Maik, a fire-safety expert from Stuttgart, is giving me a bit of advice. “What is this beer? You’ve ordered the wrong one!” he barks, gesturing at my squat glass mug of foam-topped, pale-golden Ungespundet. I’m a bit taken aback, to be honest. We’ve just met, at Bamberg’s Spezial inn, where customers squeeze next to each other around rustic wooden tables.
He’s not finished. Maik points to his glass, which contains Spezial’s famous Rauchbier Märzen, a dark amber lager with a gentle smoked character. “This is the beer you should have had!” he adds, with a satisfied flourish.
The worst thing about it? He’s right. Spezial’s Rauchbier (“smoked beer”) Märzen is a classic, while this Ungespundet (“unbunged,” meaning much of the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation was allowed to escape) is merely quite good. I do, however, have an excuse: I’ve had the Märzen before, and I wanted to try the Ungespundet. And that’s fine, because, whatever Maik says, trying beers is what you do in Bamberg.
This is a city of just 70,000 people but nine breweries, at the heart of a region — Franconia — where beer comes second only to God, and then only sometimes. There was even a beer war in Bamberg once. (In 1907. The brewers wanted to raise prices; the customers weren’t keen. The customers won.)
I’m here to find out why Bamberg has such a rich beer culture. It’s a good time to do it: This year, Germany is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot, a law that dictates which ingredients can be used to make beer (malt, hops, water and yeast, essentially, although the current law, updated in 1993, has a number of loopholes). Advocates say it ensures quality; a growing minority of drinkers reject that claim, insisting it’s just marketing for mediocre beer. And there’s a lot of mediocre beer in Germany these days.
Not in Bamberg, though. I arrive just before Wednesday lunchtime, and, having checked in at Spezial (a brewery, hotel and tavern rolled into one), I set out across town. It’s the start of March, and the temperature is a little above freezing — so I’m in search of warmth by the time I step inside Kachelofen, one of the Old Town’s classic taverns.
With its checkered tablecloths, ceramic mustard pots and numerous native trinkets on the walls and windowsills, Kachelofen is almost a parody of a Franconian inn. Named after the beautiful but rather obtrusive tiled ceramic heaters that are a staple of barrooms here, Kachelofen offers three draft beers, with, unusually, just one from Bamberg: Schlenkerla’s Rauchbier, which is like Spezial’s but smokier. I know it well, so — perversely, given my mission — I go instead for a Seidla (half-liter) of St. Georgen Kellerbier, which comes from the nearby town of Buttenheim.
I don’t regret it. It’s rich and honeyed, full of that unmistakable southern German grain character, with a long, almost austere bitter finish. Served alongside a not-for-the-fainthearted classic of German country cooking — Fränkisches Bauernpfännla, or Franconian Farmer’s Pan, composed of liver sausage, liver dumplings, roast pork, sauerkraut and fried potatoes — it’s just the job ahead of an afternoon of exploring.
Reinforced, I waddle off in search of the 13th-century Bamberg Cathedral, which is less than 10 minutes away on Domberg (“Cathedral Hill”), one of seven hills in the city. This Roman Catholic cathedral’s four spires — one currently encased in scaffolding — tower over Bamberg, so it’s an easy task. It’s starting to rain by the time I arrive, so I hurry inside.
I walk slowly toward the altar, almost missing the vivid Bamberg Horseman, a statue created around 1235, which depicts an unknown young noble on horseback. I sit down to take it in. It’s a mighty structure, which reflects the huge role the Catholic faith has played in this city’s history. You simply can’t avoid faith here: There are shrines and wayside crosses all over town. Franconia is a region with both Catholic and Protestant traditions, and Bamberg is very Catholic.
Outside, it has stopped raining — good news for me, as I’ve got a meeting scheduled on the other side of town. I’m going to meet Gerhard Schoolman, the co-owner of a bar called Cafe Abseits, reputedly one of the best places to try Franconian country beer in Bamberg. It doesn’t disappoint. I order a glass of Gänstaller Bräu’s Zoigl, brewed about 10 miles to the south in Schnaid. It’s soft and alluring, with an orange-peel aroma and a growing bitterness in the mouth. Like all the best Franconian beers, it’s extremely easy to drink.
