Thursday, January 31, 2013

Enjoying a Franken stein in Bamberg

Franconia, known as Franken in German, and in particular the small city of Bamberg has been known as a great brewing region for centuries. In fact, Franconia still has the largest number of breweries per capita anywhere in the world, with nearly 300 working breweries shared by a population of around 4 million. As an illustration, if California wanted to reach such a brewery ratio the US state would need a total of 2850 breweries!

Thus, Bamberg was an obvious place to visit during my road trip through Germany.

A beer stein at Rathausschänke in Bamberg

Located 60 km north of Nuremberg, in what is known as Upper Franconia (Oberfranken), the city of Bamberg lies among seven hills, just like ancient Rom, and has a history stretching back more than a thousand years.

Originally inhabited by Slavs, the town was first mentioned in 902 as belonging to the Babenberch castle. The area was subsequently Christianized and in 1007 the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II made Bamberg a family inheritance, the seat of a separate diocese. This resulted in a number of impressive cathedral and church buildings being erected, and for a while Bamberg was the centre of the Holy Roman Empire.

From the middle of the 13th century onward the bishops were princes of the Empire and ruled Bamberg, overseeing the construction of monumental buildings. This gave Bamberg status as a free city and it remained so until the secularization of church lands in 1802, becoming part of Bavaria, together with the rest of Franconia, in 1803.

Altes Rathaus in the middle of river Regnitz in Bamberg
Thanks to its remote location and lack of heavy industries, Bamberg survived World War II relatively unscatched so most of its historical buildings and the old town area are still intact. Today the city has a population of 70 thousand and attracts tourists both for its historical sites and for its still vibrant beer culture.

Despite a sharp decline in number of active breweries, from 60 back in the 1850s to 30 as recently as World War I, Bamberg is still home to eight breweries, ranging from small brewpubs to large export breweries, so it's a great place to visit in order to explore the famous rauchbier - beer brewed with smoked malt - and sample some authentic Franconian fare, such as the Bamberger Zwiebel - onions stuffed with pork farce and braised in the oven with broth and beer.

The easiest way to get to Bamberg is either by car or by train, depending on where you come from. I came by car from Munich and spent two days in Bamberg in late September 2012. Here follows a listing of some of the highlights from my visit.

Brauerei Spezial
One of the oldest working breweries in Bamberg is the family owned Brauerei zum Spezial on Obere Königsstraße 10. It was founded back in 1536 as a "Bamberger Rauch-Bier-Brauerei", a brewery of smoked beers, and has been in the Merz family since 1898.

Today, Spezial is one of the few breweries left kilning its own malt, which was the norm just a hundred years ago. For smoked malts this is particularly important since what you use to generate the smoke heavily influences the resulting aroma and flavor of the smoked malt and hence the resulting rauchbier. Like the other maltsters in Bamberg, Spezial relies on dry beech wood, usually dried for several years, to create the right smoke for its kilning. The annual beer production is just 6,000 hL (2003), making Spezial one of the smallest breweries in Bamberg, so it's mainly sold locally at the brewery tap room.

Brauerei Spezial in Bamberg, founded in 1536
Like several of the smaller breweries, Spezial is also a public house where food is served and guests can spend the night in a gästezimmer - a guest room - for a low price. Spezial have seven guest rooms on the second floor, above the restaurant, and it cost me just 35 euro per night to stay there. I highly recommend it, but make sure to book early.

The interior of Spezial looks much like a typical Bavarian bierstübl, with heavy oak furniture and hunter trophies on the walls. The indoor seating area is limited so it will quickly fill up at night, but finding a vacant spot at the end of a table is usually no problem (but do not try to sit down at the stammtisch, the regulars' table!). Food is served all night and is both tasty and plentiful, and reasonable.

The beers offered at Spezial (with prices for half a litre, like in the rest of this post):

- Spezial Rauchbier Lager (4.6%): €2.40
- Spezial Rauchbier Märzen (5.3%): €2.50
- Spezial Weissbier (5.3% smoked hefeweizen): €2.60
- Spezial Ungespundetes (4.9% lager): €2.40

Ungespundetes means unfiltered, so an ungespundetes lager is slightly hazy from the yeast and will usually have a fuller mouthfeel and a richer flavor than filtered lagers. It was the only beer on their menu that was not brewed with smoked malt.

