The next morning we walk up to the enormous, stark and very beautiful cathedral. Here, at the top of one of Bamberg’s many hills, I decide that ticking off every destination on the Bamberg beer trail is not my priority. This may be one of the world’s great beer destinations, but it’s also a stunningly beautiful town, well worth a visit even for teetotallers. A relaxed look around the cathedral and the nearby Michaelsberg Abbey, taking in the views and strolling along the canal in the ‘Little Venice’ area of the city, having some nice, quiet meals together; these are all important aspects of our trip, too, and I’m glad we didn’t miss out on them in favour of rushing around every single tavern.
Not that I’m not keen to sample my fair share of local beer while I’m here, mind you. We stop at a quiet café down the street from Schlenkerla for lunch, and local breweries are served on tap here. I try Keesmann’s Herren Pils, which is a solid pilsner with a respectable bitterness. It’s very drinkable, but doesn’t knock me out. Mahr’s Ungespundet, on the other hand, does, and is perhaps one of the finest lagers I’ve ever tasted. It’s unfiltered, similar to kellerbier, and matured in an open vessel which produces little carbonation. Mine is served in a steinkrug with a beautiful head of foamy suds peeking out over the top. The first several gulps are nothing but foam, and even this is delicious, and when I get to the liquid itself I’m blown away. There’s a certain reaction I have to beers that really knock me out, whereby I tend to widen my eyes and move back from the table a little as if in disbelief – the ungespundent induces this reaction. The yeast lends a delicate hint of ripe banana, and there’s just a wisp of smoke in there, together with a massively refreshing lemon bite. Schenkerla’s rauchbier aside, this is my favourite beer of the trip, one I can’t stop thinking about now that I’m home and wish I could try again.
We’re still getting our bearings so, after lunch, we consult the map app on our phones and head out on the suggested route towards Obere Königsstraße , home to both Fassla and Spezial breweries. It’s a long and uncertain walk across something of a grey no-man’s land between the old and new sections of the city, and we have to wonder on several occasions if we can possibly be going the right way. When we eventually do arrive, Spezial is the first casualty of some very erratic opening hours in the city – it’s closed. Most of the shops are, too, although it’s Saturday, and the actual opening hours of most establishments don’t seem to match up with what’s published on their websites or on display in shop windows. Still, across the street, Fassla is open, and the man behind the serving hatch provides us with two glasses of their lagerbier. This is the kind of solid, endlessly drinkable lager I love, with comfortingly sweet malt and refreshing, citrusy hops. As we’re leaving, we realise where we are, and that the Iphone map has led us on a wild goose chase around the city in place of what could have been a very direct 20 minute walk. I mention it because, if you are visiting Bamberg, it’s probably worth having a more planned out itinerary, and examining a map more carefully before going out, than we did.
Our next stop is Klosterbrau. I’m not sure what to expect from this place – the lady who owns our apartment recommends it as the oldest and best brewery in the city, but pieces I’ve read online don’t seem to regard it as an essential stop. It’s also suspiciously quiet in comparison to the buzzing Fassla – we’re even blessed with a seat here, which is welcome, but makes me wonder if the locals don’t rate the place. I order their seasonal bock; not a style I’d profess to love, but it’s cold outside, and dark bocks work well as winter warmers. Thankfully, it also tastes great, with a depth of chocolate and liquorice flavour that is frankly astonishing.
The next morning, we return to Spezial, hoping it will be open this time. It is, but unfortunately, lots of locals have had the same idea – the place is teeming, with no available seats. The serving hatch in the schwemm is closed, and actually appears to be something more like the old fashioned English 'off-sales' window, with no overflow drinkers in the vicinity. We have to admit defeat. Instead, we head towards Café Abeits, in the modern part of the city. It’s another uncertain walk, our surroundings becoming increasingly residential the further we walk and seeming an unlikely setting for a great beer bar, and those bars we do see look somewhat intimidating and divey, last night’s empty bottles still littering the pavements outside. I haven’t been feeling myself all morning and, somewhere along the way, I take a turn for the worse, almost overcome by a wave of nausea that has me thinking I’m about to vomit all over a neat German lawn. It comes from nowhere – it’s not a hangover, and can’t have come from anything I’ve eaten – just completely random. Still, I’m determined to find the café, and eventually we do. After a momentary panic when I mistakenly think it’s closed, we take a seat in the appealingly unfussy dining room.
I’m nervous about ordering beer, unsure if I can keep it down, but plump for Schlenkerla’s weissbier. It’s a strange beer, with intense smokiness blending with subtle clove spice, and probably not one I’d have again. Along with some very good food, I finally taste Spezial’s rauchbier lager. It pours an amber colour closer to a traditional marzen, and the smoke is more balanced than Schlenkerla’s version; it’s relatively sweet, with a pronounced vanilla note which, in combination with some refreshing lemon flavours, reminds me of an ice cream float, especially when served with a big, rocky head. Another strange beer, but I really enjoyed it.
Sadly, my stomach doesn’t quite recover, which means no more beer. I had hoped to nip over to Wunderbar and pay a visit to Keesmann and Mahr’s, which sit on opposite sides of the street, before leaving the next afternoon, but I simply can’t face it. I’d be disappointed if I hadn’t had the opportunity to taste them on tap just down the road the day earlier in the trip. They tasted so good then that I doubt they could have got very much fresher.
This won’t be my last visit to Bamberg, and when I return, I’ll make sure I stop by the breweries we didn’t get around this time. The determined drinker could certainly get around most of them, even if you’re just in town for a day, and I’d highly recommend a trip.