40 Years in Beer, Part Thirty Four: In 1991, a smoky Bamberg sojourn with Happy Helmut

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Stein hoisting at the final beer fest in Maximiliansplatz, 1991.

Previously: 40 Years in Beer, Part Thirty-Three: Herzlich Willkommen in der Weltbierkulturerbe-Stadt Bamberg.

Photo credit.

Prior to the summer of 1991 and my first visit to Bamberg, the only smoked beer I’d ever tasted was Kaiserdom Rauchbier, as imported in the United States by the seminal Merchant du Vin importing company (founded in Seattle in 1978).

Occasionally I’d stock a case of Kaiserdom Rauchbier at Scoreboard Liquors in New Albany, and usually proceed to drink most of it myself. Although my comprehension of beer styles was rudimentary, I found smoked lager utterly fascinating—and most of my friends found this state-of-palate alarming.

The family-owned Kaiserdom was, and remains, the largest Bamberg brewery in terms of output. While it retains a local presence, much of its production during the modern era has been brewed for export, either to distant locales where “Made in Germany” on the label is recommendation enough, or via companies like Merchant du Vin, which would actively commission premium-priced examples of what then were under-represented beer styles, a revolutionary and successful strategy during primitive pre-craft beer times.

Later during a Kaiserdom brewery tour in 1995, I learned that its export emphasis could be confounding to workers on the shop floor. Specifically, our guide seemed genuinely shocked that we’d come all the way from America seeking Kaiserdom Rauchbier, of which precisely none was present for the tasting. After all, he explained, a Kaiserdom affiliate out in the Franconian hinterlands was actually responsible for brewing THAT sort of old-fashioned beer, which only presumably crazy foreigners cared to drink.

But wouldn’t we like to try a bottle of Kaiserdom’s trendy new Techno Beer, labelled to suit the participants of Berlin’s annual Love Parade, complete with a “trance pipeline” (i.e., an attached paper soda straw) to  facilitate consumption?

In case you think I’m joking (at Kaiserdom in 1995).

Apparently no one at Kaiserdom had bothered to read my fax requesting the tour, which clearly stated that Rauchbier was our sole reason for coming.

My guess is that in 2023, having invested in improvements to its hotel and restaurant in the Gaustadt neighborhood, in addition to purchasing Bamberg’s Klosterbräu brewery (which only recently began brewing a Rauchbier), Kaiserdom’s owners at last understands the significance of the smoked lager renaissance as it applies to the brewery’s own home town.

If so, it took them long enough.

Honestly I’ve no idea whether Kaiserdom Rauchbier still exists. I’ve never spotted it once in Bamberg during a dozen or more subsequent trips, and Merchant du Vin no longer makes mention. Kaiserdom Rauchbier pops up occasionally on the beer ratings web sites, with some “reviews” badly dated and others more recent. Unsurprisingly, Rauchbier is nowhere to be found at Kaiserdom’s internet home page.

But in its day, Kaiserdom’s “anonymous rural subsidiary’s” Rauchbier adequately scratched the smoked beer itch, even if there was nothing whatever to compare it to until Don and I patronized the Spezial and Schlenkerla taverns in 1991 and grasped that just because Michael “Beer Hunter” Jackson had made Bamberg famous for smokiness, this didn’t mean that all local breweries brewed one (Greifenklau’s everyday lager has a hint of smoke but wouldn’t be classified as a Rauchbier).

To the point, whether Kaiserdom, Spezial or Schlenkerla, I loved Rauchbier from the very start. It was a burgeoning fixation that reached an early pinnacle on 28 March 1992, following my return from teaching in Košice, when Barrie Ottersbach and I convened at his house in the Knobs for Smoke ‘Em If You’ve Got ‘Em Day.

It’s hard to forget what you barely remember.

I’d ordered a case of Kaiserdom Rauchbier from Nachand Beverage via Scoreboard, and it was lightly chilled. Barrie smoked a hunk of venison. We puffed on Cuban cigars I’d brought back from Europe. The ostensible occasion was March Madness, the annual NCAA college basketball tournament, and accordingly, amid a dense haze of beer, deer and tobacco, Duke University’s Christian Laettner closed the evening by “smoking” the University of Kentucky Wildcats, sinking one of the most (in)famous game-winning shots in tournament history.

