Bamberg’s Storied Rauchbier: A Brief History of Smoke and Beer
Over twenty years had passed since I stopped off briefly in Bamberg en route between Prague and Heidelberg with an old friend on a crazy road trip in my grandma’s rickety Renault 5. On that sunny afternoon in the early nineties, we snapped the requisite photos of the Altes Rathaus straddling the River Regnitz before heading off for a Bamberger specialty that a fellow traveler in Prague had told us was absolutely de rigeur: Rauchbier. I still remember the light breeze that cooled that midsummer’s day as we sat down to a meal of Weisswurst and a taste of this fabled beer. For the life of me, I can’t remember where we ate, but I do remember that first perception-altering smell and sip of Rauchbier: this was possible in a beer?
The day dawned gray over the Danube as my train rolled out of Vienna’s main train station. Verdant green fields punctuated by stands of forests in full autumn regalia held firm against the somber weather as the train chugged toward Bamberg. By midday, the sky had descended over the craggy spires of Bamberg, lending this old city a uniquely enchanting atmosphere, as if I had stepped into an etching of a medieval landscape: the perfect backdrop for my return to Bamberg for another round of this historic beer.
Bamberg in Beer History
Situated at the edge of the Steigerwald where the forested mountains meet the Regnitz Valley, Bamberg has been called “the Rome of Germany.” With its seven hills and meandering river, and with its monasteries and church steeples piercing the skyline, it’s easy to see why. A heavy dose of ecclesiastical authority hasn’t hurt Bamberg’s claim to this title either, especially after Emperor Heinrich II made Bamberg a family inheritance and raised it to the status of a bishopric in 1007.
The history of Bamberg’s beer is almost as old as that of the city itself. First mentioned in 902, Bamberg sprung up in the shadow of the fortress erected by the Babenbergs, who also gave Bamberg its name. Beer showed up in the records not long after.
By 1122, Bishop Otto had formally extended brewing rights (the Braurecht*) to the Benedictine monks of Kloster Michaelsberg (now home to the Franconian Brewery Museum), but this wasn’t the beginning of brewing history in Bamberg. In 1039, the Cathedral Canon Ouldaricus is said to have decreed free beer for all on the yearly anniversary of his death.
If the first beers of Bamberg were brewed by monks, the ascendant merchant classes took over firing up the beer kettles with the rise of industrialization. By the turn of the nineteenth century, over seventy brewing establishments were serving up food and tankards of beer to a citizenry numbering 17,000 thirsty souls. The number of breweries dwindled markedly during the twentieth century, accelerating precipitously in the postwar period. Today, depending on how you count them, eleven breweries operate within a few scenic kilometers of one another in a city that now numbers 73,000 citizens.
By happy accident, though, not even the combined force of brewery closures, industry consolidation, and advances in brewing technology could efface one traditional aspect of the brewing process in Bamberg: malting grain over a beechwood fire. The serendipitous result is Rauchbier, a beguilingly smoky beer so unique among today’s beers that Slow Food adopted it as a “passenger” on its Ark of Taste** in 2017, specifically citing the traditional malting techniques of Bamberg’s Aecht Schlenkerla and Spezial.
*In Medieval times, the Braurecht (the right to brew/“gruit right”) was one of the privileges granted by a land owner or territorial ruler.
**Slow Food’s Ark of Taste is a global initiative that seeks to preserve traditional foods and production process.
Stories and fables abound about the smoky flavour of Bamberg’s famous beer. One legend has it that a fire broke it in one of Bamberg’s breweries and the smoke penetrated the malt. The brewer, who was poor, was forced to brew a beer with this compromised malt. Contrary to everyone’s worst expectations, this beer tasted so good that Rauchbier became a sought-after beer style.
But the truth about how Bamberg’s breweries get the smoke into their beer is much more mundane. Green malt — grain that has begun the process of germination and is still moist — always had to be dried before it could be crushed and mashed. In warmer climes where beer originated, aspiring brewers could dry their grain in the sun. Not so in the cooler regions of Northern Europe, where the most prevalent means of drying the green malt was an open fire. The smoke from these fires penetrated the malt, imparting those air-dried meat, smoked ham, bacon, and campfire notes that so many of us prize today.
Though indirect methods of drying green malt have been known for centuries, technical developments during the eighteenth century made it possible to kiln malt on a large scale with clean-burning coke and the circulation of hot air. By the early decades of the 1800s, smoky beer had all but vanished as the wood fires of old made way for new technologies more suitable to mass production — except among a handful of breweries in Bamberg.
Rauchbier is not the only beer available in Bamberg, and Aecht Schlenkerla and Spezial are not the only breweries that brew Rauchbier. But the two breweries are the only ones that have preserved the old tradition of kilning their malt over a beechwood fire. If you have time for only a handful of breweries in Bamberg, make sure that both of these are on your itinerary.
Odds and Ends: The Franconian Brewery Museum
If you’d like a dash of history with your Rauchbier, fortify yourself with a beer and set out for the steep walk up the Michaelsberg to the Franconian Brewery Museum. Located in the former Benedictine monastery where beer first flowed forth in Bamberg, this museum displays over 1800 artifacts related to the history of beer and brewing in Franconia. Though it’s a little short on interpretive texts, the artifacts themselves speak volumes. (As someone who has been involved with museums for several years, I hasten to add that you can hardly blame the folks at the museum for the dearth of wall texts and labels. All of them work there on a volunteer basis. Consider becoming a museum member — the annual rate is very modest — so that the staff can afford to invest more money in their displays.) Some of my favourite artifacts include the implements used in the cellars and ice chambers that predated modern refrigeration. The old advertising placards are fascinating as well, evoking the submerged history of the dozens of breweries that once plied their trade in Bamberg.
Aecht Schlenkerla. History of the brewery; origin of its name; history of the process.
Brauerei Spezial. History of the brewery; history of smoked malt.
Bambodo Bamberg. On Ouldacarius’s proclamation of free beer and other historical details. (Note: The article contains a typo regarding the date of Ouldacarius’s proclamation.)
Roland Dusik. Franken. 2nd ed. (Ostfildern: Dumont Reiseverlag, 2018).
Christian Fiedler. Bamberg: Die wahre Hauptstadt des Bieres. 3rd ed. (Bamberg: Bamberger Bier, 2005).
Fränkisches Brauereimuseum. FBM News. Various volumes from 2015 to 2019.
Slow Food Deutschland e.V. “Bamberger Rauchbier traditioneller Herstellungsart” (2017).
Smoked Beer. Wikipedia.
All images by F.D. Hofer
© 2019 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.