Thursday, January 31, 2013

Enjoying a Franken stein in Bamberg

Franconia, known as Franken in German, and in particular the small city of Bamberg has been known as a great brewing region for centuries. In fact, Franconia still has the largest number of breweries per capita anywhere in the world, with nearly 300 working breweries shared by a population of around 4 million. As an illustration, if California wanted to reach such a brewery ratio the US state would need a total of 2850 breweries!

Thus, Bamberg was an obvious place to visit during my road trip through Germany.

A beer stein at Rathausschänke in Bamberg

Located 60 km north of Nuremberg, in what is known as Upper Franconia (Oberfranken), the city of Bamberg lies among seven hills, just like ancient Rom, and has a history stretching back more than a thousand years.

Originally inhabited by Slavs, the town was first mentioned in 902 as belonging to the Babenberch castle. The area was subsequently Christianized and in 1007 the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II made Bamberg a family inheritance, the seat of a separate diocese. This resulted in a number of impressive cathedral and church buildings being erected, and for a while Bamberg was the centre of the Holy Roman Empire.

From the middle of the 13th century onward the bishops were princes of the Empire and ruled Bamberg, overseeing the construction of monumental buildings. This gave Bamberg status as a free city and it remained so until the secularization of church lands in 1802, becoming part of Bavaria, together with the rest of Franconia, in 1803.

Altes Rathaus in the middle of river Regnitz in Bamberg
Thanks to its remote location and lack of heavy industries, Bamberg survived World War II relatively unscatched so most of its historical buildings and the old town area are still intact. Today the city has a population of 70 thousand and attracts tourists both for its historical sites and for its still vibrant beer culture.

Despite a sharp decline in number of active breweries, from 60 back in the 1850s to 30 as recently as World War I, Bamberg is still home to eight breweries, ranging from small brewpubs to large export breweries, so it's a great place to visit in order to explore the famous rauchbier - beer brewed with smoked malt - and sample some authentic Franconian fare, such as the Bamberger Zwiebel - onions stuffed with pork farce and braised in the oven with broth and beer.

The easiest way to get to Bamberg is either by car or by train, depending on where you come from. I came by car from Munich and spent two days in Bamberg in late September 2012. Here follows a listing of some of the highlights from my visit.

Brauerei Spezial
One of the oldest working breweries in Bamberg is the family owned Brauerei zum Spezial on Obere Königsstraße 10. It was founded back in 1536 as a "Bamberger Rauch-Bier-Brauerei", a brewery of smoked beers, and has been in the Merz family since 1898.

Today, Spezial is one of the few breweries left kilning its own malt, which was the norm just a hundred years ago. For smoked malts this is particularly important since what you use to generate the smoke heavily influences the resulting aroma and flavor of the smoked malt and hence the resulting rauchbier. Like the other maltsters in Bamberg, Spezial relies on dry beech wood, usually dried for several years, to create the right smoke for its kilning. The annual beer production is just 6,000 hL (2003), making Spezial one of the smallest breweries in Bamberg, so it's mainly sold locally at the brewery tap room.

Brauerei Spezial in Bamberg, founded in 1536
Like several of the smaller breweries, Spezial is also a public house where food is served and guests can spend the night in a gästezimmer - a guest room - for a low price. Spezial have seven guest rooms on the second floor, above the restaurant, and it cost me just 35 euro per night to stay there. I highly recommend it, but make sure to book early.

The interior of Spezial looks much like a typical Bavarian bierstübl, with heavy oak furniture and hunter trophies on the walls. The indoor seating area is limited so it will quickly fill up at night, but finding a vacant spot at the end of a table is usually no problem (but do not try to sit down at the stammtisch, the regulars' table!). Food is served all night and is both tasty and plentiful, and reasonable.

The beers offered at Spezial (with prices for half a litre, like in the rest of this post):

- Spezial Rauchbier Lager (4.6%): €2.40
- Spezial Rauchbier Märzen (5.3%): €2.50
- Spezial Weissbier (5.3% smoked hefeweizen): €2.60
- Spezial Ungespundetes (4.9% lager): €2.40

Ungespundetes means unfiltered, so an ungespundetes lager is slightly hazy from the yeast and will usually have a fuller mouthfeel and a richer flavor than filtered lagers. It was the only beer on their menu that was not brewed with smoked malt.

