Just before my self-imposed exile from the beer blogosphere last year, a couple of old mates and I spent a weekend in Bamberg. It's a place I'd always been eager to visit; a place that I considered almost a spiritual heart of German brewing. As we'd moved in late 2010 to a place only a couple of hours train ride away from Bamberg, my fate was sealed. Bear in mind, this was nearly a year ago, so some things may have changed, but the breweries, oh, the breweries, well, I'm quite sure they'll be around for a while longer.
Leaving home on Friday, 15th of April, I rendezvoused in Würzburg Hauptbahnhof with old mates Kieron and Brian, who had landed in Frankfurt that morning. From there, just under an hour by Regional Express to Bamberg. It seemed to be just the start of tourist season (or there was something on!), and we'd found it hard to find a hotel, but managed to get rooms in Altstadthotel Molitor, a small, slightly worn, but well-located hotel, right on the Regnitz and just on the southern edge of the old town. Of course, this meant a fair trundle from the station, providing us with a rather flimsy excuse to make a first stop at Brauerei Spezial.
Arriving at an odd hour, in a lull between lunch and the evening crowds, there were plenty of seats to choose from at the scrubbed pine tables. Drei Bier, bitte. Three Spezial Lagerbiers. €2.30 each. Lovely soft carbonation, light caramel and raisins and a waft of sweet smoke on the back. That does the job. Food. Kassler with a rather strong Sauerkraut and bread. Spot on. Spezial Märzen please. Plummy, more raisins, a nice toasty edge under the soft rauch notes. Nicer than the bottled version. Far too easy to drink. Spezial Ungespundetes, the only unsmoked beer they make? Remarkably fruity aroma, like a mix of bubblegum and pear drops. Comes across in the flavour too, like liquidised candy. Not so sure if I like it, but it's hard to follow the smoked beers. If you're there, and it's on, go for this first. Spezial is a nice place, and it seems we spent a couple of hours here, shooting the breeze, catching up and sipping delicious beer. But I bet it's a lot better in the evening with a full crowd.
Refueled, we dropped our stuff at the hotel and made a gesture towards more general tourist activities, taking in the Rathaus and the maze of streets before settling on Ambräusianum, the newest brewery/brewpub in Bamberg. Ambräusianum certainly feels more modern, and has lots of corners to hide in and greenery trailing down from the gallery where we found a seat. Regular beers included a Helles and a Dunkel, as one might expect. Ambräusianum Dunkel it is so. A reddish copper, with a light tan head and slight haze. Served super cold. Extremely malty, as in, just like chewing on a fistful of caramalz. A grainy, husky caramel, over-sweet, but with some redeeming blackcurrant fruitiness and a carbonic bite. €2.70, by the way. Not a great start. Hungry again. Can't go wrong with Spätzle mit Nürnberger Bratwurst. Or so I thought. Tasty, but incredibly salty. I needed a mouthful of beer for every bite (of either the noodles or sausages!), and eventually just could not take it. I complained to a waitress about the salt levels, which felt like the chef had tripped, spilling an entire bag into the pan. She shrugged, asked if I didn't want to eat it, and took it away. Kieron's Flammkuchen was every bit as salty, but Brian's pork medallions, wrapped in bacon, with fried potatoes and fresh vegetables were very nice. Double or nothing, let's try the Ambräusianum Hell. Like sugar water with essence of malt and lemon drops. Basically, tastes like a sweetened Radler. Kieron summed the whole experience up in one word: Brutal. No tip. Don't waste your time here.
The best thing about Ambräusianum is that it's pretty much next door to Schlenkerla. Now, this is more like it. Rooms filled with tables made to be shared, crammed with locals and tourists alike, a loud buzz of conversation, and all presided over by the commanding presence of the matronly woman carrying beers to and fro. Or at least that's how it felt. We grabbed part of a table in the Altes Lokal room. You know, I didn't make any notes. I was enjoying myself too much. There was the Märzen, of course, one of my old favourites, and being in the Lenten period, we were blessed with Aecht Schlenkerla Fastenbier, served into chunky handled glasses from barrels in the tiny bar area. Enough said. We spent till closing time in these convivial surroundings, and I heartily recommend you do the same if you get a chance. It has that feel that you imagine a proper German tavern should have. Next time, I'll eat here too.
We ended up in some small, late-opening bar. Crammed, loud crap music, but in a town like Bamberg, when even the dive-iest bars seem to sell the likes of Mahr's beers, it's manageable.
Three places (the fourth doesn't count) in the first half day. We'd have to step up the pace on Saturday, as there's a lot more breweries to visit.