Lager, Part 8: Frankenbier

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!”.

IMG_1316IMG_1317That 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



Lager, Part 7: The Dark Side

A long time ago, in a brewing region far, far away… a shadowy, cobweb filled, ancient brewhouse. Thick oak beams, knicked and pocked by the barrel hoops, rivets and clevises of time.  A guttering, rasping sound disturbs the peace, as two beers struggle for supremacy in an imaginary fight to the death; one magnificently dark, white crowned, resplendently attired in an oak-staved, bulging and lidded wooden stein: Dunkel Vader. He towers imperiously over a smaller, golden lagered beer, shimmering as a diaphanous, dust-speckled shaft of light struggles to peak through an upper window: Blondwalker.  Spiders, undisturbed for many a year, scuttle away, dancing fearfully in quickstep on pin-point feet along the wooden beams into the rafters. Wild, airborne yeasts disturbed, use the gentle thermals to waftily escape through slatted brewery vents. Dunkel Vader speaks. ‘It is useless to resist. Don’t let yourself be destroyed as pale ale did!’    His tones are deliberate now, malevolent. ‘You do not realise your potential…join me and we will end this destructive conflict and bring order to the beeriverse’.

Stooping low, quivering on the edge of falling, Blondwalker musters all his defiance: ‘I’ll never join you!’
But the dark beer looms larger now, pushing his foe closer to the brink: ‘If only you knew the power of the dark side.  Your brew master did not tell you everything about your father.’  Blondwalker spat in retort, ‘He told me enough! He told me you killed him!’

‘No!’ rasped the dark beer furiously, ‘No!  I am your father, I am the original lagered beer…!’

Prague, Bohemia. 1992.  The return leg of a spoon shaped journey through Germany, across the black-forested borderlands to Prague; then down to Bavaria – Passau, Munich, Regensburg – and back round and up, to half-timbered, medieval Bamberg, before heading back home along the spoon handle to Calais and Blighty beyond.  For my brother and I it was a journey inspired by the Michael Jackson’s television series, to discover our own beers, and guided by the Beer Hunter’s pocket sized ‘International Beer Guide’.  We knew of course that many had trodden this path before, but that didn’t lessen the journey; didn’t erode our sense of adventure; didn’t end the hope of finding virgin territory. 

Great beer was the goal of that trip: and proper, lagered beer was the supreme discovery* – not what we were accustomed to at home  – but a family of beers as broad and at times as shocking in flavour, as varied in texture, as distinct in appearance and strength as were the ales of the British Isles.

U Fleku


Back then, discovering that the first lagered beers were dark was a revelation.  That they preceded, sired, what we now know as pale lager seemed unimaginable. But dark they were, these dunkel beers.  In Prague, we drank in U Fleků, where then, as now, only one beer was sold: Tmavý Ležák. A lagered beer, but one as dark as liquorice with a tea-stain white head poured directly from a bulging copper vat above the bar, itself fed straight from the brewery above it. We supped it down with a thick, oniony goulash and ever-expanding dumplings in a dark-wood lined room, as dark indeed as the beer we drank. We became impervious to the cold outside.


Augustinerbrau Dunkel
Augustinerbrau Dunkel

Munich, West Germany, 1992. Days later, in the Bavarian capital, we drank early morning in the stone vaulted Augustiner Hof a crisp, beautifully structured helles and a beguiling dark lager – a dunkel bier.  Not black like stout; rather, if held up to the light it was brown like rye bread, softening to the edges and topped with a contrasting white head, deep, thick, pillowy.  We drank it with Weisswurst, delicate, steamed veal sausages, but the dunkel bier did not overpower or spoil; rather it contrasted, chaperoned, augmented.

Bamberg, Franconia, 1992. Further north, in the legendary land of the Franks, we stayed in Bamberg in a beautiful gasthof near to the river. We walked up to the square-setted market place and dived unwittingly pell-mell into the maze of snickets tracing the ancient town plan.  In the end, Klosterbräu found us: a lovely wood-lined snug and a fug of conversations from hundreds of years lining the ceiling.

klosterbrau schwarzla
klosterbrau schwarzla

We drank beers; the Schwärzla another dark, lagered beer, blacker now as you’d expect from its name, but no astringency or bite that you might presume from a dark beer; no fight; just a soft yet rewarding crispness and enveloping, savouring, mouthfeel.  Later that day we allowed our taste buds to be assaulted at the Heller brewery – brewers of rauchbier. Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier is sensory overload with smoked sausage, wood fires and a nip of burnt beer flavour, but a dark lager all the same, just containing a proportion of smoked malt in the grist bill.

Lord John Russell, Marchmont Street, London, 6th July 2006. A sighting so rare, twitchers began to descend on the place. A Czech dark lager, on tap: Budweiser Budvar Dark or Tmavý Ležák. I remember it as rich, complex, yet by now unsurprisingly moreish. IMG_0876Years later I buy a bottle to rekindle that day: a coffee cake head with tight bubbles protecting a molasses brown beer with a soft, rounded mouthfeel and a clear espresso character, both in aroma and taste.  A spirited but tight carbonation revealing the truth – that this, despite the darkness is a lagered beer. Moments later we celebrated with strangers as London won its Olympic bid. The day after, we mourned.

Today.   Despite the lineage, where today are the original lagers? Occasional dark lagers grace our shelves, only to be revealed as caramel emboldened imposters.  Few, true dark lagered beers make it to our shores; few true, dark lagered beers are being brewed in our craft beer revival.  Is it an expectation of a challenging taste? Is it an expectation of chewy texture and lack of refreshment?  Are dark lagers simply too counter-intuitive for today’s sensibilities?  Whatever the reason, the truth is that out of the dark came the light.  And it’s time to embrace our dark sides again.

* Being pedantic is important on this topic: see

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014