Friday 7 August 2020

Back to Bamberg

After a day in the Franconian countryside, it was time to head for the Big City – or at least one of the biggest in the world of beer: Bamberg. The local beer scene has changed a fair bit since I was there seven years ago, so I was really looking forward to exploring some of the new places. The challenge, since the plan was a bit of touristing and shopping in the morning with the kids, before I got the afternoon to myself, was to find somewhere the kids would enjoy. Luckily, while it wasn’t easy to spot on its dusty suburban street, Hopfengarten Bamberg proved an excellent and friendly choice. 

At first, it looks like the entrance to a yard, then there's greenery hinting at a hidden garden, then a passage between dusty greenhouses, and finally it opens up into a huge area behind the houses. Hopfengarten is just a part of it, but there is indeed a hop garden with long tables under arches of hops, there’s a sandpit and a pond (=happy kids!), fruit trees, a herb garden and more. Gardeners were at work fixing things up – I think that, like many places, it had not long been open again after the long Coronavirus shutdown.

It was still early in the day, we were the only visitors and although the bar was advertising their special edition herbal and fruit beers, nothing was pouring. Thankfully, after we’d said hello and poked around the garden a bit, we were asked if we’d like samples – Kellerpils and Rotbier, straight from the fermenters of “the smallest brewery in town” (it looked to be a 100 or 200-litre brewkit). And very nice they were too, while we sat amongst the greenery.  

As we walked into the centre for the shops and some lunch, I spotted another new place to check out – Zum Sternla. Well, it’s not exactly new, in fact they claim the site dates back to 1380, although it’s only been a pub for 250 years or so. What is new though is that last year they put a brewhouse into an extension built onto the rear of the pub.

The biergarten in the courtyard here showed how seriously some venues here are taking social distancing. Large panels between the tables turned each one into almost an alcove, table staff everywhere wear masks or face-shields, and even outdoors in a biergarten you have to cover your face while moving around – the mask can only come off when you are seated. (In contrast, it felt really weird going into a pub in Chiswick this week where no one, not even the staff, had a mask on.) 

Zum Sternla Roggenbier, nur ein schnitt!
The beers were fairly typical for the area and for a German brewpub – a golden lager (Vollbier Export), a Pils and a Zwickel, which I believe is the Vollbier but unfiltered. Luckily, my visit also coincided with the first tapping of their new seasonal Roggenbier, which proved to be a nice example of the style – it’s a top-fermented beer similar to a Hefeweizen, but made with rye not wheat.

Of course it’s not all traditional local beer styles in Bamberg, but it can be hard to find anything else! So while I wanted to catch up with a couple of ‘new wave’ Bamberg brewers we’d met while we were all visiting Hamburg earlier this year, I knew it wasn’t going to be too easy. For a start, both Blech.Brut and Atelier der Braukunst are what’s known in Germany as ‘cuckoo brewers’, sharing or renting brewing capacity from others, so a brewery visit was out of the question. And most of the beer shops just focus on the wealth of traditional local brewing. 

Fortunately I’d been recommended to one that didn’t, namely the local branch of Die Bierothek, a group of craft beer shops. Again it was somewhere new to me – or at least I’m pretty sure it wasn’t there seven years ago, as I’d have walked past it on my evening perambulations between our rented apartment and Brauerei Spezial.

What's in the hand sanitiser?!
I find myself in two minds about craft beer shops. On the one hand, everything costs more – there’s classic Franconian beers in this one at €2 or €3 a bottle, but which I’d picked up the day before for €1 to €1.50 at a supermarket on the Memmelsdorf road. On the other, they have beers that I doubt you’d find anywhere else in the area – even some of the rural Franconian stuff probably doesn’t normally travel into the city. So I picked up a few cans – and once you’re into the €6/can area the additional margin is minimal anyhow – and made way for other shoppers. 

Of course something was bound to go wrong, and it did. I’d carefully avoided making my trip on the Monday, as that’s often the day-off for places that open over the weekend (“Montag Ruhetag”), but what I’d missed was that quite a few venues now close Mon-Weds or even Sun-Weds inclusive – and one of them was my next target, another newcomer called Landwinkl Bräu. Ah well, a restorative mug of Rauchbier in the Brauerei Spezial courtyard was only a few hundred yards away...  

Just two more targets left on my list. The first was Aecht Schlenkerla, not for a drink as time was running a bit short, but to pick up bottles of their three new low-alcohol beers: the unsmoked Bamberger Heinzlein Hell & Dunkel, and Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Hansla. They’re reputedly based on historical examples – the local equivalent of ‘small beer’, I assume. 

The last was a bit more of a struggle, but worth it – the long haul up Kaulberg to Brauerei Griefenklau. It’s another favourite venue, and I was just early enough to get half a table at the end of the biergarten, overlooking the gardens below and with this green and leafy view across to Die Altenburg on the hill opposite. A lovely place to sit and sip a Zwicklbier as dusk began to creep in.