"It's like liquid ham!" proudly proclaims the literature from the Bamberg tourist board. It may sound better in the original German, but this is not the way an American town would promote its specialty beer. Then again, one quick look around town, and you'll know you're not in America. Bamberg is a thousand year old city that has seen periods of fabulous wealth. And Bambergers are justifiably proud of both their city and their unique contribution to the world of brewing -- Smoked Beer.
If you've never experienced the smoky fullness of a Rauchbier, have your first one in a pint sized pub glass. There's nothing wrong with drinking it from a half liter ceramic mug from Bavaria (and in Bamberg you're just as likely to get one as the other), but for your first time, drink it from a glass. This way you can enjoy its dark coppery red color. You can watch the dense head of foam, in all its brownish glory, float like a cloud on top of your beer before it slowly settles and dissipates. Make sure you inhale the heavy smoky aroma before taking your first sip. That sip may give you such a rush of sensation that you never get beyond the smoke. But if you've prepared yourself, the lingering sweet taste on your palate, the crisp, acidy finish on the tip of your tongue, and the solid feel of the beer will send you back to the glass to sample more. And by the time you get half way through your first glass, you're likely to be hooked on this delightfully complex beer forever.
Then again, maybe not. If you don't get all of this from your first Rauchbier, don't despair. Even natives of Bamberg say it takes a while to develop the taste. An older gentleman sitting in an outdoor cafe in a monastery courtyard, overlooking the city's red tile roofs, said that even after years of drinking it, he doesn't always like Rauchbier.
"The first one? No. The second one? No. But the third. . . ." And then he smiled a wide toothy grin.
Bamberg was once the seat of power of the Holy Roman Empire. A majestic gothic cathedral sits prominently atop one of seven hills that make up the city. Between hills, the city's narrow streets and cobblestone alleys have a medieval feel, while the façades of the buildings are showy with ornamental baroque designs. The Regnitz River flows through the center of the city and town hall is awkwardly perched in the center of a bridge. It looks like the river might sweep it into the district known as "Little Venice."
Though no longer the center of any empire, Bamberg remains an important city in the world of beer. It's difficult to get a precise count, but approximately half of Germany's thirteen hundred breweries are located in Bavaria, a state that stretches south from the center of the country, to include Munich and the Alps. Franconia is a small northern region of Bavaria known for both wine and beer. It has three hundred of Bavaria's breweries, and nearly one hundred of those ring the city of Bamberg. Nine of them are within the city limits. What this all boils down to is that tiny little Bamberg, a city of only seventy thousand people (smaller than either Sioux City, Iowa, or Boulder, Colorado), a city that was neither large enough nor important enough for allied bombing during World War II (a rare thing in Germany), boasts more breweries per citizen than any in the world.
Two of the breweries within the city limits make Rauchbier. The most famous is the Heller Brewery, which makes Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier. It's a bottom fermenting Märzenbier, which they brew year round. A lesser-known brewery, with equally interesting beer, is Zum Spezial. Here they brew both a lighter lager and a Märzenbier. The lager provides just a hint of the smoke flavor. For the less adventuresome, it might provide training wheels while acquiring a taste for Rauchbier. Even Spezial's Märzenbier, though, is not nearly as smoky as that of Heller.
They've been brewing Rauchbier at the Heller brewery since 1678, but the Schlenkerla name is relatively new. It only dates back to 1877. It's said that the owner of the brewery would swing his arms wildly when he walked. His gait was so exaggerated, in fact, that he looked like he had a keg of beer rolling between his legs. In German the word for this flailing of the arms is Schlenker, hence the name Schlenkerla. This man is depicted on their label as a slightly off-balance, amiable drunk clutching a cane in one hand and an overflowing beer mug in the other.
Five generations later, German Trum is the head of the Heller Brewery. The great great grandson of the Schlenkerla is a tall thin man with good posture and an ordinary gait. He confesses to drinking Rauchbier at any time of the day, but never too much at once.
How did such a unique beer come about? Did the brewmaster (as Martin Mull has suggested in the old Michelob Dark commercials) burn it? A little mishap down at the brewery?
Trum says that there are many stories, but he clings to tradition. Smoke beer is simply the original way of making beer. More precisely, it is the original way that barley was converted to malt. We know that the ancient Sumerians brewed beer at least 4,000 years ago, and the first maltings were probably sun powered. Then, along the path of civilization, people started using wood fired ovens. A common method was the drying of the malt on a wooden screen suspended well above the fire and enclosed in an oven. Smoke penetrated the husk, while the heat dried out the grain and converted the starch into sugar. This was true to a greater degree if the malt was not only dried, but also roasted, as is necessary to make a darker beer.
Trum said that most Bavarian brewers made beer this way. Over time, as ovens and fuels changed, brewers were able to dry and roast their malt without the smoky flavor. Eventually, smoky beers could not compete and nearly every brewer converted to the cleaner methods.
But not all. Why didn't the Heller Brewery change over? "Tradition," insists Trum. "It is possible they didn't have the money to upgrade, but I like to think it was tradition."
This sense of tradition is the key to their marketing. The Schlenkerla label is printed in medieval script on paper that is made to look like parchment. Even the word Aecht in the name is an archaic form of the German word meaning "Original."
Schlenkerla Rauchbier begins its life in the barley fields of Franconia, a heavily agricultural area. The hops come from further south, the famed Bavarian Hallertau hops. These are strictly for bittering, the smoky malt dominates both the palate and the nose of the beer. The smoke, of course, is neither accidental nor incidental to the malting process.
The Heller brewery uses beechwood from nearby forests. They carefully control the level of smoke absorbed into the malt by alternating periods of intense smokiness with periods of clean hot air. The total roasting time is twenty-four hours. Then the smoked malt, and only smoked malt, is used in the mash.
Money for an upgrade isn't an issue anymore. A state-of-the-art computer carefully controls the brewing process with oversight from Gunther Baer, the brewmaster. After brewing, the beer is lagered in the basement for six to eight weeks and allowed to mature. Finally, beer is bottled and put into kegs for shipment and consumption. Although some of the beer is exported, most of the beer is consumed in Franconia.
People come to Bamberg from all over Germany just to drink Rauchbier and eat the Franconian cuisine. Typical of this style is the Bamberger Zwiebel, a large onion hollowed out, stuffed with ground pork, and topped with a slice of smoked ham. A delightful compliment for Rauchbier.
There are plenty of bars, taverns, and restaurants to choose from. Zum Spezial has both a tavern attached to its brewery as well as an outdoor beer garden up on one of the hills.
The Schlenkerla restaurant is in the old part of town. It's housed in a characteristic half-timbered Bavarian house with brown wooden beams and white painted plaster. Red geraniums overflow the window boxes, which are framed by green shutters. Inside, patrons sit at long communal tables. Dark wood paneling is shoulder high all around the room, and the antlers from local game decorate the walls.
The waitress draws the beer from an old brass spout in a handmade wooden keg. When she sets your first Rauchbier down at the white scrubbed wood table, enjoy the sight and the smell of it. Lift your glass and say, "Prost!" to your friends and neighbors. Then take a step back in time as this ancient smoky beer both stimulates your senses and soothes your palate.