The Merz family also run a large biergarten, Spezial Keller, on top of the Stephansberg hill in Bamberg, commanding a great view of the city. Unfortunately, after huffing and puffing up the steep hill, I found a note at the gate saying the keller was closed until mid October because of "urlaub" (German for holiday). Thus, I never got the chance to try out the biergarten, just admire it through the fence.

Brauerei Fässla
Fässla, meaning "little cask", is a family owned brewery and public house, with sleeping accommodations, on Obere Königsstraße 19-21.

Brauerei Fässla in Bamberg, founded in 1649

Though not quite as old as Spezial, just across the street, Brauerei Fässla dates back to at least 1649 when Büttnermeister Johann Kauer bought the property to start a brewery. Büttnermeister, by the way, is German for a Cooper, someone building and repairing wooden staved vessels, used for storing liquids - such as beer. 

The brewery and public house continued under various owners and by 1796 it was known as Schwanen- und Fässleinswirtshaus which then morphed into just Fässla. In 1978, Fässla was purchased by Sebastian Kalb and the Kalb family is still the owners of Fässla, now with Roland Kalb at the head of business.

Fässla has a 50 hL brewhouse producing 16,000 hL annually (2003), some of the beer gets bottled and shipped to other pubs in Bamberg and probably outside the city. Unlike Spezial, Fässla do not brew with smoked malts. The interior of Fässla is fairly typical of a German beer stübe, but out back they have a small but nice open air yard with shady trees and artwork on the walls, and despite a bit of smoking I enjoyed myself there.

Fässla served two beers on tap, both gravity fed from large oak casks:

- Fässla Gold-Pils (5.5%): €2.40
- Fässla Lagerbier (5.5%): €2.40

On bottle they offered the popular Fässla Zwergla (6%) dunkel, for €2.40, and the famous Fässla Bambergator (8.5%) doppelbock was also on the menu but wasn't available until mid October.

Situated in an old lagerhaus from 1500, on Obere Mühlbrücke 1-3, Klosterbräu claims to be the oldest brewery in Bamberg with almost 500 years in the brewery business.

Brauerei-Gaststätte Klosterbräu in Bamberg
The history of Klosterbräu Bamberg dates back to 1533 when the Fürstbischöfliches Braunbierhaus ("Prince-Bishop Brown Beer House") opened up as a state-owned brewery at this location. 

For a long time the brewery remained in the possession of the Bamberg Prince-Bishops, but in the late 18th century the brewery started losing money and in 1790 it was sold to a private brewer by the name of Johann Georg Behr. 

Since then the brewery has remained on private hands but it was sold in 1851 to one Peter Braun, the son of a pharmacist from Kitzingen. It was under his ownership that it acquired the current name of "Klosterbräu", inspired by the nearby Franziskanerkloster. The Klosterbräu is still owned by the Braun family and is currently headed by the 5th generation, Frau Anne-Rose Braun-Schröder.

Even though I found the old interior charming the weather was sunny and warm so I sat down outside, by the small square between Klosterbräu and the Altstadthotel Molitor. Klosterbräu serves good food in addition to a number of their own beers, but no smoked beers:

- Klosterbräu Pils (4.9%): 2.30 euro
- Klosterbräu Schwärzla (4.9% schwarzbier): 2.90 euro
- Klosterbräu Braunbier (5.7%): 3.10 euro
- Klosterbräu Braun's Weisse (4.9%): 2.90 euro
- Klosterbräu Bockbier (7%): 3.30 euro --only available in October
- Klosterbräu Schwärzlabock (7%): 3.30 euo --seasonal
- Klosterbräu Maibock (7%): 3.30 euro --only available in April/May

According to their beer menu, the Braunbier is made after a 450 year old recipe and is unique to Bamberg (see my review).

Brauerei Heller - Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier
It may not be the oldest or the biggest brewery in Bamberg, but Brauerei Heller of Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier fame has one of the most attractive tap rooms in the city, on Dominikanerstraße 6. Here, many a tour group stops for a taste of the famous rauchbier, while locals protect their stammtisches with angry looks if any ignoranimus should dare to sit down there.