I coughed up ashtray-tinged hairballs for days, but damn, that was fun.

So what exactly is smoked beer?

During the malting process, when barley from the field is prepared for use in brewing, the grain is soaked with water to initiate germination, then dried to arrest it. The method of drying is key.

Traditional floor malting involves spreading the wet grain around a large open area and allowing natural evaporation to do the trick. Later during the Industrial Revolution, exposure to indirect heat (kilning) came into being and was constantly refined, allowing variations of color to emerge from the intensity of the heat; as an example, consider the difference between light and dark roasted coffee.

But there was another way of drying barley after malting. A fire was built and the wet barley placed above it by means of a grate, and the rising smoke passed through the barley, both drying and permeating it.

Beechwood at Spezial, 2009.

Happily for smoke-heads like me, Bamberg’s otherwise archaic tradition of beechwood-smoked malt has survived various technical revolutions, and thanks to latter-day advocates like Matthias Trum, owner of the Brauerei Heller-Trum (Schlenkerla), we now understand that proficiency and consistency in the smoking process is perhaps even more “artisanal” than brewing the beer with smoked malt. And how many breweries the world over now use Weyermann Malting’s smoked (in Bamberg) malt as part of their brewing process?

At any rate, 32 years later, Rauchbier and Bamberg are synonymous, even among those tourists who know little else about beer. That’s an unqualified good.

Don and I arrived in Bamberg well aware that Schlenkerla and Spezial were the two primary destinations for smoked beer enthusiasts. Granted, we didn’t know that Kaiserdom Rauchbier’s native habitat was located in New York City, Chicago and San Francisco, not Franconia, which mattered little in the end.

Before we had come anywhere near Bamberg, I imagined the experience would rank as a pivotal highlight of my whole beer-drinking life up to that point—and damned if those few days in 1991 didn’t exceed the pre-game hype in every significant respect.

My own “Road to Damascus” eventually was revealed to run along a street called Obere Königstraße, but as a measure of my certainty that Bamberg would be all that, and in spite of my eagerness to go straight there, Don and I chose a dilatory route. Our itinerary was designed to mimic baseball’s spring training, allowing us to build up stamina by sampling various other beer shrines first, and building toward the anticipated Franconian crescendo.

After the last Vienna whisky malt waltz faded gently into a starry Nussdorf evening (note), we grabbed a few hours of sleep before hopping a tram for Westbahnhof to board a train for Munich (note), but not before purchasing the ritual sandwiches, beers and International Herald Tribune newspaper necessary for an enriching, scenic trip.

According to the July, 1992 edition of the Thomas Cook European Timetable, which still graces a bookshelf in my home library, the Eurocity express train dubbed “Mozart” left Vienna at 09.00 daily and arrived in Munich at 13.48.

Did we take that train? I believe so. On arrival in Munich I’m confident that Don would have insisted on having beers at the cherished Gleis 16 Imbiss (note), assuming it hadn’t yet been swept away by modernization. Surely we took the U-Bahn (subway) to the Königsplatz stop, only a block’s stroll from the Pension Hungaria and consummate hospitality offered by Frau Erika Wolf and her family.

Ayinger brewery garden in Aying, 1991.

In Munich our customary museum visits and walking excursions took precedence during daylight hours. I recall one hike from the pension to Schloss Nymphenburg, which Google Maps informs me is roughly seven miles roundtrip. There’d have been sausages and beers for lunch, then full-scale, trencherman’s extravaganzas come evening while revisiting the classic beer halls and gardens.

One gorgeous day we rode the S-Bahn (suburban rail) for 45 minutes south to the immaculate village of Aying in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, enjoying quality time with the superb Ayinger Brauerei, and with it a chance to compare long-familiar bottled imports with their superior local draft versions.

From Munich a short rail trip brought us to Regensburg on the Danube, a city neither of us had visited previously. We explored the old town, crossed the 12th-century stone bridge and dined at the world’s oldest surviving sausage vendor (founded 1146), accentuating Regensburg’s many positives by drinking deeply of the local beers, including Thurn und Taxis (long since defunct), Kneitinger and Spital, the latter operating a quintessential riverside beer garden.

