The German city of Bamberg, in Franconia, is one of the world’s best beer-drinking destinations. It has a lot of breweries all close together, a lot of excellent beer variety, a lot of dark cosy old taverns and plenty of sunny beer gardens, and it's a handsome place to walk around (just look at the Old Town Hall in the picture above). Here’s everything you might want to know when visiting.
First, the beer: Bamberg offers the widest range of lager diversity in any German town, and if you really want to taste the breadth of lagered beers then there’s nowhere better to go: bitter Pilsners, bright and toasty Helles, malty amber lagers, old-style brown lagers and black lagers, Rauchbier or smoked lager, seasonal lagers like strong Bock and cloudy Kellerbier, plus some excellent Weissbier (because you need a beer to go with breakfast). Below I'll suggest the essential beer to try in each brewery.
Probably the most famous tavern in town, this is home to the beers of Heller-Bräu Trum, better known as Schlenkerla. The tavern has been there for over 600 years, and brewing took place there for much of its history (now the brewery is a short walk away). Stepping through the big wooden door is like walking through a time warp with its old stone floor, dark wood, the smell of broth and roasting meat, and big oak barrels from which a dark lager pours. That lager is a local speciality: Rauchbier, or smoked beer. The malt for this beer is kilned over a beechwood fire, and it sucks up the smokiness and gives us a taste of beer from centuries ago when all beer likely had a depth of smoke. Schlenkerla's Rauchbier Märzen is a deep, dark brown colour, it's robust, roasted, and really smoky like a leg of smoked ham charred on a bonfire (and I think that it's quite a different experience to drink it fresh from the barrel rather than from the bottle). It's an unusual and unexpected taste to begin, and it might take a few gulps to taste past just the intensity of smoke, but there's something deeply satisfying about drinking this beer in this tavern. It's an unmissable beer experience in Bamberg and my favourite place to sit is inside and in the first room on your right. Go there and you'll know why. Just one warning: this is not a place for vegetarians and vegans should just bring their own food (that's true for most of Bamberg, actually...)
Rauchbier is a speciality of Bamberg and the city is seen as the custodians of this old taste of beer, with many assuming that every brewery makes it. They don't, and frankly that's because not many people actually want to sit and drink mug after mug of it (there's a reason we prefer non-smoked beers). Alongside Schlenkerla's Rauchbier, Spezial is the only other brewery to make a smoked lager all year round. Spezial's is lighter and less intensely smoky than Schlenkerla’s, with a soft texture and a more-ish depth. They also have an unfiltered kellerbier called Ungespundet and a good Hefeweizen. The tavern gets very busy and it’s a popular place with locals, so you might want to book ahead if you want to eat. Drink in the courtyard out the back of the tavern and you might be able to peek into the brewhouse. There are hotel rooms above the tavern which are affordable and comfortable, and the brewery also has a beer garden across the town, Spezial Keller (see below), which is excellent.
Opposite Spezial is Fässla. You’ll enter into the schwemme, something many of Bamberg’s breweries have, and it’s a stand-up drinking space where regulars head to meet friends or just enjoy a beer or two after work (the local anecdote is that the men would stop there for a drink and upon returning home they could 'honestly' reply to their wife's questioning and say they hadn't been in the tavern, because they'd technically been outside of it). The brewery is at the back and the main drinking area is on your right as you enter. Here you can drink a bright and bitter Pils and a maltier and slightly darker Lagerbier (that's my favourite), a dark lager, a light and a dark wheat, and sometimes a bock. Beer and food are both good, and look for the day menu for more dining choice. They also have rooms upstairs which are basic but ideal for beer travellers (until you get woken by the bottling line early in the morning).
My favourite beers in Bamberg are from Mahrs. The brewery and tavern are next to each other, a mile-or-so east of the centre of town, and there’s a small garden out the front if the weather is good. You’ll walk into a schwemme with a serving hatch and you can order from there or sit inside. They have three barrels on the side (though they don’t seem to be pouring directly from the barrel and are probably connected to a tank or keg in the cellar) and have a smooth Helles, a dry and bitter Pils and aU, the latter their most renowned beer and a malty, amber-colour, unfiltered lager that's a taste of the traditional kinds of lagerbier you'll find all around Franconia. In the summer they'll also have Sommer Pils, a little hoppy lager, and in February they have a dark Weizenbock, while in October they release a Heller Bock. Mahrs manage to transition the traditions of Franconia and the excitement of modern craft beer.
Turn left out of Mahrs and on the other side of the street is Brauerei Keesmann. Their Herren Pils is a very bitter and hop-aromatic Pilsner, which makes a sharply refreshing contrast to some of the maltier lagers in Bamberg, while their Helles is a really great soft-bodied and still-crisp golden beer. The brewery is out the back of the tavern and there’s both standing and sitting space here, including a small garden in the brewery yard.