Founded in 1678 and owned by the Heller-Trum family for the last 150 years, Brauerei Heller has become the golden standard of Bamberg rauchbier and is known all over the beer world for the strong smoky character of their Aecht Schlenkerla series. Brauerei Heller, just like Spezial, kiln and smoke their own malts. All beers named "Aecht", which means "real", are brewed with their own smoked malt.

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen
- served from oak cask at the brewery tap
While the modern brewery and maltings are located on the Upper Stephansberg hill, a kilometer to the south of Dominikanerstraße, the old brewery has become the tap room and this is where most visitors come to get a taste of the famous Schlenkerla rauchbiers. 

At the brewery tap you will always find oak casks serving beer with the help of gravity only, when I was there they had Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen on cask; an elegant rauchbier, with a wonderful smoke and caramel balance.

The name Schlenkerla is supposedly a reference to Andreas Graser, who took over the brewery in 1877. According to one story, one of his legs got run over when some horses bolted while he unloaded kegs at the brewery. The injured leg caused him to walk with a limp and dangling arms for the rest of his days, in the Franconian dialect this kind of limping walk is known as "schlenkern" - hence Schlenkerla.

The Schlenkerla tap room is located near the tourist trail in Bamberg, so it will feel a bit noisy at times when one or more groups of chattering tourists enter. But in the morning, they open at 9:30 am, it's nice and quiet, and you can sit by a window, watching the Dominikanerstraße come to life and then, a little before 11, witness local workers enter to have a quick snack and a beer or two for lunch.

At the time of my visit, they offered the Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen (5.1%) for €2.50 per half litre, it was served from an oak cask using gravity only - as shown in the photo.

Rathausschänke - Haus der Kaiserdom Privatbrauerei
The history of the largest brewery in Bamberg, the Kaiserdom Privatbrauerei, dates back to 1718 when Georg Mohr was given the rights to set up a brewery in the 12th century buildings of the Benedictine abbey on Sankt Michaelsberg. In 1910, the brewery was bought by Georg Wörner and it became known simply as Brauerei Wörner and a bit later as Bürgerbräu.

In 1969, the sons of Georg Wörner - Theodore and Ludwig - were forced to move the brewing to a larger facility, in order to keep up with demand. The new brewery is located in the Bamberg suburb of Gaustadt, some 3 km north west of old town Bamberg. When Ludwig unexpectedly passed away in 1978, his son - Georg - had to abandon his studies and return to the family company to take over the reins as Georg Wörner II.

The Rathausschänke on Obere Brücke in Bamberg

Today, Kaiserdom Privatbrauerei is fully owned by the Wörner family and still headed by Georg Wörner II. The annually production of Kaiserdom beer is 350,000 hL, almost fifty times more than Brauerei Spezial, and the beer is exported to 33 countries around the world.

Even though Kaiserdom is now located outside central Bamberg, its tap room - the Rathausschänke - is still found in the heart of old town near the Obere Brücke - the bridge which takes tourists across the Regnitz river to the Altes Rathaus. In the summer season, you can sit at tables outside, on the cobble stone street, and enjoy the view of the river, the old town hall and all the weird tourists walking by.

As for the Kaiserdom beers I tried two nice ones from draft, the Meranier Schwarzbier (5%) and the Alt-Bamberg Zwickl (4.8%), and one from bottle, the Alt-Bamberg Dunkel (4.8%), which disappointed me as thin and tasteless. But I still enjoyed myself at Rathausschänke and had a pretty good lunch there too, a tasty Champignon-Rahm-Schnitzel.

Café Abseits
Even though most of this blog post has been about breweries and their tap rooms, Bamberg also sports some very decent beer bars and one in particular: Café Abseits on Pödeldorfer Straße 39.

The unasssuming entrance to Café Abseits

Café Abseits is the oldest student café and speciality beer bar in Bamberg. It looks very much like a student café inside, artsy with a young clientele and usually loud, modern music. But it also sports a cozy biergarten out back, where people can cool down, under shady trees, in the heat of the summer.

During my visit, the café had six different beers on tap, nothing really fancy but the Gänstaller-Bräu Zoigl was a nice surprise. They also had about 40 different beers on bottle, including five from Weyermann Versuchsbrauerei, the research brewery of the local malt producer Weyermann, where they test the quality of their malts by brewing small test batches of beer.