The Merz family also run a large biergarten, Spezial Keller, on top of the Stephansberg hill in Bamberg, commanding a great view of the city. Unfortunately, after huffing and puffing up the steep hill, I found a note at the gate saying the keller was closed until mid October because of "urlaub" (German for holiday). Thus, I never got the chance to try out the biergarten, just admire it through the fence.

Brauerei Fässla
Fässla, meaning "little cask", is a family owned brewery and public house, with sleeping accommodations, on Obere Königsstraße 19-21.

Brauerei Fässla in Bamberg, founded in 1649

Though not quite as old as Spezial, just across the street, Brauerei Fässla dates back to at least 1649 when Büttnermeister Johann Kauer bought the property to start a brewery. Büttnermeister, by the way, is German for a Cooper, someone building and repairing wooden staved vessels, used for storing liquids - such as beer. 

The brewery and public house continued under various owners and by 1796 it was known as Schwanen- und Fässleinswirtshaus which then morphed into just Fässla. In 1978, Fässla was purchased by Sebastian Kalb and the Kalb family is still the owners of Fässla, now with Roland Kalb at the head of business.

Fässla has a 50 hL brewhouse producing 16,000 hL annually (2003), some of the beer gets bottled and shipped to other pubs in Bamberg and probably outside the city. Unlike Spezial, Fässla do not brew with smoked malts. The interior of Fässla is fairly typical of a German beer stübe, but out back they have a small but nice open air yard with shady trees and artwork on the walls, and despite a bit of smoking I enjoyed myself there.

Fässla served two beers on tap, both gravity fed from large oak casks:

- Fässla Gold-Pils (5.5%): €2.40
- Fässla Lagerbier (5.5%): €2.40

On bottle they offered the popular Fässla Zwergla (6%) dunkel, for €2.40, and the famous Fässla Bambergator (8.5%) doppelbock was also on the menu but wasn't available until mid October.

Situated in an old lagerhaus from 1500, on Obere Mühlbrücke 1-3, Klosterbräu claims to be the oldest brewery in Bamberg with almost 500 years in the brewery business.

Brauerei-Gaststätte Klosterbräu in Bamberg
The history of Klosterbräu Bamberg dates back to 1533 when the Fürstbischöfliches Braunbierhaus ("Prince-Bishop Brown Beer House") opened up as a state-owned brewery at this location. 

For a long time the brewery remained in the possession of the Bamberg Prince-Bishops, but in the late 18th century the brewery started losing money and in 1790 it was sold to a private brewer by the name of Johann Georg Behr. 

Since then the brewery has remained on private hands but it was sold in 1851 to one Peter Braun, the son of a pharmacist from Kitzingen. It was under his ownership that it acquired the current name of "Klosterbräu", inspired by the nearby Franziskanerkloster. The Klosterbräu is still owned by the Braun family and is currently headed by the 5th generation, Frau Anne-Rose Braun-Schröder.

Even though I found the old interior charming the weather was sunny and warm so I sat down outside, by the small square between Klosterbräu and the Altstadthotel Molitor. Klosterbräu serves good food in addition to a number of their own beers, but no smoked beers:

- Klosterbräu Pils (4.9%): 2.30 euro
- Klosterbräu Schwärzla (4.9% schwarzbier): 2.90 euro
- Klosterbräu Braunbier (5.7%): 3.10 euro
- Klosterbräu Braun's Weisse (4.9%): 2.90 euro
- Klosterbräu Bockbier (7%): 3.30 euro --only available in October
- Klosterbräu Schwärzlabock (7%): 3.30 euo --seasonal
- Klosterbräu Maibock (7%): 3.30 euro --only available in April/May

According to their beer menu, the Braunbier is made after a 450 year old recipe and is unique to Bamberg (see my review).

Brauerei Heller - Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier
It may not be the oldest or the biggest brewery in Bamberg, but Brauerei Heller of Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier fame has one of the most attractive tap rooms in the city, on Dominikanerstraße 6. Here, many a tour group stops for a taste of the famous rauchbier, while locals protect their stammtisches with angry looks if any ignoranimus should dare to sit down there.

