Tavern drunk with history

| Updated on: Apr 12, 2012
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For four centuries, Bamberg in Germany has derived its high from a famous local speciality — ‘smoked beer'.

The Germans call it Rauchbier . It is a Bamberg speciality, and one of this Bavarian city's many claims to fame. The ‘smoked beer' has been around for nearly 400 years, drunk heartily by ‘initiated' beer-lovers with an ‘acquired, refined' taste.

Though there are several varieties, Schlenkerla is the most original, popular and savoury Smoked Beer Fountain in town. Nestled in the shadow of the mighty cathedral in the middle of the Old Town, it is a half-timbered house in which the geraniums glow in summer, and eager diners converge day and night to savour a choice of traditional offerings.

‘Even if the brew tastes somewhat strange at the first sip, don't stop, because soon you'll realise that your thirst will not decrease and your pleasure will increase.' So proclaim the coasters, and few disagree. It does taste a bit strange at first, but one gets used to the taste rather quickly and easily.

Schlenkerla is derived from schlenkern , an old German expression for ‘walking with a drunken lurch'. Allegedly a former brewer had a funny walk owing to an accident (or was it the beer?), and so the brewery he established in 1678 was called Schlenkerla. The ending ‘ la ' is typical of the Franconian dialect.

The name remains unchanged for over six generations now, and covers the smoked beer, the tavern and brewery.

The dark, aromatic, bottom-fermented beer has 13.5 per cent original extract, equivalent to an alcohol content of 4.8 per cent. Though there are stronger beers, old-timers point out that Schlenkerla smoked beer can make you ‘dangle' quite a bit.

Getting the smoky flavour is no mean achievement. The process involves exposing the malt to the harsh, aromatic smoke of burning beach-wood logs. After mixing it with high-class hops (bittering agent), the brew matures in a cold cellar deep in the Bamberg Hills, into a mellow, tasty beer, best drunk directly in the Schlenkerla.

There is variety for imbibing it. One can drink it in the Altes Lokal (Old Inn) at white, scrubbed wooden tables — covering them with a tablecloth would be a sin, or underneath an old ceiling even darker than the beer. One can also drink it in the Klause , a former monastery built in 1310, or in the inner court next to a 500-litre wooden keg.

Connoisseurs drink it slowly and with relish, knowing that the second seidla (half-litre) tastes better than the first, and the third even better. Not surprisingly, this leads to rather copious bouts of drinking, at all times of the day.

As the beer makes one talkative and exuberant, it connects locals with strangers, especially as it is common in Franconia to share your table with others.

Popularly called the ‘City of Beer', with brewing here first mentioned in 1122, Bamberg even has the Franconian Brewing Museum founded by a group of master-brewers in 1979.

Housed in the historical and renovated vaults of the former Benedictine Monastery of St Michael, the museum displays antique equipment sourced from the area's breweries, keg manufacturers, and malt factories. Through displays and films, one can also learn about the entire process of brewing, from the production of malt to the final beer product.

The museum also serves as an information centre on the history of beer in Franconia, a region that boasts the highest density of breweries in the world.

Fast facts:

The Franconian Brewing Museum in Bamberg is open Wednesdays through Sundays, from 1-5 p.m.

Bamberg is a two-hour train ride from Frankfurt.

Published on April 12, 2012

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