Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Schlenkerla & the Brauerei Heller Trum: Upholding traditions in Bamberg.

From spring, 2004.

On April 1, 2003, Matthias Trum assumed control of his family’s business, becoming the sixth male in his family to take the reins since the mid-1800’s.

Stories involving dynastic succession are of potential interest regardless of the time or place, but when the setting is Bamberg, Germany, a city that is home to nine breweries, and when the Trum family business is one of them – Brauerei Heller Trum, more commonly known as Schlenkerla, a classic brewery and pub enterprise - then special attention is warranted.

Especially if the observer - me - is a beer aficionado hopelessly smitten with the lovely city in general and its fine beer in particular.

Bamberg Redux.
In personal terms, my experience with Bamberg dates to 1991, when I visited the Franconian city for the first time. Even before that, there was unmistakable infatuation. I’d read accounts of the city’s beer culture written by British beer writer Michael Jackson and salivated over his written descriptions of Schlenkerla’s trademark smoked lager.

Long before I tasted it, I knew that Schlenkerla would be an unquestioned, enduring favorite, and my first sip amply confirmed it.

Subsequent encounters with Schlenkerla have not failed to entice and impress, and these half-dozen trips since the first one have confirmed not only that Bamberg is the place to go for smoked lager, an elegant retro-rarity in the world of beer, but furthermore, that the city simply has no serious competition as the finest setting for beer drinking in all of Germany.

The beer is sublime, and available in as many styles and variations as there are taste buds, but the truly priceless aspect of any visit to Bamberg emanates from the opportunity, one unfortunately threatened by the pace of modern life, to comprehensively experience a culture seemingly crafted from only the very best of beer’s numerous virtues.

From the savory and always reasonably priced German cuisine accompanying and complementing my beverage of choice to the city’s many traditional indoor and outdoor drinking and dining venues, Bamberg affords the enhancement of gustatory and olfactory pleasures in a way that larger cities cannot match.

Bamberg’s 70,000 residents enjoy the products of the city’s nine remaining breweries (down from as many as two dozen a century ago), and also have the opportunity to sample the selected wares of more than a few of the 100-plus breweries in a fifty-mile radius. Many of these breweries are located in charming small towns tucked away in wooded hills and pastoral valleys radiating outward from Bamberg.

Bamberg and its outlying Franconian environs are to German beer what the Amazon Basin is to species of flora and fauna: A diverse and unfathomable “zymurgo-system,” and a treasure trove of species, many of which are doomed to extinction owing to the relentless march of consumerism and mass-marketing.

In truth, few of these beers equal the mighty Schlenkerla Marzen, the Trum family’s everyday (that’s right, everyday) beer. It is a full-bodied amber lager, and it would be delicious even if it did not burst upon the palate with an assertively smoky flavor deriving from beechwood kilning in the brewery’s micro-malting – a traditional method itself now largely extinct.

Traditions to uphold.
The very survival and continued prosperity of Bamberg’s beer and brewing culture are best viewed as questions of tradition versus modernity, and all those who are exploring the equation, from brewer to tavern keeper to drinking customer, are answering the question in their own way by the choices they make.

Not least among them is Matthias Trum, who comes down squarely on the side of tradition … most of the time.

Matthias tells the story of his grandmother’s tenure stewarding the family’s lively, well-trodden pub and restaurant, and of her ironclad view of propriety. There was to be no kissing between unmarried men and women customers (her reaction to openly gay couples can be inferred), and men wearing short pants (other than lederhosen) were to be neither acknowledged nor served.

“That part of tradition can be relaxed,” laughed Matthias last July as we savored Marzens and a platter of sausages in the section of the tavern known as God’s Corner, where a statue of Jesus looks out on the usually crowded room.

Other time-tested rules have not changed: The three “C’s” of Coca-Cola, coffee, and chips (French fries) are not available. “You can buy them anywhere in Bamberg,” noted Matthias, “but not when you come to Schlenkerla. Here, we offer a traditional menu.”

In similar fashion, the brewery (located several beautiful hillside blocks away from the tavern), observes old methods whenever possible. Almost no breweries have retained their maltings, but Schlenkerla continues to employ a maltster, who smokes the barley and prepares it for brewing.

Beer destined for the tavern is kegged in wooden barrels, themselves crafted by one of the last remaining coopers in Bavaria. The barrels must be kept in a damp environment to preserve the wood. When they are hoisted onto the counter and tapped, the beer flows straight out by gravity feed, almost like cask ale except that the yeast isn’t still alive.

Two sizes of barrel are filled, because when closing time draws near, the smaller barrel can be tapped so that no beer goes flat and is wasted overnight.

