Deeply rooted in tradition: Germany’s beers
“Did you actually like it?” a guy sitting with his wife asks me at a neighboring table. “The smoky one, I mean. Schlenkerla.”
“I did,” I said in all honesty. “It has this smoky aroma, but it’s not overpowering in the taste.”
It didn’t matter. As soon as I admitted to being a fan of this classic Rauchbier or smoked beer, their faces cringed in confusion.
But that’s how it is in Germany, especially in Franconia – a region anchored by Bamberg and Nuremberg and considered by many nonpartial observers to be the beer capital of the country. Drinkers have strong opinions about their brew. Düsseldorfers in the western part of Germany wouldn’t be caught dead ordering a Kölsch, and there’s nothing better in the mind of a Bavarian than a half-liter of Hefeweizen. Fortunately, when you’re in cities like Bamberg and Nuremberg, a little bit of Bavaria mixed with Franconia and yet is still firmly a German city, you can try a bit of everything.
If you want to see what an establishment that will never go out of business looks like, stop by Fässla – a brewery, restaurant and hotel on Obere Königstraße in Bamberg. Men – and it was exclusively men in my experience – had piled in as early as nine in the morning to start sampling their brew, with chatter echoing throughout. The hallway leading up to reception was full by the afternoon and through the night with passersby grabbing a Wegbier (beer-on-the-go) or settling in for a long night of German delicacies (Schnitzel, please), and of course, more beer.
The breweries of Bamberg aren't all concentrated in one area, though you do have a number of them nearby. Brauerei Spezial is across the street from Fässla, and Schlenkerla is on the same block as Ambräusianum. A good break in all of this includes a jaunt along the riverfront to Brauerei Kessmann. Inside you've got bright wooden communal tables that look like they were just taken out of the wood shop with glasses of Mesmann Sternla Lager strewn about. Expect to share a table on a busy night.
If you still have a thirst to quench, Mahr's Bräu and Hotel am Brauerei Dreieck are in the area as well. Of course, if you really want to get a feel for the beers of greater Bamberg, there’s the 13-Brauereien-Weg or 13-Brewery-Trail that you can hike or cycle from town to town, each village with its own traditional brewery or two. This is perhaps the best way to get a feel for small town Franconian life and even chat with the locals who are lucky enough to call this beertopia home.
Whereas Bamberg serves as a living time warp to traditional German beer culture, Nuremberg is where younger drinkers are thumbing their nose at the old brands and embracing contemporary craft beer in the venues to match. And as luck would have it, I knew someone in town to show me around – a local writer and photographer named Heather, originally from Wisconsin. First, we headed to Bieramt Wanderer on the edge of a cobblestone hill, housed in a historic half-timbered building that looks like it's growing out of the city walls.
Early March turned out to be an excellent time for the visit, scaring off some of the usual summer crowd. That’s partly because it had just reopened for the season. (It's typically closed from Christmas through February).
“This entire hill is covered with people in the summer,” said Heather, our impromptu guide. “You’re lucky if you can find a spot.”
Ordering a beer still proved to be a bit of an event itself, squeezing through to the bar and attempting to lock eyes with the right person who could give you what you needed. Even then, there weren’t any free tables outside, but thankfully Heather recognized a couple of friends and we could share the table.
The nighttime temperature sinking beneath patio drinking comfort levels, Heather than led us back south across the humorously named Fleischbrücke (literally “meat bridge”) to Kaffee Lebemann. This and much of Nuremberg’s drinking culture will seem familiar to American and Canadian travelers accustomed to enjoying their Imperial IPA or Stout in a chic, dimly lit ambiance with comfy couches that give off a casual vibe you could sink into for hours.
If you do fancy a bit of the traditional, it’s still readily available in Nuremberg. At Restaurant Nassauer Keller zu Nürnberg, you'll have to watch your head as you head down a steep flight of stairs into the basement where you can drink a half-liter of Mönchshof Kellerbier (a "cellar beer" that can either be top- or bottom-fermented and has been around since the Middle Ages), Kapuziner Hefeweizen, or try one of the seasonal options. The crowd here is a little older and likely a bit more touristy without it hampering the experience. Because at the end of the day, it’s still about damn fine beer.
Something splitting the gap between old and new is Hausbrauerei Altstadhof, just around the corner from the Bieramt. Here you have that traditional, finely finished wooden interior aesthetic anchored by traditional beer recipes, but it’s relatively young – opening in 1984. The brewery took the place of the historical location of the former Rotes Brauhaus along Nuremberg's Bergstraße. Their spiel these days is promoting Bio-Standard (organic production) beer. A red beer (Rotbier, the local specialty), light lager (Helles Lager), and black beer (Schwarzbier) are their standards.
Though should you want to step outside of the beer box, they're also distilling their own whisky – Ayrer's. Launched in 2005, Ayrer's became the first organic single malt whisky in Germany. Just a decade later, they won InterWhisky's 2015 award for best German single malt whisky. You don’t need to be a connoisseur to know that this is good stuff with a smooth, caramel flavor that’ll be more appealing to whisky-drinking amateurs.
Written by Joe Baur