I’ve wanted to visit Bamberg long before a Schlenkerla rauchbier had ever touched my lips. How could you go wrong with a trip to a picturesque German town crawling with breweries? And, as I began to pick out bacon-like smoke as an enjoyable element of certain dark beers, when I eventually did try a bottle of Schlenkerla’s marzen, I found myself firmly on the fanboy side of this divisive beer. My girlfriend, Sidony, never seemed too enamoured with the idea, though, and I got used to hearing answers along the lines of “we are not going to bloody Bamberg!” whenever I brought it up. Imagine my surprise, then, when she gave me a handmade guide book this Christmas, containing all the details of a trip to Bamberg she’d booked without me knowing, to take place in just a few weeks’ time. I was blown away, and without doubt this is the greatest gift I have ever received.
The space between Christmas and our beery holiday was full of agonising anticipation, but soon enough we were on our way. A problem emerges shortly after our arrival at Nuremberg airport; an inspector on the very plush train we’re on doesn’t like the look of our ticket. We’ve unknowingly boarded a luxurious direct train instead of the stopping service our ticket entitles us to. Nervous at the prospect of a hefty fine before we’ve even arrived at our destination, we plead innocence. “Where is your home?” he asks. When we tell him we’re English, he gives us a look of recognition. “I was waiting for the next one”, he says and, bowing somewhat sarcastically, bids us “good evening.” This incident establishes something of a theme of the whole trip; blundering tourists (us/me) draw attention to themselves by not understanding how anything works. We spent so much of our time here trying to figure out how or where to order a beer, opening the door to a tavern’s kitchen when trying to find the bar, or just simply baffling the locals by our mere presence. But this is all part of the fun, makes it more of an adventure, confirming that removing yourself from your comfort zone can be an exhilarating experience, even if you’re essentially just going to the pub.
There’s a welcoming bottle of Schlenkerla waiting for us in the apartment we’re staying in, and the lady who owns it gives us directions to the tavern, just a few minutes’ walk. A rowdy but friendly crowd drinking on the street outside tells us we’re in the right place and, stepping inside, we find a beautifully shady, high-beamed building teeming with people, everyone holding a glass of the same near-black brew. There are no free seats, so we head for what I understand to be the ‘schwemm’, a kind of covered courtyard where beer is served through a small hatch and often drunk standing up. With quite some anticipation, I join the small queue leading towards the hatch. Only the famous marzen beer is available here, tapped directly from traditional wooden barrels via gravity. This suits me, a confirmed rauchbier fan, down to the ground, but Sidony is sceptical about smoked beer – I’d previously reassured her that she could have the helles, which picks up a little smoky flavour but isn’t brewed with smoked malt. She’ll have to go for the full on rauchbier experience instead.
I order two glasses and, as expected, it’s a revelation, with a depth of flavour that no bottle at home could ever hope to achieve. Whilst I’ve never thought of rauchbier as an endlessly drinkable beer, I polish my glass off in no time, perhaps encouraged by the speed at which the beer is poured and the transaction completed. I love the initial hit of notorious bacon flavour, but continue drinking and the intensity of the blended Frazzles notes fade, and what remains is a remarkable dark lager. This is, without doubt, the greatest beer experience of my life so far, and proof that travelling for beer is worth it – it’ll never taste better than it does here, and the buzz in the tavern as the queue in the schwemm grows, practically pinning us to the wall, is intoxicating. If I had to go home in the morning having only visited Schenkerla, I’d still say it was worth it. And a rauchbier naysayer is converted – Sidony loves it, too.
Continuing the clueless tourist theme of the trip, I make a horrendous blunder when it’s time to order my second beer. A sign on the wall advertises two items; one is a glass of marzen, at €2.60, and the other is something called ‘glasspfand’ at €2. Not speaking German, I don’t know what this word means but, being a dickhead, I decide it’s a seasonal beer and try to order it. It is, in fact, the deposit that you pay on your glass. I’m saved from total embarrassment by the barman simply plonking two glasses of marzen down without listening to what I was saying anyway, but I feel like a total prick and vow not to be so cocky in future.
To be continued...