The historic sausage kitchen in Regensburg, 1991.

Then at last came time for Bamberg, where we had reserved a room at the venerable inn known as the Maisel Bräu Stübl, which shortly thereafter was rebranded as Bamberger Weissbierhaus. This very old building had been the original brewery tap of Maisel Bräu (1894 -2008), which was located about 15 minutes away by foot. The half-dozen upstairs guest rooms overlooked a delightful green courtyard.

The long-term landlords were two women, a formidable duo of business partners who ran a tight ship. The dishes emerging from their kitchen were sublime, especially Schweinkoteletten mit Meerrettich (pork chops with horseradish), which I swear to you I can still taste these many decades later. The house Maisel beers were well-tended, and Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen was kept in bottles.

The front room by the main entrance had a counter without stools for standing-only service, and a few tables. To the rear was a slightly larger dining room, accessible from the courtyard via a gate to the rear side street. When the kitchen closed, the back room filled up with card-playing, chain smoking regulars, mostly men, who stayed late and left an odiferous footprint the next morning when it came time for breakfast, which was a hearty selection off salami, cheese, hardboiled eggs and rolls, as included in the room price.

The back room at Maisel Bräu Stübl,, 1995.

Smoked beer, smoked sausages with morning coffee, and an entire room “smoked nightly” with cigarettes. There was a certain elemental symmetry to the Maisel Bräu Stübl/Bamberger Weissbierhaus, and it wasn’t hard to imagine the calendar showed 1951, not 1991.

Maisel Bräu’s demise in 2008 was traumatic, the first subtraction from Bamberg’s seemingly fixed brewery lineup since before to our first expedition. Apparently the Maisel family tree had become (shall we say) sickly, and disagreements over money led to a sale, with the absentee buyers quickly running the business aground. Happily Maisel’s superlative outdoor seating area was preserved amid subsequent mixed-use redevelopment of the property, to be annexed by the ever-industrious family that owns the Fässla brewery.

Bamberger Weissbierhaus apparently carried on until 2021, when the pub’s lease was not renewed. A restaurant called Karl Anton operates there now, proposing to increase the number of guest rooms and add a “craft” coffee roastery, perhaps in the courtyard: “Do what we like”: Bamberg’s traditional restaurant opens on Thursday under a new name.

This begs an important question: How many breweries actually were working in Bamberg in 1991, and how did we even begin making sense of the profusion of choices?

Apart from ongoing brewing businesses in Bamberg there were independent, non-brewing restaurants, bars and beer gardens featuring regional beers brewed outside the city, as well as a range of brewery artifacts from anywhere and everywhere available for purchase in antique shops. “Ghost” brewery signs adorned buildings all over town. All of it combined to induce sensory overload and suggest the existence of numerous former breweries.

Indeed, it isn’t possible to know exactly how many breweries have been operational in Bamberg throughout history, especially prior to the 20th century. However the more recently verifiable numbers are impressive enough. Among the English-speaking chroniclers of the area, Ron Pattinson believes there were 65 breweries in Bamberg in 1818, and John Conen reports 19 at the conclusion of WWII.

Bamberg wasn’t heavily bombed during the war, but raids near the conflict’s end destroyed the Kleebaum, Kaiserwirt and Wilde Rose breweries. Other renowned local breweries surviving into the post-WWII era were Bamberger Hofbräu, Brauerei zum Polarbär (which later became Löwenbräu Bamberg), Brauerei Ringlein, and Brauerei Einhorn (“Unicorn”; open until the 1960s).

Brauerei Michaelsberg, which prior to secularization in 1803 was a Benedictine brewery located in the majestic hilltop Michaelsberg Abbey, closed in 1969, but rights to the recipes were purchased by Maisel (we drank some Dunkels during our stay in Maisel Bräu Stübl). Part of the former Michaelsberg Abbey brewery now houses the Franconia Brewery Museum.

The Franconia Brewery Museum, Michaelsberg Abbey.

