Two of these are on the larger side and on the outskirts of town so we were, unfortunately, unable to visit them, but we did visit the other 4. One thing you’ll notice from the start of any brewery tour in Bamberg is that they are located in pairs. Next door, across the street, or a few doors down, touring breweries in Bamberg is a cinch. The city is very walkable, and you can easily make it to every brewery in a day’s time. Though it can be done in a day, I highly suggest taking your time. You’ll want to keep in mind that each brewery has a pub that serves food, large portions, salty meat, and no veggies. You’ll also need to remember that each brewery has three to four beers on tap which are sold at 0.5 – 1.0 liter portions. It’s easy to let the day get away from you, and if you aren’t careful you’ll miss out on some truly amazing beers. Vegetarians beware. Germans love meat. You’ll find potatoes and cabbage, but that’s about it.
It’s a quiet, chilly night, and the pleasant hum of pub revelry can be heard from city streets. Hanging above two large wooden doors is an old style lantern adorned with the words “Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier.” Schlenkerla is a great place to start and/or end your journey. It’s located in a really cool part of town with cobblestone streets and old buildings. It gets rather busy at night, so if you are interested in dinner, call ahead to reserve a table, or be prepared to drink outside. Non-reserved seating inside the pub is first come first serve, but is worth the wait. As the night progresses, more and more people come out to enjoy the Schlenkerla Rauchbier and put down deposits for their glasses so they can stand outside and drink their beer on the street. If you are staying for food, order the Pork Knuckle; it’s a massive hunk of meat that is cooked phenomenally. If you are adventurous and like smelly cheese, the limburger soaked in vinegar is also tasty. The Shlenkerla Weizen Rauchbier is really tasty and is my favorite of their line-up.
Ambrausianum is on the newer side and didn’t seem to have as large of a crowd. It’s right next door to Schlenkerla. The interior is nice and homey, and the food offerings are similar, but the beers are more traditional Bavarian style with an absence of Rauchbier. If you are looking for a solid Hefeweizen, Helles, or Pilsner, Ambrausianum will deliver. The brewhouse is right out in the open in the middle of the restaurant so, if you are lucky, you might even see them making beer while you visit.
A brisk 15 minute walk from Schlenkerla & Abrausianum is Spezial. This brewery is the other Rauchbier player in Bamberg. The interior, much like Schlenkerla, is akin to an old Gentlemen’s hunting club. Antlers, taxidermy, rustic wood, it’s all there. You’ll get similar Frankonian fare to that of the other breweries in the area. The bratwurst & sauerkraut came at a solid recommendation from the staff, and I’m happy to say, with my limited understanding of the German language, that they were right. They offer a Rauchbier Lager, Marzen, and Hefeweizen, and all are solid, but if you aren’t in the mood for more smoked beer, you may want to pass. I liked the Marzen style more here, but that is a personal preference. The lager and hefeweizen are also very good.
Across the street from Spezial is Fassla, famous for their gnome mascot. Around the brewery you’ll see the little guy pushing barrels, on signs, and adorning all marketing materials. Fassla has a pub in front, but also has a wide open beer garden in the back if you feel like hanging out in the garden next to children drinking beer and smoking. Honestly though, the beer garden is nice; I just can’t get over watching these young kids pound liters of beer. I mean, more power to them, but my American eyes are just not used it it. Fassla is renowned for its hoppy Gold-Pils and Zwergla lager. The Zwergla is really tasty and is exactly what you think about when you picture a clean German lager. They have other beers, but depending on the season you may or may not find them. Fassla is also one of the breweries you can stay overnight at. It has several rooms that you can rent – bed & breakfast style.
Take another 15-20 minute walk from Fassla/Spezial and you’ll reach Mahr’s Brau. This goes without saying, but you’ll need to get yourself a handy Bamberg map from the incredibly helpful tourist office in town. Mahr’s Brau has been named “The Best Brewery in the World” by several magazines, so this was one of my must stops. They serve a very popular beer called “Ungespundetes” or just “U,” which is an unfiltered kellerbeer. Think of it as an earthy, rich hefeweizen with a really complex aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel. I really, really liked this beer and highly recommend it to anyone that visits Bamberg. If you manage to find this beer in the states, check the expiration or born on date. If it’s old, don’t buy it. This beer is meant to be consumed fresh, and unless your bottle is fresh from the brewery, you aren’t doing the beer, or yourself for that matter, any favors. Mahr’s Brau has a biergarden in front, a pub in the middle, and the actual brewery in back. The pub has, like all the others, a very homey mountain lodge-ish feel. This particular brewery seemed a little more rustic than the others, which gave it a very authentic feel. Other than “U,” they also have a solid Hefeweizen and Helles on tap.
A couple doors down, on the opposite side of the street, was the last brewery on our tour, Keesman Brau. Right off the bat, you’ll notice that Keesman isn’t as rustic as its next door neighbor, Mahr’s. It has a slightly more modern feel to it with a large biergarden in back. That being said, I had some of the best schnitzel I’ve ever had at their pub. I was also able to try their currywurst, which was exceptional. The food selection here seemed a little less traditional Franconian and more like Red Lion in Silverlake. It played into the whole modern feel. Take the word modern with a grain of salt; it’s still on old style German brewery. Keesman focuses on their Hern Pils and their dark lager called “Sternla.” Sternla was very good and offered a more robust flavor than the pils, as is to be expected.
Each brewery in Bamberg has a square window near the serving casks where you can order beer if you are not sitting down. This is also where you can buy beer to take home. For a very reasonably price of €1-3 you can take home a fresh 0.5L (~16oz) bottle of beer and relax in the fact that it’s fresh as hell. I was able to bring back a beer or two from every brewery we visited and also managed to snag a spirit distilled from Schlenkerla’s Rauchbier (yes, it’s just like a German Scotch). I successfully convinced several Rauchbier haters that the beer is actually good when it’s fresh. In case you’re wondering how I got the beer home, check out my recent review of the WineCheck.
If you are going to Germany, make sure you make a generous stop off in Bamberg. The history alone is a reason to visit, but the beer will make you stay. Check out the tourist office first thing to make sure you get a beer guide along with all the pertinent maps. I, unfortunately, visited on the last day I was there, and I’m still kicking myself for not going at the start of our stay. You’ll also want to check out Fred Waltman’s site Franconian Beer Guide for some truly great information about the city and some walking beer tours. Special thanks to Tomm Carroll for referring me to the Franconian Beer Guide and also thanks to Jon Porter for drilling the importance of Ungespundetes into my head. I can’t wait to go back, but I’ll make sure to bring a head of lettuce and maybe some broccoli with me.