This is the oldest brewery in a town of very old breweries. It’s a few minutes walk from Schlenkerla and the Old Town Hall and you pretty much pass it if you walk up to Spezial-Keller or Wilde Rose – see below. It serves traditional food and beer, including a Kellerbier, a Braunbier, and Schwärzla, a black beer. Try the darker beers for a taste of the older types of lagers brewed in this region. If you see their Bockbier Hell then it's excellent (but strong, so beware).
You have to walk up hill to get to Griefenklau, but you’ll get used to walking up hills if you visit Bamberg as there are seven of them leading in and out of the centre. When you arrive, short of breath, you'll come to a large restaurant and a beer garden (with 500 seats) where you can drink a good Lagerbier, Hefeweizen, Pils and Kellerbier. The food portions are big and it's classic beer hall dishes.
This is the last of the central Bamberg breweries and it’s a few doors down from Schlenkerla. Have a look inside and you can see the brewery, but unless you’re the kind of completist drinker that has to visit every brewery in town then I don't think this is an essential stop. I’m a completist so I’ve been there a couple of times and a couple of times I’ve wished that I’d skipped it – the beers are fine but there’s so much more great beer in Bamberg.
THE KELLERS AND OTHER TAVERNS
When the sun comes out go to the beer gardens, or kellers. Spezial-Keller is one of the best. To get there, head up Stephansberg, one of Bamberg’s seven hills, then when you get to Sternwartstraße you’ll see a sign for Heller-Bräu Trum. This is where the Schlenkerla brewery is but you can’t visit so take the left and keep going up hill. You’ll see signs for Spezial-Keller on the right. Sit outside, if you can, as the view back over town is great. They serve their Rauchbier as well as a couple of other beers, and the food is good.
Directly next to Spezial-Keller is Wilde Rose Keller, although (frustratingly) you’ll need to go back down to the main street and turn left at Heller-Bräu Trum (and go up another hill) to get there. It’s worth it as it's a quintessential Bavarian beer garden. It's huge, there are loads of trees, a bandstand with live music, and different food choices (or you can take your own). You go to collect your beers from the self-service area. It’s one of the best beer gardens you can visit and they serve a Hefeweizen and a Keller lager.
Back in the middle of town and a traditional restaurant which serves a few local brews is Zum Sternla. If you want to drink something a little different then there’s a good bottle shop, Die Bierothek, right near Spezial and Fässla (it’s left out of Spezial on that side of the street) and there’s also Café Abseits, a bar a little way out of town which always has some great local (non-Bamberg) lagers on tap, including Mönchsambacher, as well as a large range of bottled beer.
One other place you can visit is Weyermann’s, the maltings (one of two in Bamberg, the other being Bamberger Malzerei). Weyermann’s have a small brewery and there’s a shop on site to buy beer and other merchandise.
STUFF TO KNOW
When to go…
It’s great in winter, when you can warm up in the snug beer halls with full-bodied and malty lagers, and it’s equally great in summer when the beer gardens are open and you can drink cool pale lagers outside. The Christmas market in December is one of the best I've visited. Or go in late July to coincide with Annafest in Forchheim, one of Germany’s best beer festivals.
Where to stay…
There are two breweries which have nice, simple accommodation: Fässla and Spezial. Or just stay somewhere central and walkable. The most central point of Bamberg would be somewhere between Spezial and Schlenkerla and from there you’ll never be more than a 20-minute walk from where you’ll want to go.
When you’re not drinking…
There’s lots of stuff to do and you could easily spend a week exploring the nearby area. Bamberg is built in between seven hills, so bring good shoes and be prepared to walk a little. The Old Town Hall is the famous landmark, and it’s right in the middle of town. Just north of it is Grüner Markt, a central shopping street with fresh produce on sale at different stalls. South of the rivers you’ll find the old town and its windy streets. Follow them up to the cathedral, Neue Residenz, rose garden and then over to Michelsberg monastery which also houses the Franconian Brewery Museum. And you can hike, bike or get the bus to nearby towns (to visit other small breweries).
You can fly into Nuremberg and get the train from the airport to the central station then connect straight up to Bamberg, which takes a total of an hour-or-so from airport to Bamberg. On the way the train passes through a few towns which are worth stopping at, like Buttenhiem, which has two breweries, and Forchheim, which has four breweries. You could also get to Bamberg via Munich, Frankfurt or Berlin, where each is under three hours on the train.
Go to Bamberg. It’s brilliant.
All photos by Mark Dredge (even the ones which aren't blurry)