Wednesday, 9 October 2013


The one thing I knew before I went on holiday is that I needed a holiday. In recent times, I'd had the luxury of spare time with which to plan such things, not this time. 
This time, the process was: 'find cheap flights to somewhere interesting.' Germany featured consistently among the cheapest destinations and then thoughts immediately went along the lines of 'can we get to Bamberg?' Flying into Leipzig made Bamberg accessible via train.

So what's so special about Bamberg you may ask? For such a small town (population about 70,000)it has an unusually high concentration of breweries and unlike most German regions they produce a wide variety of different beer styles.
It also happens to be one of the prettiest places you're ever likely to visit. UNESCO have declared the city centre a world heritage site due to the high concentration of medieval and rococo architecture.

The old town hall.

The unfiltered Pilsner from Bayerischer Bahnhof, Leipzig.
First on the itinerary however was Leipzig, a city with a rich culture of music and arts  but also overshadowed by the destruction of World War II and the associated GDR and Stasi oppression that followed. As you may have realised by now, this post is mostly about beer and Leipzig is home to a little known regional speciality called Gose. 

There are only two places in the city that brew Gose which is a pale wheat beer flavoured with coriander and salt. The best interpretation can be found at the Bayerischer Bahnhof; a brewpub attached to one of the town's railway terminals. Their Gose was intensely citrussy and had a lovely complementary tang from the added salt. They make four beers on site including perhaps the best wheat beer I've ever had. The highlight for me was their unfiltered pilsner which was incredibly aromatic and relatively low in carbonation which helped bring out the herbal, lemony aromas and flavours further. 

On stepping off the train in Bamberg, the first thing we noticed was the sweet, malty aroma that permeates the town from the nearby Weyermann maltings. It soon becomes obvious that this is a town with serious brewing heritage.

I found these growing outside our lodgings.
With the aroma of malt in the air combined with crushed green hops in hand we finally went off in search of some beer. 

First stop was Cafe Abseits, a modest beer cafe near the station. After a short glance through the impressive beer menu I was surprised to find those three letters: I, P and A. Not something I was expecting to find in Germany. Braumanufaktur Hertl's IPA (7%), deep copper in colour with aromas of resinous pine, orange peel and tropical fruit. On tasting it delivered more citrus fruits backed up with robust bitterness and a slight sour finish.

Now it was time to head into the city centre that I'd heard so much about and seen so many pictures of. After crossing a few bridges, streets began to narrow and paving slabs turned to cobblestones and beautiful wooden framed buildings closed in to give an immediate (if somewhat disorientating) sense of history.

A view from one of Bamberg's many bridges.

Since we were visiting on a Sunday we found a few places were closed, so next on the list was Schlenkerla. When talking about beer from Bamberg, Rauchbier is usually the first thing that gets mentioned. Literally meaning 'smokebeer', the malt is smoked over a beechwood fire which imparts the typically complex, smoky flavours. The most well known of all the Rauchbier producers are Schlenkerla. Battling through the crowds of tourists we ordered the Weizen- a smoked wheat beer. The aroma was typically spicy and yeasty with extra depth and a phenolic edge from the smoke. The spiciness of the wheat beer is complemented really well by the savoury smokiness, the finish is surprisingly clean aided by the carbonation. 

Onto the main event- the Märzen, perhaps the most famous of all the smoked beers. The smoky phenol aroma much more pronounced this time with smoked bacon and spices featuring. There's a nice malty depth that leans towards fruitcake on the palate backed up with more smoke and spices. I'd sampled this beer a few times before the trip but didn't recall this level of complexity. Undoubtedly, served straight from the wooden cask on top of the bar, the beer will taste different to the same beer that is bottled and shipped abroad. I'm also a big believer that context and surrounding conditions can have a big impact on how flavours and aromas are perceived.


Schlenkerla brewery tavern.
A short walk back eastwards over the river took us towards Mahr's Bräu. There's a large beer garden and homely wood paneled rooms indoors. This was perhaps my favourite place in terms of atmosphere; it seemed very traditional and unspoiled as far as I could tell. I was looking forward to trying their "U" or Ungespundet lager which is unfiltered and stored under less pressure than most. It was much maltier than I was expecting, especially after the offering from Bayerischer Bahnhof in Leipzig. Slightly herbaceous aromas with a luxuriously malty and biscuity quality on the palate.

Last stop of the day was Brauerei Spezial which, for me, captures the brilliance of Bamberg as a place to drink beer. Starting with their smoked lager which had an amazingly clean taste and lightness of body compared to the heavier Schlenkerla brews. The final beer of the night was perhaps the best of the trip. The intense aroma of Spezial's unfiltered lager was the perfect contrast to an afternoon of Rauchbier. A complex aroma full of lemon sherbet, basil and honey was followed by some spice and gentle peppery bitterness.

Nowhere else in Germany can you experience such variation in styles in one location. Rightly so, Bamberg is world famous for its smoked beers but it also has such strength in depth illustrated perfectly by Spezial's brilliant "U".

Ask for "ein Ooooh."