The heart of German bier-land
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 19, 2005
By Cold, Hard Football Facts sud stud Lew Bryson
Germans are a pretty staid bunch. Their oft-noted propensity for militarism – which not even the 30 Years War scared out of them – seems to have been sublimated into bureaucratically dominating the European Union, for the time being. Nowadays, a German's idea of a wild time is ringing a big cowbell at a skiing event and having a pilsner instead of his usual wheat beer. If he's really feeling free, he might tell a Belgian joke.
In Bavaria, the big southern chunk of Germany stuffed up against the Alps and centered on Munich, folks are a bit looser. They take life a little easier, they wear louder clothing, they do the whole Oktoberfest thing, and their women wear tighter leather. Oh, yes, they do. They also drink a lot more: folks in the area between Munich and Prague in the Czech Republic drink more beer per capita than people anywhere else on earth.
But you have to go a bit north of Munich to find Germans who are truly wild and crazy. Bavaria knows it's a little better than the rest of Germany, but the unofficial "state" of Franconia knows it's a little better than the rest of Bavaria. Speaking as a guy who loves beer in all its wonderful forms, I gotta go with them. Franconia is the place to be if you want beers. Germany is one of the legendary homes of beer, Bavaria is where Germans look for beer, and Franconia has almost as many breweries as the rest of Bavaria put together.
That's nearly 300 breweries in Franconia (check out www.franconiabeerguide.com). I just spent a day and a night in Bamberg, the beer-heart of the area, a town of 70,000 souls and 10 breweries. Some of the beer is so-so, but some of it is just nuts. The city itself is simply beautiful, a great old medieval town. (The picture here is of Bamberg's gorgeous Altes Rathaus, or old city hall, which hangs precariously from a bridge in the middle of the Regnitz River.)
Bamberg is where they make the famous rauchbier, or "smoke beer." The malt to make the beer is smoked over hand-laid and tended beechwood fires, much like the malt for smoky Scotch whisky is smoked over smoldering peat. But instead of the iodine and fish-guts aroma of peat, the beechwood smoke gives the beer a flavor and aroma like the best damned double-smoked bacon you ever had, like a seriously smoked set of ribs. It's fantastic for that kind of food, a smoky afterburner to intensify grilled or smoked meats. I dropped anchor at the brewery restaurant for the Schlenkerla Brewery and had a big willibecker glass (here's what one looks like) full of their smoked bock with a signature dish, the Bamberg Onion: a roasted onion, stuffed with ground pork and capped with a 1/4-inch slab of double-smoked bacon. Screaming man food – and the beer roared right with it. (Schlenkerla rauchbier is also an essential ingredient in our smoky venison chili.)
By the way, Schlenkerla isn't really the name of the brewery. It's just the nickname everyone in town knows it by, the name on the restaurant, the name on the labels. It's actually the Trum Brewery, and Matthias Trum runs things, as his family has for six generations (the brewery goes back even further, to the 15th century). "Schlenkerla" was his lame great-great-grandfather's nickname, and it means, in local slang ... "Arm-swinger" or "Stumbler." Beautifully politically incorrect for a brewery name, ain't it? (That's a picture of the sign that hangs outside the Schlenkerla pub. If you look close enough, you might be able to see the image of a guy who looks like he's stumbling around with a beer in his hand. And, yes, that is a Star of David in the top left corner. It's the symbol of the brewing trade in Bavaria.)
I was with a bunch of other beer writers, and we descended on Spezial, another rauchbier brewery. The smoke is not as intense in Spezial, but that just made it easier to ram it down your throat – sweet mild pulled pork instead of wicked smoky jerky. We all snagged bottles of Spezial's Lager to go with the cloth market bags (these German bags look poofy but are stronger than freakin' steel) full of Schlenkerla we'd been given.
But Bamberg's not all smoke. There's Braunbier, too. I was leaning up against a building, perusing my tourist map, when I felt a tug on my elbow. I looked down, and this 80-ish guy, looking like Uncle Joe from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, says, "You didn't knock it down in the war; don't try to push it over now!" He then cackled with laughter, in which I joined him: you just have to love a Kraut who can joke about the Mighty Eighth.
"Where do you want to go?" he demanded.
"I'm looking for beer," I told him, and for once, this goal was met only with a serious affirmative nod.
"I will send you to Klosterbräu," he says. "You must have the real Frankish braunbier!" Ten minutes later, I had my nose stuck in a mug of it, and he was right, it was the real thing. Not as dark as a dunkel, maltier than a helles, smooth and sweet, braunbier is a unique stop along the German lager continuum, a little dot out in the graph by itself.
The best thing about Franconia, though, was brought home when I met an old friend there. Nick had moved from Oregon to Erlanger, just down the road, and met me at Schlenkerla. Over the onion, he pulled out a map of the area around Bamberg, a hiking map that folded out to almost the size of a door.
He had circled each brewery with a red highlighter. The map had measles. There are breweries everywhere, some tiny farmhouse breweries run by one person, some town breweries with attached restaurants, some small production breweries with bottled specialties. But I do not believe there is a place on earth where more breweries crowd into such a small area.
If you should have a hankering to go – and you should, because German beer is very easy to love – my advice is to start in Bamberg. The city has even made it easy for you by putting together a great package – a nice backpack stuffed with beer fun, a map with two walking tours that hit five each of the city's breweries, coupons for a free beer in each of the five you pick, a glass, a booklet and a nice solid bottle opener – all for only 20 Euro. The backpack is worth more than that.
Someday, my liver and I are going to go back to Franconia and get out into the country with a map like Nick's (and a driver – German police are death on drinking and driving). And for a week, I will be one wild and crazy German.
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