In the absence of the internet, it’s unclear to me how Don and I knew what to expect upon arrival in Bamberg in 1991. We eventually arrived at the assumption that there were nine breweries, information gleaned from Jackson’s Pocket Guide to Beer.

  • Fässla
  • Greifenklau
  • Kaiserdom
  • Keesman
  • Klosterbräu
  • Mahrs
  • Maisel
  • Schlenkerla (officially, the Brauerei Heller-Trum)
  • Spezial

Jackson did mention these nine, even if Schlenkerla and Kaiserdom were the only two to receive “feature” billing in his “pocket’ text, but he also included a tenth, Löwenbräu (lion’s brew) Bamberg, which was already gone (circa 1989) before my edition of Jackson’s book was published. Perhaps he’d been conducting field research during its final months.

During the early 1990s, I memorized the preceding list of nine breweries, and this remained my personal Bamberg gospel until 2004, when Ambräusianum, the city’s first newer-generation brewpub, opened in the Old Town one door down from Schlenkerla. As noted, Maisel closed four years later, and at some point, the small experimental brewery at the Weyermann malting house began releasing beers to the public via its gift shop, as well as the Café Abseits (which enters our narrative at a later date).

Shortly thereafter the international craft brewing explosion found its way to Franconia. As of mid-2023, the excellent Beer Wanderers web site records five new breweries opening in Bamberg since 2013: Ahörnla, Hopfengarten, Kronprinz, Landwinkl and Sternla. I have not been to any of them.

Obviously a return journey is merited.

Upon settling into inexpensive but functional and clean rooms at Maisel-Brau-Stubl, Don and I immediately fathomed the importance of Obere Königstraße (the street right outside). It led directly to two breweries (Spezial and Fässla) to the north, and indirectly southward to three others (Mahrs, Keesman and Maisel Bräu).

Of the remaining urban breweries, we gleaned from our map that it would be a brief ten-minute walk to the Old Town for Schlenkerla, where an appearance was non-negotiable (when it came, Klosterbräu was situated nearby and we had beers there, too). Greifenklau and Kaiserdom were a bit further afield, and neither factored into our 1991 itinerary.

As it turned out, our fondness for Spezial proved insurmountable. It was close to our quarters, and we made a stop each evening of our stay. Spezial’s crisp, mid-range Rauchbier, called Lagerbier, remains one of my favorite beers ever, anywhere, any time. If there’s such a thing as beer “umami,” then Spezial’s Lagerbier exemplifies it.

At Spezial in 2018; very little had changed in the intervening 27 years. Bock to the left, Lagerbier to the right.

So it was at Spezial on our first night in Bamberg that Happy Helmut found us, proving to be a providential interlocutor capable of helping us make sense of Bamberg’s beery expanses, and leaving such an indelible impression that 14 years later, once NABC’s original three-barrel brewing system was in place, our brewer Jared Williamson honored both Bamberg and Helmut with a special beer. I described it retrospectively in 2007.

NABC Happy Helmut
Souvenirs, Novelties, Party Tricks
Happy Helmut was named for a merry trinket salesman with whom Roger and Beak once drank numerous half-liters of Spezial while vacationing in Bamberg. The beer was intended as an homage to Franconian traditions in brewing, with smoked malt, a touch of rye and lager yeast. Helmut later was merged into Smoked Abzug, which also hasn’t been brewed for a while. There may need to be a revival. 4.5% abv.

NABC graphic by the inimitable Tony Beard.

As happens so often while traveling, Helmut’s chance acquaintance was short and memorable—and I’ve never seen him since. In 1991 it didn’t once occur to me to take Helmut’s picture, and the business card he gave me unfortunately was misplaced. The overwhelming odds are that Helmut is no longer with us, but I’ll always remain grateful to him for acting as concierge.

Bamberg couldn’t have asked for a more passionate and endearing civic ambassador.

We entered Spezial by means of the passageway from street to inner courtyard, which at the time was taken up by the brewery’s working space. There was a service window to the left equipped with a dinger for walk-up beers to go, and the requisite crates for returnable bottles. Inside the tavern door (also to the left) was a small room similar to a snug in the British Isles, although larger.