Founded in 1678 and owned by the Heller-Trum family for the last 150 years, Brauerei Heller has become the golden standard of Bamberg rauchbier and is known all over the beer world for the strong smoky character of their Aecht Schlenkerla series. Brauerei Heller, just like Spezial, kiln and smoke their own malts. All beers named "Aecht", which means "real", are brewed with their own smoked malt.

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen
- served from oak cask at the brewery tap
While the modern brewery and maltings are located on the Upper Stephansberg hill, a kilometer to the south of Dominikanerstraße, the old brewery has become the tap room and this is where most visitors come to get a taste of the famous Schlenkerla rauchbiers. 

At the brewery tap you will always find oak casks serving beer with the help of gravity only, when I was there they had Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen on cask; an elegant rauchbier, with a wonderful smoke and caramel balance.

The name Schlenkerla is supposedly a reference to Andreas Graser, who took over the brewery in 1877. According to one story, one of his legs got run over when some horses bolted while he unloaded kegs at the brewery. The injured leg caused him to walk with a limp and dangling arms for the rest of his days, in the Franconian dialect this kind of limping walk is known as "schlenkern" - hence Schlenkerla.

The Schlenkerla tap room is located near the tourist trail in Bamberg, so it will feel a bit noisy at times when one or more groups of chattering tourists enter. But in the morning, they open at 9:30 am, it's nice and quiet, and you can sit by a window, watching the Dominikanerstraße come to life and then, a little before 11, witness local workers enter to have a quick snack and a beer or two for lunch.

At the time of my visit, they offered the Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen (5.1%) for €2.50 per half litre, it was served from an oak cask using gravity only - as shown in the photo.

Rathausschänke - Haus der Kaiserdom Privatbrauerei
The history of the largest brewery in Bamberg, the Kaiserdom Privatbrauerei, dates back to 1718 when Georg Mohr was given the rights to set up a brewery in the 12th century buildings of the Benedictine abbey on Sankt Michaelsberg. In 1910, the brewery was bought by Georg Wörner and it became known simply as Brauerei Wörner and a bit later as Bürgerbräu.

In 1969, the sons of Georg Wörner - Theodore and Ludwig - were forced to move the brewing to a larger facility, in order to keep up with demand. The new brewery is located in the Bamberg suburb of Gaustadt, some 3 km north west of old town Bamberg. When Ludwig unexpectedly passed away in 1978, his son - Georg - had to abandon his studies and return to the family company to take over the reins as Georg Wörner II.

The Rathausschänke on Obere Brücke in Bamberg

Today, Kaiserdom Privatbrauerei is fully owned by the Wörner family and still headed by Georg Wörner II. The annually production of Kaiserdom beer is 350,000 hL, almost fifty times more than Brauerei Spezial, and the beer is exported to 33 countries around the world.

Even though Kaiserdom is now located outside central Bamberg, its tap room - the Rathausschänke - is still found in the heart of old town near the Obere Brücke - the bridge which takes tourists across the Regnitz river to the Altes Rathaus. In the summer season, you can sit at tables outside, on the cobble stone street, and enjoy the view of the river, the old town hall and all the weird tourists walking by.

As for the Kaiserdom beers I tried two nice ones from draft, the Meranier Schwarzbier (5%) and the Alt-Bamberg Zwickl (4.8%), and one from bottle, the Alt-Bamberg Dunkel (4.8%), which disappointed me as thin and tasteless. But I still enjoyed myself at Rathausschänke and had a pretty good lunch there too, a tasty Champignon-Rahm-Schnitzel.

Café Abseits
Even though most of this blog post has been about breweries and their tap rooms, Bamberg also sports some very decent beer bars and one in particular: Café Abseits on Pödeldorfer Straße 39.

The unasssuming entrance to Café Abseits

Café Abseits is the oldest student café and speciality beer bar in Bamberg. It looks very much like a student café inside, artsy with a young clientele and usually loud, modern music. But it also sports a cozy biergarten out back, where people can cool down, under shady trees, in the heat of the summer.

