A dark and smoky magic brews deep beneath the medieval town of Bamberg in Germany. It’s the kind of magic that might inspire a kind of joyous, crooked walk.
Anyone who visits this little “Rome of Germany” set on its seven hills must allow themselves to fall under this ancient spell by indulging in a glass of the traditional beer that tastes like breakfast.
Centuries ago, a Bamberg brewer with a crooked way of walking brewed a mysterious, bacon-flavoured beer. It could have been the beer, it could have been an accident that affected his walking, but he was nicknamed “Schlenkern”. This is the German expression for walking “not straight – just like a drunken person does”.
Initially, the original Schlenkerla Rauchbier tastes, dare one say, a little bizarre. But as the Schlenkerla brewers say, “Even if the brew tastes somewhat strange at the first swallow, do not stop, because soon you will realise that your thirst will not decrease and your pleasure will visibly increase.” So here we are at 10.30am, examining our bacon beer in the suitably dark and mysterious interior of the Schlenkerla tavern, run by the sixth generation of the family Trum.
The Smokebeer is a dark, aromatic, bottom-fermented beer with an alcohol content of 5.1 per cent – not too hefty, but not to be underestimated either – it can make you “schlenkler” quite a bit. Its smoky flavour is derived from exposing the malt to the intense, aromatic smoke of beechwood logs.The Schlenkerla tavern is in the middle of the old town, beneath the cathedral, in a half-timbered house bedecked with crimson summer geraniums.
The traditional German six-point brewer’s star, identical to the Star of David, hangs outside.
In twos and threes, others from our 15-day APT Magnificent Europe river cruise trickle in. We’ve had an excellent walking tour and now we’re set on sampling the beer that tastes like liquid bacon and has matured in old caves under the Stefansberg, one of Bamberg’s seven hills.
These caves are part of an extensive, 700-year-old tunnel system, perfect for beer brewing. Centuries of Schlenkerla brewers have prized these caves for their constant low temperature.
Ice was harvested from lakes and rivers, or imported from Finland and Sweden, to further cool the caves and to properly mature the “Smokebeer”. It’s been a bit of a trial ordering the beer. Not much English is spoken and beer pulled from the wooden barrel and delivered through a hatch cannot be drunk in the inner parlour, which at this relatively early hour is full of bacon beer lovers, otherwise known as onion treaders or Zweibeltreter, the Bamberger moniker.
The name derives from the centuries-old St Margareta’s Day annual market garden tradition of treading down the green tops of the onions so the juice stayed in the plants.
Anyway, these onion treaders are having a whale of a time with their Smokebeer that comes with a large head, about a quarter of the glass height, in glasses that must be properly rinsed to achieve desired foam levels.
Smokebeer newcomers are out in the hallway at heavy scrubbed wooden tables under an old timbered ceiling even darker than the beer. Smokebeer must be drunk “slowly with relish, but steadily and purposefully”. And apparently the second seidla (half-litre) will taste better than the first, the third even better than the second.
The brewery assures us that “the connoisseur drinks during the morning and during the afternoon break. He drinks it in the evenings, drinks it alone and with company, especially with company, as ‘Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier’ makes one talkative and exuberant. It brings together the local with the stranger, as it is common in Franconia to share your table with others.”
The Smokebeer is just one quaint and lovely thing about this quaint and lovely UNESCO World Heritage-listed town that, by a fortunate quirk of the weather, escaped bombing in 1945.
A cloudy day meant bombs only hit 4.5 per cent of Bamberg, (compared to 95 per cent of Nuremberg), leaving a pristine Middle Ages town, with 2500 preserved medieval, baroque, renaissance, romanesque and gothic ecclesiastical and secular buildings. Prosperous and lovely, it was both a powerful political and economic centre and the centre of southern Germany’s Enlightenment. Philosophers like Hegel and writer/composer E.T.A. Hoffman lived there.
Today it’s a lively city of about 73,000 people, including 15,000 university students, on the Regnitz River, close to its confluence with the River Main, and a popular weekend destination for Germans in Upper Franconia.
Plus it’s justly proud of its world-famous Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, formed in 1946. It also lays claim to being a city with the world’s biggest density of breweries.
Sampling the beer from just one of them will have to do, for sadly it’s time to leave beautiful Bamberg and schlenkler back to our ship, the AmaBella, for an afternoon nap.
Alison Stewart travelled as a guest of APT.
Singapore Airlines flies daily to Budapest and Amsterdam from Sydney and Melbourne. See singaporeair.com
Magnificent Europe 15-day Budapest-Amsterdam and reverse 2018 cruises cost from $7695 per person with a Fly Free deal for booking before November 30, 2017. Tours operate from March to December. See aptouring.com.au