In Western Europe and North America breweries are opening again at a tremendous rate. There are more breweries now in the U.S. than there were before Prohibition in 1919; there are more breweries in the U.K now since about the same. Countries traditionally more focused on the vine than the bine are now tooling up and building breweries, with craft beer in healthy growth in countries such as France, Spain and Italy.
Yet until recently, over half of the World’s breweries – the World’s breweries – were in one country. You don’t need me to tell you which, I’m sure. Not only was Germany easily the most breweried nation, over 50% of those breweries were in just one State, Bavaria. And whilst we tend to associate Bavaria with Munich, the most heavily breweried part is further north, a band of rolling, rich agricultural land called Franconia. Indeed, it is said (although not officially measure or recorded) that it isn’t the Czechs who drink the most beer per head, but the Franks. It’s probably true. The region is peppered with breweries, from Nurenburg in the east to the traditional wine lands of Wurzburg in the west. From large, industrial breweries now part of national or multinational chains, to farmhouse breweries operated as co-operatives by village residents. It is a beer dreamland; the royal palace of beer. And the crown jewel is Bamberg.
I have written of Bamberg before. Go there. Even long suffering partners will not complain when they see this medieval peach of a town. If needs must, passing off visiting the numerous beer halls as essential cultural, tourist-trail immersions should be a relatively straightforward strategy. But for wine lovers, one brewery in particular may be a step too far. For Bamberg is known in particular for brewing one speciality, one style of beer utterly uncompromising in flavour. Like Lambics in Belgium, it is a style of beer that will transport you back to a distant past; of primitive brewing technologies, an age of agriculture and beer as subsistence not savouring.
The beer is rauchbier. Smoke beer. Open a bottle of rauchbier and you don’t get the aromas of malt or hops – well, not initially at least. Rather, these are the aromas of smoked meat or smoked salmon. A campfire, with damp kindling is brought to mind, woodsmoke drifting lazily through the sluggish early Autumn air. The aromas come from smoked malt, kilned most typically over beechwood, the benefit, it is generally believed, was to enhance the keeping qualities of the beer but more likely, it was a taste acquired when many foods were preserved with smoke. A natural partner: spicy, smoked German sausage, or deliciously oily smoked eel perhaps, washed down with a rauchbier.
These are not beers for the faint-hearted. Once, in a bar in Leith – the Pond – I spotted a bottle of Bamberg’s most famous rauchbier from the Heller brewery in the fridge. I ordered a bottle and let an inquisitive colleague stick his nose in. He recoiled, aghast: “Peperami!” he spat. “You can’t drink that!”.
That was the beer I first encountered in Bamberg many years ago. It wasn’t a chance encounter – we, my brother and I, went in search of it. The Heller Brewery is tiny in global terms, but big in the town. It’s the bar against which other rauchbiers are measured and their bar serves rauchbier in large measures. The brewery itself has a wonderful tap & restaurant, with dishes paired to go with their beer. And that beer is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier. Genuine Schlenkerla smoke beer. It is baroque. No, medieval is better – even the bottle label seems smoked stained. The typography is illegibly Germanic. The bottle shape, chunky, straightforward, utilitarian. Everything about it says ‘what is inside is important’. Yet there are surprises. For such a full-on flavour fest, this is a lagered beer. Not, obviously in the Bavarian helles style, this is a dunkel lager – a stronger Märzen in fact. And as it proclaims on the label: “Dem Bayerische Reinheitsgebot entsprechend gebrautes” This is a beer authentically brewed according to the Bavarian Purity Law – no funny business to deliver that smoky flavour; just malt, hops and water. And all this makes sense. Because Schlenkerla drinks counter-intuitively. Everything about the bottle says heavy, intense, challenging. The aroma on opening the bottle and pouring the beer strengthens this views; the first sip taking it further.
Yet wait. Go beyond what your mind is telling you and drink. Breathe. For a powerful beer, this isn’t overpowering. The smoke is mainly in the head, captured in the cells between the bubbles. The liquid is softer; a digestive-like maltiness is there, some gentle warming alcohol esters and most surprisingly, little bitterness. The flavour in fact fades quite quickly. It is a remarkably drinkable beer. More than that, it is an evocative beer. A beer that takes you back to a place. Even if you haven’t been to Bamberg, Schlenkerla takes you back in time. To steep gabled, half timbered, medieval streets maybe. And certainly, to a taste of how beer once was that we have now almost forgotten.
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014