If you’ve been to Bamberg it will come as no surprise that UNESCO added it to the World Heritage List in 1993. I’d have added it to the list just for the extraordinary beer-making tradition that has flourished here for centuries, and still produces some of the most delicious beers* in Germany. Yes, the town is an enchanting mix of half-timbered houses, cobbled streets, ancient palaces and imposing churches that hint at its fascinating and ancient history. The beer though … well the beer is worth the journey alone.
Bamberg has ten breweries which, in a town of only 70,000 people, tells you there’s something good going on here. To be honest, the town’s trademark beer, Rauchbier, is a smoke-infused dark beer that will either make your tastebuds dance with joy, or kill them off entirely. Rauchbier has to be sampled by everyone who comes to Bamberg, I believe it’s in the local bylaws. Luckily once you’ve tried it you can move on to beers that are actually drinkable.
We arrived in Bamberg late on Sunday afternoon and once we’d worked out how to get into our apartment we headed into town. On the main drag where bierkellers vie for your attention, it quickly became clear that a lot of people had been sampling beer for most of the day. I’d describe the atmosphere as raucous but friendly, although there was a large police presence which seemed at odds with the medieval surroundings. We found a spot to sit down and ordered some beers.
Beer making was first introduced to Bamberg over a thousand years ago by monks, I mean, who else? Today, the town makes dozens of beers, but in the surrounding countryside there are numerous villages with their own breweries. These can often be found on draught in Bamberg and all of them are made to the exacting standards of Germany’s purity laws. You could spend weeks wandering the surrounding region and still not do the beer justice.
Only fifty per cent of our party is prepared to drink more than two beers at a time, so we did get to see the town as well … and what a town. Come for the beer, stay for the medieval charm! At this point, I feel it’s necessary to address an elephant in the room. That’s right, we left Bamberg without trying its greatest culinary delight. A Bamberger Zwiebeln is an onion stuffed with pork, topped with bacon and drowned in a beer sauce.
German cuisine regularly leaves me in despair, and several days in Bavaria had left me never wanting to see a pork dish again. Unlike my liver and arteries, Bamberg has lived a charmed life, after growing wealthy on trade (and trade in beer) it should have been the target of every marauding army in continental Europe. Mostly though, they left it as they found it, even coming through the Second World War intact. Who would want to destroy a thousand-year beer-making tradition?
We wandered through the streets, sampling a couple more beers along the way, before landing on the riverbank. The views over the town and towards the picturesque Altes Rathaus were beautiful. As night fell we wandered over the bridge and back to our apartment. I won’t lie, we were carrying several bottles of the good stuff to chill in the fridge for the next day. After hours of sightseeing we’d need a Bamberg Beer.
* The accolade for favourite Bamberg beer goes to Mahrs Bräu U, the ‘U’ standing for Ungespundet or unfiltered. We have the man sitting at the next table to thank for the recommendation, which he gave us only after he’d stopped laughing at our pitiful attempts to drink a Rauchbier so smoky it would have put a peat fire to shame.