Brauerei Spezial, Bamberg’s “other” smoked beer maker, in 1991.

The main room was faced by a small service counter supporting a very old cash register, and dominated by a huge green Central European-issue tile stove. In cold weather the occasional customers could be seen placing their mugs on the stove to warm the beer. An immersion heater kept by the register also was available for temperature adjustment.

We found empty seats at one of the long, scrubbed wooden tables, stumbled through the ordering process in halting Ger-lish, and were quickly approached by two men, one of them a German who appeared to be in his late 50s, wearing a well-tended gray vintage suit and bearing a wispy, 1930s-era William “The Thin Man” Powell mustache.

It was Helmut.

The clean-cut younger man accompanying him asked if the adjacent seats were free (this being standard communal table etiquette), and his American English immediately revealed him to be a countryman of ours. That’s how it started.

In the years to follow, Spezial’s shared tables would inspire an astounding array of multinational conversations with complete strangers, which almost always included valuable tips about the Bamberg beer scene. Once or twice these conversations led to a combining of forces to visit breweries.

Helmut ran a novelty shop with his wife Jutta, and when I saw his long-mislaid business card a line from the old movie Top Secret immediately came to mind: “Souvenirs, novelties, party tricks.” An above-average English speaker, Helmut exhibited a cheerful countenance, hence my nickname for him; he was visibly delighted that Americans had come to his hometown for a beer-drinking holiday.

We had chosen wisely, he said.

Soon we learned that the American was a soldier, who also had met Helmut while drinking beer at Spezial and was stationed at the Warner Barracks, a sizeable U.S. Army base on Bamberg’s northeast side (it finally was closed in 2014). Bizarrely, the soldier, whose name is lost to me, came to military service from rural Kentucky via Okolona, a neighborhood on Louisville’s southwest periphery not far from my home.

Such a small world. Why didn’t we stay in touch?

Introductions were made and the beers came. We were fortunate to have found a genuine local beer enthusiast to answer questions and offer opinions. Amid the conversation and pork platters, Helmut eventually toddled off to visit the W.C., and the soldier from Okolona dutifully filled in the blanks, which proved to be a sadly familiar story.

It seems that Helmut’s father never returned from the Eastern Front during WWII, and after the war ended, with the American military presence in Bamberg becoming semi-permanent owing to the Cold War, our G.I.s filled a psychological need. The American soldiers had been kind to Helmut and children like him, and helpful overall during the postwar recovery.

Assuredly there had been American soldiers who were louts, but Helmut chose to ignore them. He’d have voted for Ronald Reagan if given the opportunity. During the early period of my travels, I often heard stories like this, told by older Europeans who recalled the aftermath of the war, thoughtfully compared their experiences with life behind the Iron Curtain (where the USSR reigned supreme) and as a result generally were well disposed toward Americans.

Our days in Bamberg passed quickly, and saw Happy Helmut again. He wasn’t the only aspect of the local scene that materialized only once, never to be repeated; over the weekend we happened upon an open-air beer festival under way at Maximiliansplatz (also the site of the main Christmas market).

Beer fest at Maximiliansplatz, 1991.

Beers and food were being vended, an oom-pah band performed alongside more contemporary artists, and we witnessed a stein-hoisting contest won by a short, slight, latter-day hippie type whose unexpected strength may have been derived from the ingestion of substances not containing barley malt.

I was amazed that several hundred people were being served beer in glasses made of glass, for which the drinker put down a deposit roughly equal to the cost of the liquid, to be refunded when the glass was returned intact. I’d never seen anything like that at an outdoor beer festival at home.

Years later Matthias Trum told me that we had stumbled upon the last such summer beer fest, which originated as a way to tout local breweries, but was discontinued because it landed too close on the calendar to the city’s traditional Sandkerwa street festival in late August.

Leaving Bamberg wasn’t easy. All I could do was vow that Franconia would continue to factor into my future, and it has. Don had a flight to catch in Frankfurt, and I was headed to Copenhagen for a Danish interlude, later to meet my friend Suzanne in northeastern Germany before making the trek to Kösice. Two weeks away from home…and another 20-something to go.

Next: The road to Kösice.

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