I spent a quiet afternoon in the biergarten, enjoying a number of good beers as well as the food provided by their kitchen. This really is a good beer bar and I can understand why, in the most recent annual RateBeer poll (January 2013), Café Abseits was rated the best beer bar in Germany.

Zoiglstube Gänstaller Drei Kronen
If you have some time to spare, which I know is unlikely in a city like Bamberg, you may consider taking a bus from near the Bahnhof Bamberg railway station to the small village of Schesslitz-Straßgiech. It's about 10 km east of Bamberg and is home to the newly opened Zoiglstube Gänstaller Drei Kronen. The buses leave frequently and take only half an hour to get there, and the bus stop in Straßgiech is within sight of the Drei Kronen, so it's really not so difficult.

Zoiglstube Gänstaller Drei Kronen in Straßgiech

Located in Drosendorfer Straße 24, with a sign on the wall saying "Brauerei Drei Kronen Gasthaus", this 700 year old brauhaus was recently purchased by Manuela and Andreas Gänstaller. The latter is the founder and brewmaster of Gänstaller-Bräu, one of the most exciting new breweries in Germany and the main reason I took the bus trip from Bamberg to Straßgiech. The couple renovated the interior of the old Drei Kronen buildings and reopened the pub in 2011 as the Zoiglstube Gänstaller Drei Kronen - the official tap room for the Gänstaller-Bräu brewery. As they put it:

We, Manuela and Andreas Gänstaller, had more than half a century of Frankish brewing experience when in 2011 we decided to breathe some life into Drei Kronen in Straßgiech. With our Zoiglstube concept we combine self-brewed beer of the highest quality with a "beery" kitchen. That means we do our utmost to serve you the freshest beer.

The restaurant part of the Zoiglstube can take 70 guests, the bar another 20 and the outdoor Bräuhof terrace around 90 guests, in the summer season. The Bräuhof terrace was not in use when I was there, though it looked like a great place to enjoy a beer, so I settled for a table inside. 

Even though the building housing the Zoiglstube Gänstaller Drei Kronen is very old, the interior is clean and new with golden wood panelling on the walls and ceiling and solid wooden furniture for the guests. It had a "homey" feel to it, with old art and deer antlers on the walls, big grandfather clocks, and flowers and tiny tablecloths on the tables.

While Andreas Gänstaller, naturally, is responsible for the beer at Zoiglstube, his wife Manuela is responsible for the Franconian fare on offer (though I spotted at least one male cook in the kitchen, when I arrived, so she does get some help with the cooking). In addition to some really good draft beers I tried their special Schnitzel dish, which instead of bread crumbs was coated in spent malt before the deep frying: It was just delicious, the malt adding a mild sweetness to the meat.

Gänstaller-Bräu Birra Kultura Scura
- a tasty Vienna lager at the Zoiglstube

Here are the four beers they had on tap during my visit:

- Gänstaller-Bräu (Drei Kronen) Kellerbier (5.3%): 2.00 euro
- Gänstaller-Bräu (Drei Kronen) Zoiglbier (5.8%): 2.20 euro
- Gänstaller-Bräu (Drei Kronen) Zwickelpils (5.1%): 2.00 euro
- Franz-Xaver-Gänstaller Märzen (5.6% rauchbier): 2.40 euro

The bottle menu was very limited, but they did have the local Hartmann Felsenweiße (5.2%).

Recently, RateBeer published its annual top lists and the Zoiglstube Gänstaller Drei Kronen in Straßgiech was rated the best brewpub in Germany in 2012, so it's well worth a visit if you're in Bamberg with an afternoon to spend.

Bamberger Zwiebel, a hearty Franconian speciality
- at Scheiners am Dom in Bamberg

For the rest of my photos from Bamberg see this Flickr set.

Monday, January 21, 2013

World class beer places in Stockholm

Despite being less than an hour's flight away from Oslo, I had never been to the Swedish capital until a business appointment forced my hand. Thus, on a cold Friday in early January 2013, I found myself on the Arlanda Express train from the airport to Stockholm Central Station, with three days at my disposal.

