The European rail system takes a couple tries to grok–grok, that old hippy term for “I get it, but deeper”–and so we missed our train a second time. Remarkably, another train was leaving shortly. It whisked us at speeds up to 304 km/h (that’s about 180 mph) from Cologne to Bamberg. The agrarian landscape, spiked with windmills and scabby with solar arrays, whizzed by as I stood in the breezeway between cars. We did not make a reservation, and there was a small fracas involving a group of old women and a younger woman and who should sit where, so I relieved a seat of my bum to keep the peace.
Cologne, a city that runs in no small part on commercialism and one style of beer, is nearly the opposite of Bamberg, which wasn’t bombed during World War II and is well-kept, quaint the way a snow globe is quaint, and runs on several styles of beer.
We met our Airbnb host, Behn, a tall, jovial Canadian. His right arm was fully bandaged, and he had scabs on his forehead. With his smoky, confident voice he told us about the fight he’d been in the night before. A refugee, as he said, was harassing some women and he stepped in. Imposing as he is, the assailant brandished a broken bottle and got the better of him until the police came. Behn had gotten out of the hospital in time to meet us, and was probably on a fresh regimen of painkiller in addition to the can of Bacardi rum ‘n coke that occupied his left hand. We fist-bumped hello.
Our apartment was in the center of town, across the cobbled street from Mulligan’s on Obere Sandstrasse, where Behn worked part time, and just a minute’s walk from Schlenkerla, the historic rauchbier brewery. To get there from the Hauptbahnhof, we walked south through the market square, where veggie vendors were piled high with white asparagus. It was Sparglezeit! It was a German Spargle Party!
The sun was shining and I was thirsty, so we set a-walkin’. Up the hill to the southeast to Spezial-Keller we strode, confident that Behn’s promise that “you will get lost” would come to pass. Indeed. But once we arrived, the gates were shut; we were early! After a brief nature walk and pleasant sit on a bench overlooking the city, we returned. An old man was leaning against an old car on the side of the road, and he said something as we approached. All I heard was “bier,” and he gestured in a different direction than we were walking. So we turned.
OK, the beer. Our first order was, naturally, the rauchbier. It is a deep amber lager with subdued smoke character from a portion of beechwood-smoked malt. It came to us in stoneware; thick, rustic, grey ceramic steins, and topped with a seafoamy froth that completely hid the beer beneath.
Needless to say (but I have to)– sitting under huge maples just leafing out at an old table along the fence of the vast biergarten, feeling the cool breeze and dapple while listening to the foam on my beer abate and children laughing in the field nearby, and being with my favorite person on our best honeymoon ever– needless to say, I was happy.
The rest of that day turned into a beer tour. We were invited by our friend Don, who was passing through Bamberg on his own European tour, to Cafe Abseits, which has another fantastic biergarten in the courtyard behind the pub and features a handful of beers on tap and lots of bottles. I enjoyed two on tap, a Monchsambacher Maibock (my first of the season!) and Huppendorfer Vollbier.
The end of the night found us outside of Schlenkerla brewery drinking uber-rauchy rauchbier on the street, admiring a group of sketchy dudes being loud and macho in another language, and possibly making public displays of affection. Honeymoon! Actually, we bore witness to numerous acts of PDA; public snogging and butt grabbing on both sides of the binary gender fence became familiar sights everywhere, to our pleasure and amusement.
The next day, I went and took a tour at the Weyermann Malting Company’s headquarters and specialty maltings. Weyermann was started in 1879 as a coffee and malt roaster, and gradually grew, with a big expansion in 1904. Its famous ketchup/mustard red and yellow theme colors represent the bricks of the buildings and the barley grain.
Thankfully, there was an English tour that day. Our group was led through the entire process, starting at the lab where every truckload (Weyermann works with 500 farms in Germany, Czech Republic, and Italy) is analyzed for bugs, plumpness, protein, and moisture. Trucks deposit the barley into underground storage. It is then piped up to a machine that tumbles and shakes to separate pieces of straw and small grains. Then, the grain is steeped in water and moved to a germination room, similar to an oast but without heat, in very large beds around 140cm deep. A machine with sprayers and augurs moves up and down the bed, keeping the grains moist and loose as they germinate.
Because the germination process doesn’t stop, chemical analysis is not really an option to determine whether or not the process is done, so the maltster comes and looks and feels and tastes the grain, and can tell by sheer practice when the green malt is ready to go. This job, this dude, is responsible for quite a bit of the flavor and effectiveness of malt that is distributed all around the world. He is deep in it.
At the Bamberg plant, which is the original location of the maltings and a historic site that cannot be expanded or torn down for modern facilities, only specialty malts are produced, including the Rauchmalz. So the green malt is either sent to the roasted directly to be caramelized (before drying, so the long-chain sugars in the grain cook inside), or kilned and then roasted in one of 6-ish large drum roasters.
There is a pilot brewery, I think 5 hectoliters, that produces a bunch of different beers that are sold in the shop there. We saw that, then went to the warehouse. There are four bays, including one for local breweries to pick up their own orders. Inside, it is modern and streamlined for efficient and accurate movement of orders; much like a big beer distribution warehouse, workers on forklifts and electric-motor pallet jacks whiz around wrapping and moving pallets. The bags of malt are dated using a code; T is 2018, and the number following is the Julian date (this meant something to me, as lots of breweries use the Julian date coding for their bottles; it helps to know if your malt is fresh too!).
The tour finished in the newly built tasting room, a large space with a very nice bar and glassware, and about a dozen Weyermann beers on tap. I tried a pilsner, a roggenbier, and a rauchbier, all fantastic, and took a bottle of a Bohemian pils for the walk back.
Later, we visited the breweries Fässla, Mahr’s, and Keesman for more mind-blowing lagers. I’d give the run down, but really… just go.
If you want to read about Bamberg twice, click here.