Bamberg! The Franconian city that had been top of my I Really Want To Go There And Drink Beer list for an embarassingly long time. It was raining when we arrived, raining as we made the long trek from the station to our hotel in the innenstadt, and still raining when I ventured out again to start working through the city's long list of brewery-inns. Top of my hitlist was Keesmann, brewer of my all-time favourite pilsner. Perhaps I wouldn't get to tick a new beer but the prospect of Herren Pils at the source was not to be passed up. Unfortunately, the innkeepers of Keesmann had opted to take longer holidays than me so I arrived to soggy disappointment that the grand building was all shuttered up. But Bamberg taketh away and Bamberg giveth: across the road the gates of Mahr's were wide open so I got my ass to there.
The lunchtime service had just ended. A scattered handful of punters were sitting in front of empty plates and glasses trying to catch the eye of the harried waitress while the barman sat down to his own lunch. In the absence of a beer list and the presence of a waitress who didn't look like she could be bothered with touristy gimmicks such as choice, I asked for "ein bier". My order duly passed to the serving area at the other end of the room, the barman left his pile of pork and dumplings long enough to draw a half litre of Mahr's Helles from the wooden barrel, swiftly delivered by Grumbly the Waitress. My word. What a beer. A burst of honey kicks the flavour off but is followed rapidly by a huge luscious mossy greenness, fresh as the wafts from Tinkerbell's laundry room. One gulp emptied two thirds of the glass, that low-carbonation helles smoothness helping it on its way. I called for another straight away.
I sat a little longer over the second mug of Mahr's Helles. I guess the place was getting set for the evening service as a second oak barrel was heaved onto the counter and pierced with a brass tap. A few of the all-day regulars' heads lifted at the sound and within minutes half the room was drinking copper coloured beer from the new cask. My neighbour at the next table asked what I was dying to ask, and was told it's the Mahr's Ungespundet. He wasn't fussed, but that was what I was having next. It's not nearly as complex as the Helles, being instead all about rich and warming fruitcake, with a nuts-and-raisins aroma not dissimilar to brown English bitter. Some husky roast finished it off. It's a pleasant change from the Helles, but definitely rather rougher round the edges.
Mahr's does make other beers, so where were they? At this point a stag party of Swedes arrived in and cheerily worked through a round of Ungespundet, but not everyone was up for a second.
"Do you have a beer menu?" one of them asked the waitress. I only flinched a little.
"A beer menu?" she replied, à la Mr Bumble, then over her shoulder at the barman, "Have we a beer menu?"
He came out from behind the counter and stalked towards the table.
"Yes! I am the beer menu!"
The other Mahr's beers, it turns out, are available bottled, and a mixed crate was duly dragged up from the cellar for my fussy Swedish friends. Obviously I was far too terrified to order something from the barman's rote list, but later I did encounter Mahr's dunkel, ETA Hoffmann, named after one of Bamberg's most famous residents. Poor old Hegel gets no such honour. Though an appropriate limpid dark ruby, it's a lot less sweet than your typical Bavarian dunkel, piling on the liquorice, tempering it only with a little milky coffee. All very dark and dramatic, as befits the name.
Schlenkerla, of course, was high on the agenda for the trip. It was a couple of days before we made it in, however. Though huge and rambling, the Schlenkerla premises is bang in the middle of the old town, attracting every passing curious meandering coach party and determined boisterous pisshead. Many are happy to just stand and drink in the street. When I eventually secured a table (afternoon lull to the rescue once again) I found service to be all rather brisk and ill-tempered. It's just as well that half-litres of fresh Schlenkerla Märzen at €2.60 a throw make it worthwhile. Oddly, the second barrel at the bar was pouring Weizen, not a style you'd normally expect to find dispensed this way. So that was Schlenkerla: not the rauchbier paradise I was hoping for, but I'm happy to have spent a few hours there drinking it in.
For Bamberg's other rauchbier specialist you need to leave the old town and head for the main commercial district. We arrived at Spezial at noon on Sunday, the same time as every single family in Bamberg, so we left and returned later. Dare I say that Spezial Märzen is better than Schlenkerla's? I daren't, but it was much more what I was in the mood for when in Bamberg. It's a paler, lighter, crisper, more sessionable sort of bacon experience, as against the soupy weight you get with Schlenkerla. The expertly made lager is much more visible behind the smoke novelty.
According to the website, Spezial Ungespundet is their only unsmoked beer. It was quite popular around the room, served in its distinctive barrel-shaped glass mug, clearer and paler than kellerbier normally is. There's little by way of aroma, just a simple dry lager graininess. Another high quality easy quaffer, then. And if the website is correct then there's some smoked malt in Spezial Weissbier but I'm damned if I could taste it. There's not much by way of signature weissbier flavour either, just lots of dry crisp wheat and strange overtones of apple. Perfectly drinkable, but no superstar like the Märzen.
Across the street from Spezial is Fässla, where they had two beers on offer. Regular Fässla Lager is a dark reddish gold, strong at 5.5% ABV and heavy with it. The classic German nettles 'n' veg noble hop thing is backed by sugary caramel and honey. The aroma is a little sickly as a result, but the whole is saved by a firm bitter kick at the end of the flavour. It's a beer to take time over, unless you're thirsty.
Fässla Pils piles on the fresh-cut grass in its aroma and has a very complex flavour mixing up all kinds of herbs and salads. Again there's a sharp invigorating bitterness, but tempered by a lovely French-pastry sweetness. There may only be two beers, but with a considered sipper and a hoppy thirst-quencher Fässla has something to suit every drinking occasion.
There's room for just one more Bamberg brewpub in this post so I'm going to include Greifenklau, one that rarely gets mentioned in coverage of Bamberg's beer scene. On walking in I thought it was a vast beer hall but closer inspection reveals the rear section to be an open courtyard, with covered tables at the edges. Two beers again: Greifenklau Lager is an understated, lacklustre affair: watery, vaguely sweet and with a low level acid bitterness. Greifenklau Weizen is much better: a bright and cheery orange-yellow, a spot-on fresh banana aroma and lots of lip-smacking bubblegum and clove rock. The sweetness quotient is raised by some extra brown sugar notes, but otherwise it's pretty spot-on. Ten points to Griffinclaw House!
Our last Bamberg brewery for now lurks back behind the railway station and isn't really a brewery at all. The Weyermann factory broods at the city's edge, like the mountain stronghold of the gloomy king of malt, while its bright yellow trucks send the world famous grain all across the globe. The onsite pilot brewery is mostly a marketing arrangement, to demonstrate the potential of Weyermann malt. As such, it produces some of the most different and interesting beers Bamberg has to offer. I caught up with one of them in Café Abseits (about which more in a future post), the city's main outlet for Weyermann brews.
Schlotfergla is a 5.2% ABV dark rauchbier. It's closest to a smoked porter I'd say -- not madly smoky and with bonus features of milk chocolate and rosewater, with just a mild ashen dryness finishing it off. I liked it and would have liked to try more, but the popularity of Weyermann beer at Café Abseits appears to outstrip the supply and their cupboard was otherwise bare.
And so back to the city centre for more Bamberg brewpubs next.
Westmalle Dubbel - *Origin: Belgium | Date: 2008 | ABV: 7% | On The Beer Nut: October 2007* It's a longtime favourite today. Westmalle Dubbel goes back to the very beginnings...
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