During my visit, the café had six different beers on tap, nothing really fancy but the Gänstaller-Bräu Zoigl was a nice surprise. They also had about 40 different beers on bottle, including five from Weyermann Versuchsbrauerei, the research brewery of the local malt producer Weyermann, where they test the quality of their malts by brewing small test batches of beer.

I spent a quiet afternoon in the biergarten, enjoying a number of good beers as well as the food provided by their kitchen. This really is a good beer bar and I can understand why, in the most recent annual RateBeer poll (January 2013), Café Abseits was rated the best beer bar in Germany.

Zoiglstube Gänstaller Drei Kronen
If you have some time to spare, which I know is unlikely in a city like Bamberg, you may consider taking a bus from near the Bahnhof Bamberg railway station to the small village of Schesslitz-Straßgiech. It's about 10 km east of Bamberg and is home to the newly opened Zoiglstube Gänstaller Drei Kronen. The buses leave frequently and take only half an hour to get there, and the bus stop in Straßgiech is within sight of the Drei Kronen, so it's really not so difficult.

Zoiglstube Gänstaller Drei Kronen in Straßgiech

Located in Drosendorfer Straße 24, with a sign on the wall saying "Brauerei Drei Kronen Gasthaus", this 700 year old brauhaus was recently purchased by Manuela and Andreas Gänstaller. The latter is the founder and brewmaster of Gänstaller-Bräu, one of the most exciting new breweries in Germany and the main reason I took the bus trip from Bamberg to Straßgiech. The couple renovated the interior of the old Drei Kronen buildings and reopened the pub in 2011 as the Zoiglstube Gänstaller Drei Kronen - the official tap room for the Gänstaller-Bräu brewery. As they put it:

We, Manuela and Andreas Gänstaller, had more than half a century of Frankish brewing experience when in 2011 we decided to breathe some life into Drei Kronen in Straßgiech. With our Zoiglstube concept we combine self-brewed beer of the highest quality with a "beery" kitchen. That means we do our utmost to serve you the freshest beer.

The restaurant part of the Zoiglstube can take 70 guests, the bar another 20 and the outdoor Bräuhof terrace around 90 guests, in the summer season. The Bräuhof terrace was not in use when I was there, though it looked like a great place to enjoy a beer, so I settled for a table inside. 

Even though the building housing the Zoiglstube Gänstaller Drei Kronen is very old, the interior is clean and new with golden wood panelling on the walls and ceiling and solid wooden furniture for the guests. It had a "homey" feel to it, with old art and deer antlers on the walls, big grandfather clocks, and flowers and tiny tablecloths on the tables.

While Andreas Gänstaller, naturally, is responsible for the beer at Zoiglstube, his wife Manuela is responsible for the Franconian fare on offer (though I spotted at least one male cook in the kitchen, when I arrived, so she does get some help with the cooking). In addition to some really good draft beers I tried their special Schnitzel dish, which instead of bread crumbs was coated in spent malt before the deep frying: It was just delicious, the malt adding a mild sweetness to the meat.

Gänstaller-Bräu Birra Kultura Scura
- a tasty Vienna lager at the Zoiglstube

Here are the four beers they had on tap during my visit:

- Gänstaller-Bräu (Drei Kronen) Kellerbier (5.3%): 2.00 euro
- Gänstaller-Bräu (Drei Kronen) Zoiglbier (5.8%): 2.20 euro
- Gänstaller-Bräu (Drei Kronen) Zwickelpils (5.1%): 2.00 euro
- Franz-Xaver-Gänstaller Märzen (5.6% rauchbier): 2.40 euro

The bottle menu was very limited, but they did have the local Hartmann Felsenweiße (5.2%).

Recently, RateBeer published its annual top lists and the Zoiglstube Gänstaller Drei Kronen in Straßgiech was rated the best brewpub in Germany in 2012, so it's well worth a visit if you're in Bamberg with an afternoon to spend.

Bamberger Zwiebel, a hearty Franconian speciality
- at Scheiners am Dom in Bamberg

For the rest of my photos from Bamberg see this Flickr set.