During our tour of the brewery, Matthias led my friends Kim Andersen, Craig Somers, Pavel Borovich and I into lagering cellars beneath the brewery. The cellars are part of a network of underground passageways extending throughout hill-studded Bamberg.

We were offered samples of cool, delicious Urbock, the rich, higher-gravity seasonal variant of smoked lager, and instructed in the uses of the mysterious Spundetapparat.

How Matthias managed to convince us to return to the earth’s surface remains a mystery to me.

Preparing for success.
It can be seen that a proper respect for tradition is the norm in the Schlenkerla pub and brewery, but Matthias prepared for his career with thoroughly modern diligence after assuring his parents at an early age that he fully intended to go into the family business.

The same grandmother who rejected lip contact out of wedlock and shunned the tourist’s Bermudas heartily encouraged the notion that Matthias should first attend university for a degree in business and economics before immersion in beer and brewing.

Afterwards, Matthias studied at the prestigious Weihenstephan brewing institute near Munich and served an apprenticeship at Zum Uerige, the most traditional of Dusseldorf’s Altbier brewpubs. He then worked the family brewery from top to bottom alongside the maltster, brewer and forklift operator.

When German Trum passed the baton to his son Matthias and retired from the business that he had directed for three decades, he did so without qualification, and has not visited the brewery since. It would appear that capable hands run in the family.

Bamberg’s breweries cope.
Contemporary Germany is no different from any other Western consumer society. Its citizens are forever being offered “new and improved” beverages, foods, entertainment options and lifestyle choices.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, beer consumption has been on the decline in Germany for many years, and in Franconia, home to 500 or more breweries as recently as the 1980’s, the number has dropped to just above 300 now.

British beer writer John Conen, a close observer of the Bamberg brewing scene, says that the hemorrhaging has slowed of late, but to return to the analogy of disappearing species in the Amazon, the continued attrition of these small, distinctive breweries bodes ill for the future of German brewing.

I’m not speaking of German brewing in the sense of it functioning on its largest level as a multi-national business enterprise, for there are no shortage of large brewing companies actively pursuing acquisition, consolidation and the transformation of beer into a standardized supermarket commodity in Germany just as in the rest of the world.

Rather, I’m lamenting the inevitable decline of brewing in the artistic and cultural senses, for it is in these milieus that individualistic, highly localized attitudes and methods, once lost, can never be regained.

Bamberg’s nine breweries deal with problems of survival in varying, generally complementary ways.

Kaiserdom, the largest and least interesting to me, seeks to maintain a niche export market and positions itself as up-market “premium” at home. By contrast, Maisel brews the working man’s Pils and Weizen.

In the neighborhood known as Wunderberg, arguably Bamberg’s Brooklyn, Mahr’s and Keesman occupy opposite sides of the street and both make great beer. It is alleged by certain observers that the workers patronize Mahr’s and the bosses visit Keesman, but despite long hours spent at both establishments, I cannot verify it. However, I can attest to the lip-smacking beers that both produce.

Close to the Rhine-Main-Danube canal on Obere-Konigstrasse, Fassla is a brewpub and guesthouse that unashamedly caters to the working man. It I more “real” than Anheuser-Busch ever will be. Directly across the street, Spezial brews the city’s gentler, second-rated smoked lager and operates the finest beer garden (Spezial Keller, located a few kilometers away on Stephansberg hill) in Bamberg, and maybe in all of Germany.

Klosterbrau parlays its old town location, monastic religious connotations and rich textbook dark lagers into a steady trade with tourist and local alike. Greifenklau possesses yet another lovely hilltop garden with a view, and runs a big hotel that is favored by tour groups.

And then, there’s Schlenkerla. The Trum family resides above their pub, so there are no overnight rooms, but even without an outdoor garden for warm weather seating, the pub itself is jewel enough. It oozes history. Half of its current floor plan originally was part of an adjacent monastery, and the location deep in the epicenter of Bamberg’s old town is exemplary. Insofar as tourists can stomach real, unalloyed beer, Schlenkerla draws them, but at the Stammtisch (i.e., reserved table) are clustered regulars who have been drinking in the same spot since long before Matthias’s birth.

Small amounts of Schlenkerla’s beer reach aficionados throughout the world, and there are off-premise accounts in Bamberg and its environs, but by far most of it is consumed at the bustling tavern, lovingly drawn one pint at a time from the real wooden barrel perched atop a venerable metal-topped counter, and consumed alongside smoked ham, horseradish and pungent beer cheese.

Time spent with Matthias Trum convinces me that Schlenkerla will remain a safe house amidst the destructive tsunamis of the warring multinational brewing conglomerates, and for this alone I would go back to Bamberg.

How I manage to convince myself to return to Indiana remains a mystery to me … but somehow, each time, I do.

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