I lift the glass of Rauchbier up to my lips and take a tentative sip. A blend of two familiar flavours meets my taste buds.
“It tastes like ham!” I exclaim to my German teacher, Norbert Krines.
“Nein,” says Norbert, with a wink. “It’s the other way around. Ham tastes like ‘Rauch!”
We’re sitting in a classroom in Otto-Friedrich Universität, in the heart of old-town Bamberg, Germany. With me are a dozen other international exchange students. Together, we’re participating in a three-week orientation course to prepare us for the upcoming semester.
The orientation course consists mostly of German lessons for incoming international students, but the course also includes lessons on some of the cultural aspects of our new city. Today, Norbert brings in a collection of Bamberg’s local brews for us to sample – including Aecht Schlenkerla brewery’s famous smoke beer, which I have just tried for the first time. Drinking beer in class may not be standard educational practice back home, but here in northern Bavaria, it doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary. And besides, it helps Norbert teach us about one of Bamberg’s most important traditions; its brewing culture.
Having been in Bamberg for a few weeks, my peers and I are already well-aware of our new city’s love of beer. With brewing traditions that date back to the 1100s, beer has managed to soak itself into the frameworks of Bamberg’s history. Since arriving, we’d learned of Bamberg’s nine breweries – one of the highest concentrations of breweries per person of any city in Germany. We’d learned of the Bamberg Beer Wars – a citizen-led revolution in 1907 against the breweries’ raising of their beer prices by one cent. We’d learned of the customs that come with ordering a round of Seidlas (half-liter pints), such as waiting for everyone to receive their drinks before taking the first sip, or the importance of maintaining eye contact when saying Prost. It was easy for us to see how Bamberg has developed its moniker as the ‘heimliche Bierstadt Deutschlands’ – the secret beer-city of Germany.
While Munich has developed a reputation as the country’s beer capital, due to Oktoberfest and its widely exported range of beers, Bamberg and its nine local brews are more likened to that of a hidden gem. Located 60 kilometres north of Nuremberg, in the Bavarian sub-province of Franconia, Bamberg is the picturesque, lesser-known trailblazer of Germany’s brewing scene. Most foreigners have not heard of Bamberg, but its authority as one of the country’s brewing pioneers is unquestionable among most Germans. At its heyday in the 1820s, Bamberg had more than 60 micro-breweries in operation. Its oldest brewery that’s still in operation – Klosterbräu – has been around since 1533. Most of the other eight have similar histories, with some operating since the 16th or 17th centuries. The city also has two malting companies and a brewery equipment manufacturer.
But the beer does not stop flowing outside Bamberg’s city-limits. The entire region of Franconia is known in Germany for its beer production. In fact, Franconia brews around 25 per cent of Germany’s beer. The sub-province boasts almost 300 breweries within an area less than half the size of Nova Scotia. With a population of around 4 million, this gives Franconia the largest number of breweries per capita in the world. Even a small Franconian village like Buttenheim, with a population of 3,400, has two breweries.
Like the rest of Bavaria, Bamberg’s breweries adhere to the Reinheitsgebot regulations of 1516. These purity laws limit what is allowed in Bavarian beer production to just four ingredients: water, barley, malt and hops. You won’t find any other additives in Bamberg’s beer, which I feel gives it a reliable, crisp-clean quality. All nine of the city’s breweries offer a selection of Lagers, Pilsners, Dunkels and Hefeweizens, along with seasonal Bockbiers and other specialties. In total, Bamberg’s breweries boast around 50 different types of beers. No matter what you’re after, be it a light, dark or wheat beer, you can count on a fresh taste in any of the city’s multiple public houses and taverns.
As mentioned, Bamberg’s beer culture is mainly known for Rauchbier, a dark, smoky beer brewed by two of the city’s oldest breweries, Aecht Schlenkerla and Zum Spezial. The beer’s meaty flavour comes from drying the malt over a beech wood flame – a process known as kilning – as well as from the oak wood kegs the finished product is later stored in. Schlenkerla in particular is a must-stop for many visitors. Especially in the summer, tourists abound, lining the street in front of Schlenkerla’s half-timbered building to participate in the Franconian custom of ‘Stehgammeln’ – sipping a smoke beer in front of the brewery, using the windowsills as a ledge for their Seidlas.
For those who aren’t in a hurry, a trip inside the old inn can lead to a hearty plate of Schäuferla – a tender, slow-cooked pork cut taken from a pig’s shoulder. This succulent Franconian specialty is accompanied with a potato dumpling and a side of Sauerkraut, along with a customary glass of Rauchbier. A plate of Schäuferla costs around 10 euros, while a Seidla of Rauchbier costs 2.50 euros*.
*pricing quoted as of 2015, subject to change.
Schlenkerla may be the city’s most popular brewery, among both tourists and locals, but that doesn’t mean the others should be ignored. A visit to Bamberg in the summer is the perfect time to experience the beer gardens offered at each brewery. When the weather is warm, the breweries set up long, picnic-style tables in their backyards for beer drinkers to sit at and enjoy the sunshine. The arrangement of the gardens’ tables let drinking parties mingle with each other. While the gardens do serve food, visitors can and often bring their own. Most garden-goers bring an assortment of cheese, bread and pretzels to help soak up the liquor from the many Seidlas they will likely finish while enjoying the summer afternoons.
Having mostly avoided the bombing and destruction suffered by many German cities during the second world war, Bamberg is a beautiful small-to-mid-sized European city that has maintained much of its historic charm. With its winding streets, its charismatic cafes and pubs and its mix of medieval and baroque architecture, Bamberg seduces its visitors into taking a step back in time. Walking down the narrow cobblestone streets, you get that elusive feeling of old-school Germanic authenticity that larger, more popular destinations like Munich and Vienna can sometimes lack. In fact, as of 1993, Bamberg’s entire old-town city center is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
With its university reopening in 1972, the city has become a popular destination for both German and international students. Of Bamberg’s roughly 70,000 residents, more than 13,000 are students, giving the city a vibrant, youthful atmosphere. As a travel destination, Bamberg is increasing in popularity. Popular tourist destinations include the city’s cathedral, first constructed in 1012 AD and the city’s old town hall, built in the mid-14th century. The old town hall is unique in that it sits in the middle of the Regnitz River, just a few meters above the flowing water. Adorned with a fresco that includes a 3D sculpture of a baby leg, the old town hall is a curious example of trompe l’oeil architecture. Due to its peculiar location, the old town hall is connected to land by the Obere and Untere Bruecken (upper and lower bridges), which are popular hangout points for locals and tourists.
For both the serious and casual beer connoisseur, Bamberg offers a beautiful setting to drink delicious beers primarily sold in the same place they are brewed in. The city gives tourists the chance to experience an old-world beer culture that is increasingly rare today. A lovely city characterized by its regional traditions, don’t miss this city on your next stop in Germany. Whether it’s for just an afternoon or for a six-month semester abroad, Bamberg is definitely worth your time.
Submitted by Scott Strasser