The Royal Palace in Stockholm seen from Skeppsholmsbron

Stockholm is the capital of Sweden and the largest city in the Nordic countries, with a population of 870 thousand in the city and more than 2 million in the greater Stockholm area. The city was founded sometime in the 13th century at the spot where Lake Mälaren empties out into the Baltic Sea. This was probably a strategically important place to settle, in order to protect entrance to the lake and the old settlements along its shores.

The city originally rose to prominence as a result of the Baltic trade of the Hanseatic League, but it was with the accession of Gustav Vasa to the throne in 1523 that Stockholm really grew into the major city it has remained ever since. Especially in the 17th and 18th century, with Sweden a major European power, did Stockholm take on much of the appearance it has today - with a massive royal palace, impressive architecture and a multitude of harbors.

Modern Stockholm is a mixture of history, art and culture, with endless waterfront walkways and small islets connected by bridges or ferries. Whether your thing is museums, theatres, island hopping, walking along beautiful canals and waterfronts, shopping or dining at great restaurants, Stockholm has it all. And, of course, it also has a world class beer scene.

The easiest way to get to Stockholm is to fly to Arlanda Airport and take the Arlanda Express train, departing up to five times an hour for most of the day. It takes you straight to Stockholm C, in the heart of modern Stockholm, in just 20 minutes.

Södermalmstorg in Stockholm seen from Katarinahissen
The beer scene
The beer scene in Stockholm is old by Nordic standards, several of the great beer places started up in the 1990s, just as the first wave of US craft brewing was peaking. Because of that, the older places still have close ties to US craft brewing, usually offering a number of US craft beers on draft. In addition to much else.

Because of their age, some of them twenty years old, the Stockholm beer bars feel more like great US beer bars than the more hip beer bars I've been to in Copenhagen and Oslo. In Stockholm, it feels like the most natural thing to ask for a SKA Modus Hoperandi or a Girardin Guezue Black Label 2001. No beers are hip, they're just plain, good quailty beers served by people who know what they're doing.

Because I only had three nights, one of which was a public holiday with many places closed, I only got to visit three beer bars on this trip - Monk's Porter House, House of Ales Oliver Twist and Akkurat Restaurang & Bar.

Monk's Porter House
Despite its old appearance, in the cellar of a protected 17th century building on Munkbron 11 in Gamla Stan ("old town"), the Monk's Porter House is actually a fairly new place, which opened up in 2010. It's one of several "daughter pubs" of the famous Monk's Café Wallingatan, in the north of Stockholm, which opened up in September 2006. Like its mother pub, Monk's Porter House is a working brewery, basically a brewpub, which focuses on dark beers, typically stouts and porters, as its name suggests.

Porter steak and stout at Monk's Porter House
When you arrive at Munkbron 11, walk in the main entrance and don't let the wine bar on the first floor fool you, but take a sharp right turn and head down the staircase into the basement. There you'll be met with walls and vaulted ceilings made out of old, reddish brick stones stained by time and what looks like open fires.

The bar is on the left hand and straight ahead you'll be able to peek in, through a large window, onto a dark, cave like room containing all the kegs connected to the tap lines of the bar. All in all, Monk's Porter House sports 56 tap lines, allowing visitors to try locally brewed beer, beer brewed at the Monk's Café mother pub and guest beers from all over the world. And with about 150 types of beer on bottle, again mostly porters and stouts, you should be able to find something to enjoy - if dark is your craving.

I settled by a small table in a dark corner, only lit by a candle. A rather romantic setting, if I had brought a partner, and certainly cozy. The bartender was on my case right away, giving great suggestions both for beers to try and for beers to drink along with my dinner - a tender and juicy porter steak which I ended up having with Monk's Café 101 Oktan imperial stout. A reasonably good match.

Monk's Porter House and Monk's Café both make seriously good beer. Usually strong too. On the night of my visit they had two well aged beers fron Monk's Café on draft, the 101 Oktan Imperial Stout and Trequartista, both around 10% abv and brewed in 2010, making them smooth and well rounded with age, but still very tasty and enjoyable. Of their own beers, I just had to try the Red Rauk'n Roll - a really well made smoke beer of 14,5% abv.