Why, I ask Gerhard, is Bamberg such a great beer town? “Perhaps it’s geographical,” he says. “We have special mountains with sandstone, where you can chill the beer, and we have many small rivers and lakes for ice. We have an area where we grow barley and, before the First World War, we also had a large area where hops were grown.” He thinks for a moment. “I don’t know why we have so many breweries — it’s a miracle, maybe!”
There’s that religion again. After chatting to Gerhard for an hour or so, I wander back to Spezial for a rest. It’s a good place to consider the history of Bamberg brewing, as Obere Königstrasse, where you’ll find Spezial, boasted 22 breweries-cum-inns in 1817. It was part of the main route from Berlin to Italy. Now it isn’t, and there are just two. (Fässla, opposite Spezial, is the other.)
The evening is spent at a few of Bamberg’s inns. Fässla is livelier than Spezial, with a central alleyway where locals gather for cheaper beer and, so the story goes, in order to say that they haven’t been to the pub because they didn’t go inside. Upriver, at Keesmann, the atmosphere is calmer but the Pils equally good; it’s no wonder this herbal, lemony drop is regarded as one of Germany’s best Pilsners. A few yards away is Mahr’s, where I have dinner: Schäuferla, slow-roasted pork shoulder, with a Seidla of Mahr’s Ungespundet, called just “U.”
The brewpubs don’t differ hugely in aesthetic terms — a pair of antlers on the wall here, aging hops there, plenty of dark wood and country-style furniture everywhere — but individuality isn’t the key. Crucially, they share the conviviality that marks a great place to drink. While I’m at Mahr’s, a man comes in and knocks on the table to greet his friends. It’s a local custom that sums up the cozy charm of Bamberg’s pubs.
The next morning, I go in search of views at Altenburg castle, which sits at the top of the city’s biggest hill. I wander through the city center, stopping to watch some squabbling ducks on the millpond-like Ludwig-Donau-Main Canal before I cross the Regnitz river, white-foamed and rushing as if angry at having been forced to take so many twists and turns through Bamberg. It flows in two arms here, separating the eastern plain from the island city (made up of one large and a number of small islands in the heart of Bamberg), and that from the hill town to the west.
I spot a truck from Buttenheim’s Löwenbräu brewery carefully negotiating the medieval streets while a Deutsche Post employee, clad in yellow and blue, parks her bicycle (this is a city of bikes as well as beer) and wanders off to deliver a parcel. I stop to take a look at the improbably shaped Altes Rathaus (the old town hall, originally built around 1467), which sits on an island with a half-timbered section that juts out over the river. The story goes that the bishop of Bamberg refused to provide land for a town hall, so the locals made an island for it. Whether that’s true or not, the Altes Rathaus is a remarkable structure, with baroque and rococo touches — including painted walls — that are just the right side of gilding the lily.
It’s another 40 minutes’ walk before I reach Altenburg castle, on the cusp of open country. A final forested climb, with birds singing and the last remnants of snow lying on the ground, and I’m there. As expected, the view is fantastic. Beyond the canopy of trees, there are Bamberg’s red-tiled rooftops, with spires here and there, and farther afield, the hills of Franconian Switzerland. On the other side, there’s pure green: the rolling hills of Franconia.
A walk like that creates a thirst, so I hurry down the hill to Schlenkerla’s tavern on Dominikanerstrasse, close to the river. Inside, there’s a choice of rooms: To my left, the Alte Lokal looks pretty full, so I turn right into the Dominikanerklause, a space that owes its ecclesiastical atmosphere to the fact that it used to be the house chapel of the Dominican monastery on this site.
The religious aspect extends into my choice of drink: Fastenbier. Available only between Ash Wednesday and Easter and served from a wooden barrel, it’s a cloudy, dark red lager, with huge smoke character and plenty of noble hop bitterness. It’s so good that it doesn’t take me long to need another one as an accompaniment to a plate of bratwurst and delicious Bamberg potatoes. I gesture at the bearlike chap manning the barrel at the other end of the room. “Fasten?” he asks. I nod.
There’s one final place I want to visit in Bamberg, purely because I’m amazed that it exists: the Weyermann Fan Shop. Weyermann is a malt producer — a very good malt producer, it’s true, that sends its specialty products around the world, but still, just a malt producer. It amazes me that there’s a “fan shop,” so I head up there in the afternoon.
