Sunday, 24 June 2018

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier - Part Two

In the first half of this article, I recounted my first experiences of Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier; the most intensely smoked of all the Rauchbiers produced in the Franconian town of Bamberg. I went on to promise that I would describe my first visit to this  charming, Baroque city, and how I got to enjoy a few glasses of Schlenkerla Rauchbier in the world famous Schlenkerla Tavern.

The opportunity to visit Bamberg came in late November 2007, when I spotted an ad in one of the local free newspapers. It referred to a coach  trip to a couple of German Christmas Markets, the main one of which was Nuremberg. A morning visit to the Christmas Market in Bamberg was also mentioned, and that was what really grabbed my attention.

The trip was a four day affair, with two days in Germany, plus a day either side to travel there and back. Included was three day's accommodation at a family run hotel, in a small north Bavarian village. The company organising the trip was called Travelscope - more about them later.

I was definitely interested, so went ahead and booked my place - I think it was by phone, rather than online, but that's somewhat immaterial. As is often the case with these sorts of coach trips, the company offered an overnight stay, followed by an early morning pick-up from a hotel, en route. In this case it was a Holiday Inn, just outside Ashford, so it was from there at 4.30 in the morning, that we set off, bound for northern Bavaria.

We crossed the Channel by sea; my favourite means when not in a hurry, as you can't beat a ferry trip, especially when you can dive into the restaurant and grab a Full English, after you've stood on the rear deck watching the White Cliffs slowly receding behind you.

I wasn't so impressed with the rest of the journey, especially after becoming stuck in heavy traffic on the section of the Autobahn around Frankfurt airport. The journey back by coach from former Czechoslovakia, touched on in my previous post, was extremely tiring, and I vowed at the time that I wouldn't undertake such a lengthy coach trip again. But here I was, sat on  coach again, willing the traffic to ease so that our driver could put his foot down and speed us towards our destination.

We were several hours late in reaching our hotel, but as the tour rep had phoned ahead to inform them of our delay, there was a nice hot and very welcoming meal waiting for us when we eventually arrived. After the meal, I sat in the bar with some of my fellow passengers, getting to know them whilst enjoying a few beers; Maisel Bräu from Bamberg, now sadly defunct.

I was up early the next morning for breakfast, having been woken by the bells from the nearby church clock. I wasn't the first down though, that honour went to the Yorkshire contingent, who made up a sizeable portion of the party. Having eaten their breakfast, they were busy making up rolls to eat "on t' bus." No comment!

After breakfast we boarded the coach and headed off towards Bamberg. My excitement grew as we drew closer to the city, and when the driver dropped us off on the banks of the River Regnitz, I made a beeline straight into the Altstadt, or old city. It was a bitterly cold, early December day, so I hurriedly made my way through the narrow streets of the old town in order to find my way to the Schlenkerla Tavern.

I ended up slightly lost, finding myself at the cathedral instead, so I made my way back down towards the river, bumping into a couple of Schlenkerla brewery workers along the way. They pointed me in the right direction and before long, I found myself passing through the doorway of the world famous old pub, which is the home of Schlenkerla beer.

I noticed a couple of customers sitting in the lobby, and as there were a number of spare tables, I decided to join them. I discovered that this part of the rambling old pub was self-service; something which is quite unusual in Germany; and certainly indoors. I made my way to the serving hatch and ordered myself a Seidla (a thin-walled glass in the local dialect), of Rauchbier, noticing that it was dispensed direct from a wooden cask behind the bar.

Almost coal-black in colour, and topped with a thick foamy head, this was my first experience of  Schlenkerla Rauchbier, and it did not disappoint. The gravity dispense method meant there was no extraneous gas present; the result being a rich smooth beer with an intense smokiness, both in the aroma and in the taste, underlying the whole thing. In short it was delicious.

I sat there savouring my beer whilst soaking up the atmosphere of the centuries old pub, feeling a deep-seated sense of contentment and relishing the thought that I had finally made it to Schlenkerla. My idyll was soon shattered when three, well-dressed, middle-aged women came bursting in through the door and started making themselves at home,

They ordered themselves a beer each, before unpacking some of their shopping. Their purchases consisted of a bag of bread rolls, plus some slices of ham and without further ado they started preparing some ham rolls for their lunch. I was gob-smacked as I knew the pub served food, but here were these rather forceful ladies quite blatantly stuffing their faces with food they had bought elsewhere.

It's probably quite widely known that many beer gardens in Bavaria allow customers to bring along their own food, as long as they purchase their beer there, but we are talking about outdoor establishments during the summer months, rather than the inside of a traditional old pub in the middle of winter. No-one batted an eyelid though, and when one of the waiters came along to collect the empty glasses, the ladies ended up giving him some stick over something or other.

By this time I was on my second Seidla and content to let what was happening, a few feet away, wash over me. This was when another customer walked in and ordered himself a beer. He too got some grief from the three women, who were also on their second beer by this time. I could almost sense the fear in his eyes as he looked for an escape route, so I beckoned him over to come and join me.

