Actually, I really love beer. Dark, malty ales. An occasional Guinness. Crisp chilled pilsner on a warm summer’s day. Elegant Kölsch in piddling little glasses. Belgian beers so strong you fall over after two. Not to forget their lambric beers. Why, I could crack open a kriek right now.
But I had come to the conclusion that the beer didn’t really love me. I have reached that age where calories turn from your friend to your enemy, and even the best of enemies must be fought. I was running faster at the gym but no longer standing still. Each time I weighed myself was another Stalingrad on the way to beery Götterdämmerung – or at least to moobs and elasticated waists. Which was not a prospect I viewed with any enthusiasm.
It had to go.
I wanted to give it a good send-off, so I chose Bamberg for the wake. Quite apart from the fact that it’s one of those stunningly beautiful Ruritanian micro-capitals Germany specialises in (see ‘Beautiful Bamberg’ for details) it’s one of the most interesting beer towns in Germany. More so than Munich as far as I’m concerned, since my tastes tend towards toasty malty amber or dark ales with twigs and bits of beard in them rather than to burp-inducing wheat beers. Bamberg beers are darker and more full-bodied than lagers.
Nine breweries produce 50 varieties of beer within the municipal boundaries. Not bad for a modest-sized cathedral city with a population of 70,000. They’re small family-run businesses rather than big industrial conglomerates, so that – with one notable exception – you really have to travel to Bamberg to sample the product. It’s all brewed according to the age-old Reinheitsgebot – the Bavarian purity law – which means there are no lurking chemical nasties in the beer. And what pubs they have to sup it in: not for Bamberg the vast scale and (occasionally forced) bonhomie of a Munich beer hall, but plain-deal simplicity, sagging beams and a feeling of having been around for centuries. They’re like old British pubs from an age before fruit machines and microwaved ‘gastropub’ meals. The food here is usually pretty good if you like filling, meat-based Germanic winter warmers.
The first pub on any tourist itinerary – and the one that has spread Bamberg’s beery fame beyond Germany’s borders – is Schlenkerla in the Bergstadt, the old ecclesiastical quarter that is nowadays Bamberg’s main bar strip. It’s everything you’d want an old German hostelry to be: half timbered, with low black beams and a history that dates back to 1405. The interior’s only adornment is a big kachelofen (tiled oven) and the staff are suitably – if not invariably – grumpy. I once made the mistake of sitting at the stammtisch – the table reserved for regulars – and was swiftly despatched to a shared table nearby, a happy accident that led to a long and very boozy evening in the company of a cycle-mad teacher and the world’s leading self-appointed expert on grappa. I don’t remember too much of what he said about the stuff, but it seemed prudent to sample a few glasses to test his theories. The rest of that evening is a bit of a blur.
Schlenkerla’s chief claim to fame is its Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, a dark smoked beer that in bottled form is available outside Germany. I think the draught beer served in the pub lacks some of the bottled variety’s shock factor, though there’s still an element of surprise in the first sip of a beer that has a distinct whiff of Westphalian ham about it. The flavour comes from beech-smoked malt; it’s an acquired taste, but the beer’s underlying mellowness usually wins converts in the end.
From Schlenkerla, a few minutes of drunken wandering is all it takes to reach Klosterbräu, on a peaceful lane lined with magnificent historic town houses. The pub itself is no less historic than its surroundings: it’s the former Prince-Bishops’ brewery, and remained in their hands until 1790. The interior has all the austerity of Schlenkerla but it feels more the haunt of locals than of the tourist hordes, at least in the depths of the Bavarian winter. It’s a wonderful place to eat hearty, unpretentious Franconian food and the malty, amber-coloured Braunbier was the absolute highlight of my beery wake.
It’s a stiff ten minute walk uphill to reach Greifenklau, the last port of call on my miniature pub crawl. But it’s worth the climb: the historic houses just go on and on, diminishing in size as you leave the historic centre until they are pleasingly cottagey in size and general homeliness. The pub couldn’t be more snug, and if the service was gruff upfront it swiftly melted into the friendliest welcome of my brief stay in Bamberg. Lighter and more lager-like than other Bamberg brews, the beer was nevertheless light years from the industrial liquid known in Britain. Different too were the Europhile views of my drinking companions, who professed themselves baffled at Mr Cameron’s EU manoeuvres.
In all, it was a splendid send-off. But it didn’t work out quite as I had planned. Parting from beer in Bamberg was such sweet sorrow that, on reflection, I decided against an absolute ban.
Since my return from Germany I have eschewed British lager altogether. This took care of 95% of my alcohol consumption (and 5kg of excess weight in eight weeks) and was, in practice, no great hardship, since no matter what the fancy foreign label on the tap may say, all lager served in British pubs seems to be weak, fizzy and characterless. Tell Germans about Becks Vier – a weaker version of that German brew conceived specially for the British market – and the reaction is not unlike that of Cadbury’s Smash aliens confronted with a potato peeler. They fall about laughing.
My ‘ban’ may be partial, but I have changed my ways, probably for good. I no longer have a beery nightcap in the pub most days, but the Guinness – which was only ever a once-in-a-while pleasure – is still on the menu if the mood takes me. And the next time I’m in a beer town like Bamberg, I will surely say ‘Prost!’ to a glass of the good stuff.