Opened last year, it demonstrates how this traditional brewing town is beginning to tangle with modernity. You can buy Weyermann’s own beers here (some call it Bamberg’s 10th brewery), plus beers from breweries around the world that use its malt: Rogue, Flying Dog, Kona and Anchor, to name a few. There’s a framed copy of the Reinheitsgebot (for $50) or, if you prefer, a bottle of Weyermann’s Licorice Porter (which is non-compliant, because of the licorice). There’s also a whiskey distillery in one corner of the room. As I’m peering at it, Gregor Alic, who works for Weyermann, comes over to talk.
He turns out to be a mine of information. Although Slovenian himself, he knows the Franconians well enough. “They’re very aware of their heritage,” he tells me. “They’re stubborn people; although this is a part of Bavaria, they wouldn’t consider themselves Bavarian. They’re still angry with Napoleon for giving Franconia to Bavaria in 1807!”
Stubborn, religious, blessed by geography: It’s becoming clear why Bambergers have such wonderful beer. But perhaps there’s another reason. “Look at those old guys,” Maik says as we chat on my final evening in the city. He’s pointing at a group of friends playing cards in the corner of Spezial’s dining room, each with a glass of Märzen. “They’re 100 years old! This beer is that healthy!” His estimate of their age might be a bit off — they look to be in their 60s — but otherwise, he might be right again. A beer culture this rich is good for the soul.
Hawkes is a London-based freelancer and the author of “Craft Beer London.”
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10 Obere Königstrasse
With a pub downstairs and a brewery out back, this is a beer lover’s paradise. The convivial tavern below is not to be missed. Rooms are clean and simple; a double with a shower, a toilet and breakfast is $95 a night, but cheaper if you stay longer.
Welcome Hotel Residenzschloss Bamberg
32 Untere Sandstrasse
A short walk downriver from the city center, this four-star hotel offers two restaurants, a spa and even a baroque chapel. Double economy rooms from $105.
1 Obere Sandstrasse
The aroma of pork and sauerkraut as you walk through the door is a good sign of what to expect here: hearty German cooking and beer, essentially. A huge Fränkisches Bauernpfännla is $10.50, and a half-liter of Kellerbier is $3.55. Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Under chef Karl-Heinz Katzenberger, Mahr’s has become known for the quality of its food, but don’t expect anything unusual. It’s classic Franconian stuff: Schäuferla, or slow-roasted pork shoulder, is $12.20, while a half-liter of Ungespundet is $2.90. Open 9 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Very popular in the summer, but worth visiting at any time of the year. Bratwurst and superb local boiled potatoes are $8.60, and a half-liter of Fastenbier — when it’s available — is $3.45. Open 9:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. daily.
39 Pödeldorfer StrasseStraße
On the other side of the Bamberg railway station, this neighborhood bar is a good place to get a taste of Franconian beer brewed outside Bamberg. A half-liter of Gänstaller’s Zoigl costs $3.50. Open 9 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-12:30 a.m., except Sunday (9 a.m.-11:30 p.m.).
9 Lange Strasse
A gentle air of contentment pervades Das Beckstein, a simply decorated cafe, in mid-afternoon. Drop in for a pot of filter coffee ($3.20) and a piece of apple strudel ($4.40). Der Beckstein, a bakery, is next door. Open 8 a.m.-6 p.m., except Sunday.
Franconian Brewery Museum
This quirky place will give you insight into Franconia’s beer obsession, with plenty of elderly brewing equipment to inspect. Open April-October, Wednesday-Friday from 1-5 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday and public holidays from 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Weyermann Fan Shop
Stock up on Weyermann beers, beers brewed with Weyermann malt or trinkets emblazoned with the company’s memorable red-and-yellow logo. Tours of the maltings take place every Wednesday at 2 p.m.; group tours at other times by arrangement. Open Monday-Thursday 1-6 p.m., Friday 10 a.m.-noon and 1-6 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
This remarkable building towers above the city and contains — among other treasures — the only papal grave north of the Alps as well as the Bamberg Horseman, a life-size sculpture. Thrice-daily guided tours (10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.) are $4.40. Open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, no visits or tours on Sunday morning.
The book “Bamberg & Franconia: Germany’s Brewing Heartland,” by John Conen, is an excellent guide to the city’s beer scene.