Schlenkerla, the brewery whose smoke or "Rauchbier " is known and admired by beer lovers the world over.
Rauchbier is the style of beer which Bamberg is best known for, but what exactly is it? In simple terms Rauchbier, is a style of beer with a distinctive smoke flavour derived from the use of malted barley dried over an open flame. Prior to the industrial revolution, virtually all malt was dried in this fashion; although drying malted barley in direct sunlight was sometimes used in addition to drying over direct heat.
Starting in the 18th Century, the practice of drying malt in a kiln, using indirect heat, became more widespread and, by the mid-19th Century, had become the near-universal method for drying malted grain. Since the kiln method directs the smoke away from the wet malt, a smoky flavour is not imparted to the grain; nor to the beer which is subsequently brewed with the malt.
For reasons which remain unclear, the town of Bamberg in the Upper Franconia region of northern Bavaria, remained the centre of smoke beer production, and nearly two centuries later, two of the city's brewpubs - Schlenkerla and Spezial, still produce several varieties of Rauchbier, for the continuing delight of their customers. Both breweries produce their own Rauchmalz from malted barley dried over fires made from beech wood logs.
Brauerei Spezial are still eminently drinkable, they are quite mild in comparison to those of Schlenkerla. It is the latter therefore that we shall concentrate our attention on.
I was vaguely aware of Rauchbier quite early on in my drinking career, because I had a copy of Michael Jackson's ground-breaking book, the "World Guide to Beer." This beer style remained a curiosity stored in the back of my consciousness, until quite by chance I overheard two beer enthusiasts talking about it whilst on a lengthy coach journey.
It was the autumn of 1984, and I was on my way home from a trip to the country which was then known as Czechoslovakia. The visit had been organised by CAMRA, and I wrote about it at some length, several years ago. Our coach hadn't long crossed the border from Czechoslovakia and into West Germany; a process which whilst quicker than that of the inward journey, was still frustratingly slow.
The lengthy journey ahead, combined with the several glasses of Pilsner Urquell consumed earlier, during an extended lunch stop in Pilsen itself, no doubt contributed to my soporific state. I was vaguely aware of the conversation coming from the two lads in the seats in front of me. I hadn't really mixed with them during our time in Czechoslovakia, but I was aware that they knew quite a lot more about beer than I did. Not only were they older than me, they also seemed far better travelled.
In my imagination I thought I could see the lights of Bamberg glimmering in the distance, but in reality they were probably those of a much nearer town or village, but the very mention of the home of smoked beer reawakened my awareness of this niche beer style to the extent that I was fantasising about our driver making an unscheduled stop, just so we could sample some of it.
My chance to sample Rauchbier eventually came in the unlikely setting of my adopted home town of Tonbridge. It must have been some time in the late 1980's that I spotted bottles of Schlenkerla Rauchbier on the shelves of our local Sainsbury's. I had learned quite a lot more about beer by then, thanks in no small measure to the late, great Michael Jackson once again.
The beer was everything I thought it would be, although I admit to be slightly taken aback that it was so dark in colour (I wasn't such a huge fan of dark beers in those days). Unfortunately Schlenkerla Rauchbier was only available for a short period. I don't know whether this was due to supply problems or low sales, but almost as quickly as it appeared on Sainsbury's shelves, it just as quickly vanished.
I tend to think that the beer was probably a beer too far; too extreme for most people's tastes at the time. Just remember, the late 80's were 30 years before today's explosion in the variety of different beers and beer styles that are available to today's' beer connoisseurs, but if there's an enterprising entrepreneur out there, looking for something different, then smoke beer from Bamberg would certainly fit the bill.
Schlenkerla Rauchbier. By this time (early 2000), my wife and I had our own specialist off-licence, and in my quest to offer something different, I managed to track down an importer specialising in German beers.
Schlenkerla Rauchbier was on their list, along with several other beers from Deutschland, so I went ahead and ordered a case. I was now able to offer this world classic beer to my discerning customers, along with the occasional bottle for myself.
Having explained what Rauchbier is, how I became aware of it, plus my first experiences of drinking it, it's time to leave the story for a while. In the next chapter I will recount how I travelled to Bamberg for the first time and drank Schlenkerla Rauchbier on its home turf; in the city's most famous, and best known tavern.