With my cheese dessert, the bartender suggested Dogfish Head World Wide Stout 2009, which turned out to be a great combination with the strong, slightly earthy flavor of the aged brie. Yummy.

Akkurat or Akkurat Restaurang & Bar was founded in 1997 and is located in Hornsgatan 11 in Södermalm, not far from the Slussen metro stop. From the outside it doesn't look like much, except for the reveiling red neon sign for North Coast Brother Thelonious. But once inside you'll be met by an impressive bar with a great number of beer taps and lots of exclusive bottles lined over the bar.

Akkurat Restaurang & Bar in Södermalm

Akkurat is not only the highest rated beer bar in Sweden but has for many years been rated as one of the best beer bars in the world, by the users of With a great draft beer selection and a truly amazing bottled beer menu, containing rare beers of many vintages, it's a place you can spend days and weeks without getting through it all. Akkurat is also one of the few places in the world participating in the annual Zwanze Day event, because of their long and close ties with Belgian lambic brewery Cantillon.

On my first visit, late on a Friday night, the place was so packed I had to stand in the second line by the bar. It didn't make for an enjoyable drinking experience, so the next day I was back shortly after their 3 o'clock opening to secure a spot at one of the long, wooden tables. That worked much better and I was even able to ask the very knowledgable bartenders about beer suggestions before they got swamped by the crowds.

Girardin Gueuze Black Label 2001 at Akkurat
As a sour ale lover, in particular lambic based sour ales, I was amazed by their bottled beer menu which sported several pages of lambics, gueuze, krieks and other fruit sour ales. My eyes fell on a 2001 vintage of Girardin Gueuze Black Label, this 11 year beer cost me just 175 swedish kroner for a 37,5 cl bottle. Ridiculously cheap for such an old an awesome beer!

I also got to try another old favorite of mine, Hair of the Dog Fred from the Wood of 2008 vintage. It was amazing. On draft I tried the very nice Monk's Blood from 21st Amendment, Gouden Carolus Christmas from Het Anker and Närke Vintermörker to name a few.

After my two visits two Akkurat, I understand why this place is so highly rated. But you should make sure to be there early in the day, before it gets too crowded and noisy.

Oliver Twist
House of Ales Oliver Twist opened up to the drinking public in May 1993 and it can still be found in Repslagargatan 6, just a block south of Akkurat, in Södermalm. It radiates more of a neighborhood pub feel than the worldly Akkurat, with a dark, English type of pub atmosphere. The ceiling is covered by banners, for beer as well as sports teams, while the walls are covered with beer ads and blackboards listing what's on tap.

The impressive bar at House of Ales Oliver Twist

Unlike at Akkurat, it never felt that crowded on Oliver Twist, even late on a Saturday night I found a small table to sit down at. The bartender knew his beers, both the Swedish and the American brands. I also enjoyed two good meals at Oliver Twist, a rich and tasty fish soup for lunch one day and a tender sirloin steak for dinner the next. Along with the steak I enjoyed the delicious Belgian Style Yeti from Great Divide Brewing Company, which I thought was a good match.

Because of the neighborhood feel, with many regulars sitting in the bar, it seemed easier to get involved in conversation about beer and food. And when I forgot my guidebook, it was handed over to the bartender who gave it back to me when I returned the next day. Thus, even after just two visits I feel very much at home at Oliver Twist.

Regarding the beer selection at Oliver Twist. On draft I tried several American classics, such as Avery The Maharaja, SKA Brewing Modus Hoperandi and Rogue Ales Old Crustacean, in addition to a number of beers I'd never had before - such as Magic Rock Dark Star from England and the awesome Nils Oscar Saison 2009. On bottle I got to try a couple of rare beers from American craft brewer Michael Lalli, his Brewmaster's Signature Gose and Grätzer.

Choc Brewmaster's Signature Grätzer at OT

All in all, Stockholm more than impressed me as a cultural and craft beer city. Akkurat is just as good as its RateBeer ranking says, though I felt that the atmosphere at Monk's Porter House was more cozy and that Oliver Twist had a more homey, neighborhood feel. But all three pubs are worth several visits, their beer selection will keep you busy for days.

I will surely return, but probably when the weather is a bit warmer than in January.

More photos from my trip to Stockholm can be found at Flickr.