The first time I ever drank a rauchbier, I admit it wasn’t a pretty experience.
A group of guys getting together to watch a Champions League match. The host, an Untappd fanatic like myself, displays a selection of new beers to try. One of the them has that appealing Gothic font which just screams out history in a bottle. I am already anticipating the cold fizzy bitter liquid slaking the beer lust accumulated throughout a busy day at work. The bottle looks simply guzzle-worthy.
Then the sound of the bottle cap being removed. The beer is handed to me and I bring it to my lips. I am reminded of my blog’s super catchy slogan It’s not just a beer. It’s a journey. I drink…
How do I describe it?
Everyone has been to a barbecue. Not the gas grill kind, but the kind with charcoal. Imagine glowing hot charcoal. Now imagine that juicy porkchops were cooked on that grill and the grease dripped all over the charcoal. After the porkchops have been grilled, you ask for a beer. The imaginary host seems to ignore you and decides to quickly quench the glowing coals and pours ice cold water over them. Not all of the water sizzles off into a steamy vapor. The surviving liquid drains thru the greasy charcoal into a glass. The host hands you the glass and says Here’s your beer. That is what drinking your first rauchbier is like.
Rauchbier is German for smoked beer. It has a distinctive smoky flavor which comes from malted barley that has been dried over burning beechwood. The first time I tried it, as you can guess, I was not impressed. But I was intrigued by the bottle enough to seek out the origin of this concoction. I would come to find out that in this brewtifulworld of ours, only one city exists at the epicenter of this beer style.
The following Christmas season when I was narrowing down my candidates for a German Christmas Market holiday with my daughter, Bamberg made the final cut and I would have the chance to see for myself if my initial impression was wrong about rauchbier. That visit only gave me a small glimpse into the potential of Bamberg as a bonafide beer pilgrimage city. Then this past May, I joined up with my fellow Untappd fanatic friend and his dad to embark on a weekend devoted to the Bamberg beer culture. Would drinking a rauchbier in its home city change my feelings towards this enigmatic beer?
The city of Bamberg has nine breweries in the city center. You can pick up a handy brewery map at the Tourist Office. Unfortunately I must have beat it up pretty bad because I didn’t save a copy to post the actual map here (see below image for the map cover). Nor can I find it on the internet. If you have the stamina and liver to do all nine in one day, all the more power to you. With my friend and his dad, we did five and I can highly recommend these and ensure you it is a full, fun, and intoxicating day.
Be Politically Correct
Bamberg is located in the Upper Franconian region of Bavaria. However, do not refer to the people as Bavarians. Upper Franconia has the highest density of breweries per population of any place in the entire brewtifulworld. Perhaps for that reason or perhaps for more political reasons, the people of Upper Franconia ‘identify’ as being Oberfranken rather than Bavarian. I didn’t test the advice I received from my German friend by yelling out “Hey Bavarian!” to see what happened. Rather I chose to take the high path on this issue.
Where to Stay
To maximize the beer experience, stay at one of the breweries. Brauerei Fässla is a great place to stay. The room was comfortable, there is a nice second floor terrace overlooking the courtyard and of course you have the brewery and restaurant right below your feet.
The Beer Route
Below is a general representation of the overall walk between the five selected breweries. This route also conveniently goes by the best beer shop in the city, takes you through the main squares in the city center (great if you are combining with the Christmas Market season) and over the small island with Bamberg’s most famous landmark, the Altes Rathaus. Of course, this route is not including all the great sites of the city. But by the 3rd brewery, you won’t care anymore.
Rather than start the drinking in Brauerei Fässla, we left our hotel and the first stop on the route was literally right across the street.
While rauchbier is the type of beer Bamberg is famous for, actually only two of the breweries specialize in this type of beer. One of those is Spezial. Maybe it was the long drive that morning or maybe it was the old Franconian inn atmosphere or just being with friends on holiday, but sipping that rauchbier was a completely different experience than what occurred that fateful day in my friend’s apartment. Probably it was all of the above, and yes while the smoky, even bacony, taste is still something to get used to, it totally felt right at that moment. So did the hearty meal of pork and potatoes. That was just the start.
This is the best place in the city (that I discovered) for buying local and imported craft beer. This was perfect timing to pick up the bottle I wanted for the featured picture for this blog post.
After strolling thru Bamberg’s main squares, Grüner Markt and Maximiliansplatz, I reached my targeted photo opportunity, the Altes Rathaus. Obviously not a brewery but a perfect backdrop for a beer picture.
The legend goes that the Bishop of Bamberg refused to sell land to the citizens of the city to build a city hall, so they drove tree trunks into the river bed and created an artificial island. The construction began at the end of the 14th century.
This is the most famous of the smoked beers. The full name Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier means Original Schlenkerla Smoked Beer. The brewery is in its sixth generation and is just around the corner from the Altes Rathaus. If the street in front of the main entrance is crowded with tourists, on nice days just duck into the passageway a few meters from the main entrance and it will lead you to an enclosed courtyard where the biergarten is located.
So what about the Schlenkerla rauchbier? This from the brochure and coasters at the brewery:
Even if the brew tastes somewhat strange at the first swallow, do not stop, because soon you will realize that your thirst will not decrease and your pleasure will visibly increase.
That is an interesting way of looking at it. Even after a few beers, it is definitely still a strange taste. But on a warm May day sitting outside in the biergarten of the brewery with friends, it was the best rauchbier ever.
The word schlenkerla refers to the act of walking in a drunken way in the Franconian dialect. Although why this name was chosen for the brewery is unknown but the story is that one of the former brewers had a funny way of walking and the nickname the townspeople gave him became linked to the brewery. And the rest is (sort of) history.
When I decided to choose which of the breweries I liked best, it didn’t take me long to choose this one. It is located a little away from the main touristic center of the city in an old neighborhood. The biergarten is behind the building along the river. On a nice day, it is great place to sit and enjoy the atmosphere.
Klosterbräu does not have a rauchbier but a kellerbier. And what a kellerbier! Kellerbier is an unfiltered, unpasteurized beer which is meant to be drank fresh. It tasted like it came right from the tank. This was my favorite beer of the day.
Leaving this brewery, you will walk across the quaint Obere Mühlbrücke.
After the long walk from Klosterbräu, Mahr’s was a nice, shady biergarten surrounded by colorful buildings to relax for the late afternoon. They also serve a delicious kellerbier.
After four breweries, it was time to head back to the hotel to enjoy the fifth brewery, another great kellerbier, and a nice dinner.
Bamberg’s Weihnachtsmarkt does not match up to the more luxurious ones of Dresden and Nuremburg, so if you are planning specifically for dynamic Christmas Markets, you can avoid Bamberg. Come for the beer and the beauty of the city, one hundred percent. But for Christmas Markets alone, there are better options. However, you can never go wrong with being in any lovely German city at Christmastime. After several beers, a spicy Glühwein is a nice change of pace.
I am fairly certain that outside of Bamberg, I will never crave a Rauchbier. It is really a beer that must absolutely be enjoyed in the atmosphere of its mother city. Bamberg is a gorgeous city with much more to see than what I have shown here and because of that, I am sure I will be tempted to return. Although the beer will certainly still draw my attention, I hope to connect with the rest of what Bamberg has to offer. For sure, it is one of the world’s great beer pilgrimage cities.