Friday, November 8, 2019

Bamberg - Spezial, Swaying, and Stumbling

When I learnt that I was going to central Europe for a couple of conferences with a weekend between them, I knew I wanted to take the opportunity to visit somewhere new.

One of my great regrets from my decade in Prague was that I had never taken advantage of its proximity to Germany to take weekends drinking legendary beer. When there is so much great beer at home why bother?

My options were legion. I could go to Zoigl country, Munich, Regensburg, or Berlin and get my fill of great beer. Then there was Bamberg...

I well remember my first ever beer from Bamberg, and by extension my first ever rauchbier. It was the märzen from Schlenkerla. On one of my many forays into Pivovarský klub, then barman Ambroz told me that they had purloined 50 bottles of smoke beer from Germany, suitably intrigued I had one, and then another, and another. Of the 50 bottles it is entirely possible that my friends and I demolished about 40 of them, it became something of a go to beer for the few weeks it was available. Thus my love affair with rauchbier was born. And so with 24 hours to spare between leaving Prague and needing to be in Hannover, I went to Bamberg.

I say I had 24 hours to spare, in reality after travelling to Bamberg via Nuremburg I actually had only about 18, and given my train to Hannover was leaving at 11am the next morning, I really only had 6 or so for drinking. 6 hours in a city with probably more renowned breweries than any other in Germany? This time the decision was go broad and shallow or go narrow and deep? I went for the latter option and picked the two breweries I wanted to visit more than any of the others, Schlenkerla, naturally, and Brauerei Spezial, mainly at the recommendation of Evan.

First though I took a wander around the centre of the city, discovered that Hegel had lived for a year in Bamberg, and it was on these wanders that I noticed brass plaques embedded in the pavements. Finding Schlenkerla was pretty easy, yay Google Maps, and there were crowds of folks outside downing their beers. Now, this may come as something of a surprise, but I am a raging introvert, and painfully shy, particularly when it comes to going into pubs, cafes, and restaurants that I have never been into before and I am by myself. I walked past the front door two or three times before actually entering the building. Thankfully there was an empty table in the Dominikerklause and so I parked my self conscious arse down and revelled in the vaulted ceiling of this most beautiful of rooms dedicated to beer drinking.

A menu came and I soon realised that while my reading comprehension of German is still pretty good, my listening and speaking skills have gone somewhat awry, but stammer on I did - pet hate is people that assume everyone speaks English and doesn't at least even try the basics of "ein märzen bitte", at this point I was actively worrying about what I would have for dinner. Anyway, the märzen.


Now, I drink this beer in bottles regularly, as in at least a couple of litres a month regularly, but on tap at the brewery it shattered my every preconception of rauchbier. The only way I can think to describe it is fuller, deeper, rounder, perhaps there is less carbonation, less prickliness to highlight the smoke? Whatever was going on, that first half litre of Schlenkerla märzen in the brewery itself was almost a religious experience, communion with a beech smoked, dark, divine, and it wasn't cold, being just slightly cooler than a well kept real ale in the UK. It was over far too quickly, thankfully being in the brewery itself, I had another, though I drank the second somewhat more circumspectly, savouring the nuances and interplay of the malt and hops, yes there were actually hop things happening that were noticeable, but guess what, no notes.


Also on tap that day was the Ur-bock, only available on draft in autumn, and absolutely necessary drinking. Everything I just said about the märzen applies here as well. I drink Ur-bock pretty often, though not as often as the märzen, but on tap it was a much fuller experience. At only €3.50ish a half litre I could have happily sat here all afternoon and evening getting merrily preserved by the smoke to then crawl back to my hotel, but Evan's praise of Spezial Brauerei had been effusive, so I took myself off for another decent length, head clearing, walk.

As I walked I came back to the main street leading to and from the railway station. This time there were riot police walking down the street, and again I spied the brass plaques, but it was the police that had my attention. A protest was in full swing, the local Kurdish community was out in force protesting the Turkish invasion of northern Syria. I stood and watched the procession wend its way to the river and looked down at my feet, I was almost right on top of a clutch of brass plaques, so I took a moment to read, and then photographed them.


They were Stolpersteine, "stumbling blocks", memorials to victims of the Holocaust, placed, as I would later learn, at the last known willing address of the people they memorialise. In this case the memorial was to the Walter family, who were deported the nearly 1600 miles to Riga in Latvia, to be murdered for the crime of not being Aryan. Having never heard of the Stolpersteine project before, I was taken aback by the stark, even callous, beauty of these memorials. If I'd have had a stone handy I would have laid it on the Stolpersteine as my own personal mitzvah to victims of fascism. Never again, for in forgetting we deny.

Sobered, emotionally if not necessarily physically, I wandered with my thoughts to the Brauerei Spezial, again taking a few reccies of the space before walking in, found myself a seat at an empty table, in the corner of a side room, and made myself comfortable. On my stroll I had identified the place I would be going to have my dinner, but there was beer to drink first, and first up was their ungespundetes lager as recommended by Evan. Ungespundetes is basically an unfiltered beer that is served from a wooden barrel by gravity, sound a lot like some kinds of real ale really.


One thing that I had definitely not been expecting in Bamberg was for Schlenkerla to be usurped as my preferred Bamberg brewery, but here I was revelling in the ungespendetes lager and feeling distinctly conflicted about my loyalties. So I ordered the regular lagerbier.


Yeah done deal, I was very much in the Spezial camp my the end of my first half litre of this sublime beer, and still not taking notes, but every mouthful was relished, especially as the clean lager bite that I love so much was in full attendance. At this point I was wondering if I could persuade Mrs V that we needed to move to Germany and make Spezial our new local. Following the lagerbier with their märzen I thought I was about to break into song at the glories of the beer I was drinking, thank goodness for my innate British reserve that had me merely smiling broadly in my corner, as I engaged in a little people watching to pass the time.


The couple in that picture below sat for about an hour, hardly speaking yet perfectly content in each other's company, a state where noise would ruin the perfection. I hope one day to sit like this with Mrs V in whenever our local pub at the time is, happy in the security of being with my best friend, confidant, and completer of my world.


I had another morning train, and so again I didn't want to get myself blootered on superb beer. I paid my bill, and allowed my legs to carry me to a snackbar where the promise of a doppel currywurst awaited, just what the doctor ordered.


I loved my time in Bamberg and hope one day to go back with Mrs V and the boys to enjoy more of the many delights the city has to offer.

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