Smoke beer in Bamberg, Germany

Stuart Forster visits the Schlenkerla tavern to taste Rauchbier, or smoke beer in Bamberg, Germany.

The attractive German city of Bamberg is the third largest urban UNESCO World Heritage Site in the European Union and its cathedral holds the tomb of the only pope buried north of the Alps. Culture and history can wait, I came here for a beer.

Why, you might well ask, have I just spent more than two hours travelling north from Munich? After all, they know how to brew a decent beer there too.

Smoke Beer in Bamberg

The answer is simple. Bamberg is the home of Rauchbier, meaning ‘smoke beer’, and finding bottles outside of Franconia is a tad tricky though becoming increasingly easier (specialist beer stores and a number of pubs now stock it). The locals like their smoke beer so much that there’s precious little shipped to beer stores outside of a 50-kilometre radius of Bamberg.

I could have ordered a crate online and had it delivered to my home, but nothing quite matches tasting a beer in the place it was brewed.

To do that, I’ve come to the Schlenkerla brewery tavern, a half-timbered building in Dominikanerstrasse, in the heart of the city.

Tavern in a monastery

Unlike many German cities, Bamberg survived World War Two largely intact and is rich in character. Schlenkerla’s building dates to 1405 and was originally part of a Dominican monastery.

An ornate pub sign hangs over the street. Entering the pub, I’m impressed by how busy it is for a late afternoon. I take a seat by a heavy wooden table under the Gothic style vaulted ceiling and enjoy the convivial ambiance of people conversing.

A smiling waitress brings my glass of red-brown Rauchbier and I savour the complex, smoky aroma before sipping on it, uncertain of what to expect. Rauchbier is genuinely smoky in flavour, strong but not overly intense; I’m impressed.

Bamberg’s beer brewing heritage

Bamberg is city with an unparalleled beer brewing culture. The Benedictine monastery on the Michaelsberg, a short walk from where I sit, received its brewing rights in 1122. Today that site is the home to the Franconian Brewery Museum. 70,000 people live in Bamberg, which supports nine breweries brewing 50 different beers.

Matthias Trum, Schlenkerla’s General Manager, arrives and greets me. He quickly explains the significance of brewing in this region: “Bamberg is in the heart of Franconia. In an area about the size of Greater London there are more than 200 breweries here. There’s one brewery for every 5000 people. This is the highest brewery density in the world. Every village has a church and one or two breweries.

Hiking and cycling in Franconia

Hiking and bicycle tours, from village to village, are popular in summer. Some of the breweries have been around for centuries and have traditional recipes…there are something like 15 different styles, including regular style pilsners, smoked beers, cellar beers, Ungespundetes (beer matured in a wooden barrel, with less carbon dioxide than is standard beer), and wheat beers, so if you have the time sample some of those.”

I nod enthusiastically at the idea of the research I’ll be undertaking over the next couple of days. I learn that beech wood cut from nearby Franconian forests is used during the malting process and the brewing techniques are essentially the same as those six generations ago, when Trum’s forefathers entered the business.

Malting for a smoky taste

“We produce all our malt ourselves for the smoked beer…in the malting process the grain needs to be dried, this process is called kilning. Kilning in central Europe—where it is moist most of the time— can only be done over an open fire. Imagine a fireplace with a chimney and on top of that you have a storage facility where you put the wet barley. Now the heat and the smoke from fire rise up and dry the malt in the kiln, the smoke penetrates the malt gives the smoky aroma and flavor,” he says.

“The historical background is important to us. I don’t want to produce a fashionable beer. All what we are doing here at Schlenkerla has been around for centuries. There’s a reason why we are doing it. We are doing it because our ancestors did it like that and we want to uphold the tradition and preserve the old technology by kilning the malt over logs,” explains Trum passionately.

The oldest record of the Schlenkerla brewery dates from 1678, but it’s likely it was founded even before then.

A 17th century brewery?

“You know, from 1618 to 1648 there was the Thirty Years War and if you look at the founding date of German breweries you’ll see many they were founded between 1648 and 1700. This is for two reasons,” says Trum. “First of all, a lot of cities were rebuilt after the war and the second thing is existing operations got their brewing rights re-issued. Very often when a foreign army attacked the city they would burn down the city hall, where all the documents were stored of course. From today’s point of view it’s often difficult to say whether a brewery was newly opened or an old one with a new document.”

I take another sip of my beer, which is poured from wooden barrels stored a few metres from where I’m sitting. The brewery is a 10-minute walk away.

‘Schlenkerling’ home after a beer?

I ask about the name of the pub in which we’re sitting. Pointing to the figure of a man with a walking stick on one of the beermats on the table Trum answers, “Schlenkerla means to sway or swagger in Franconian vernacular. According to legend, my ancestor had an accident in the brewery. After that he had to use a stick and the regulars, the people from the Stammtisch, called him the Schlenkerla (“the little swaggerer”) as a nickname. It became proverbial and people said “let’s go to Schlenkerla”. People sometimes think if they drink enough of it they’ll swagger themselves,” he jokes.

As I’ve learned over the past few minutes, having a beer in Germany can sometimes be the same thing as exploring a city’s heritage.

Further information

For the tavern’s opening times see the Schlenkerla website.

Discover things to do and see in the city via the Bamberg and Germany websites.

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