There was a visible look of relief about him as he introduced himself and sat down. It turned out he was from Coburg, a town in the far north of Bavaria. He was quite a regular visitor to Bamberg, and was in the city on business that day. Stopping off at the  old tavern, for a glass or two of  famous beer was a regular feature of his visits, although i don't think he'd encountered the three weird sisters of Bamberg before.

We got chatting, and as soon as he learned I was from England, he mentioned the British Royal Family and their connections to his hometown. Coburg of course, was the birthplace of Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert and until King George V changed it in 1917, the  royal family's name had been Saxe-Coburg Gotha. He said that I ought to visit Coburg, something I have subsequently done.

Time was ticking on, and the coach was due to depart at 1pm. I had time for one last beer, going this time for a glass of the stronger, seasonal Bockbier. It was basically a stronger version of the standard Märzen Bier, and whilst it was good, I still preferred the normal, everyday beer.

I bade farewell to my new found friend from Coburg, promising that I would visit his hometown as soon as time allowed. Before leaving, I made my way to the rear of the old tavern, where there is an "off-sales" department. I purchased a 5 litre mini-keg of  Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, along with a carry-out case of six bottles. This stash would see me through Christmas that year!

With my arms practically dropping off, I made it back to the coach on time. Most of my fellow travellers had visited the Christmas Market,  so I think they were quite taken aback when they saw me turn up with armfuls of beer. They obviously didn't know about the pleasures of Bamberg's most famous product, but as we were leaving it wasn't really the time to enlighten them.

As I finish writing this piece, I am enjoying a glass of Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier; one of the bottles I brought back from my most recent trip. I have been to Bamberg on several occasions in between May's trip and that first visit back eleven years ago, and on each occasion I have called in at the Schlenkerla Tavern at least once.

A few years ago I remember reading comments that Schlenkerla Rauchbier had become lees distinct; dumbded down slightly in order to broaden its appeal. Drinking this beer now, and thinking back to my most recent visit to Bamberg, I can categorically state this is not true. The beer is as good and as distinctive as it's ever been, and if you want to experience this at first-hand, I strongly recommend you book yourself a trip to Bamberg, and spend a session or two in its most famous pub.

Footnote: I'd been home from that first trip for less than a week, when the shock news broke that Travelscope had ceased trading and gone into administration. I'd had a lucky escape as two hundred people lost their jobs and 45,000 people saw their holiday plans cancelled.

You can read the full story here.


retiredmartin said...

Great read, Paul. As always, love the detail in the post - 4.30am from Ashford (!), Yorkshire folk saving pennies, stern ladies of Bamberg. My take on Rauchbier the same as yours, certainly as good and no less challenging on my 2015 visit than I remember from years back. Thanks for confirming that. And we couldn't find it either !

ETU said...

I can sympathise about the position around Frankfurt airport, Paul. I've been weatherbound in the area before now, but did get through to do a job at the European Space Agency, in relation to the Cassini-Huygens probe's landing on a Saturnian moon on another winter occasion.

We found the beer cellars in that region to be jolly convivial, but I've not been back since.

As ever, you post an enjoyable read, even if on a product which does not appeal personally!

I can't help mentally reading your title in the voice of the late Ian Dury, à la "Reasons to be cheerful, part three" etc. though.



Paul Bailey said...

They were certainly very stern ladies, Martin. It was no wonder the visitor from Coburg welcomed the chance of a chat with me instead. As for “rolls for t’ bus,” a work colleague has witnessed exactly the same behaviour.

Worthy of a chuckle, and I’m sure hoteliers factor in that sort of thing. I do recall though, the hotel we stayed at in Berlin displaying a notice stating no food was to be removed from the breakfast room!

Glad you and Ethelred enjoyed the post. Rauchbier in Bamberg – definitely a reason to be cheerful!

Russtovich said...

Egad. I get busy for a few days and all of my regular beer bloggers decide to be prolific! ;)

A very nice walk down memory lane Paul. I'm definitely going to keep my eye out for Schlenkerla when next in Edmonton or Ontario. Plus I plan to re-watch The Beer Hunter while my wife is away for the first two weeks of July.

Whilst not in the same league as your Coburg fellow I too enjoy stopping off for a beer when my part time work takes me out of town to the same places every month (or three months, depending on the job). He's a man I can relate to.

As for your Travelscope footnote; does that bring back memories! Back in 2008 I booked a trip to France for my wife and me to visit my brother as well as see Paris. It was with Zoom Airlines:

We'd been back less than a week when they went belly up and left a number of people stranded in Europe. I get the shivers thinking about that even now!
(mainly because I can just imagine what my wife would have said had we had to book one way from Paris to Vancouver with less than a day's notice!) :)


Paul Bailey said...

Russ, if you can find time for a quick beer when you’re on business somewhere, it’s always a bonus. I remember my old boss asking, on my return from a day’s business visit, if I had time for a “wet?”

I’ve never really come across that expression being used for a quick pint before, but another old colleague used to say that he called in (to the pub), for a “crafty-halfty.”

I do vaguely remember Zoom Airlines, but then we’ve seen plenty of airlines come and go over the past few decades.