Franconian beers aren’t always as squeaky clean and technically flawless as similar styles brewed elsewhere in Bavaria. This is not intended as an insult, and it is not to imply that they are deficient or flawed.
Rather, it is to suggest that they bear the delightfully quirky imprint of their geographical origins.
In a region where the countryside is never far away from the heart of the largest city, and a hundred breweries, most of them small, operate within a morning’s leisurely drive of Bamberg, the aromas and flavors experienced in a half-liter of solid Franconian lager can be redolent of all things pre-industrial – woodsy and full, smoky and firm, hoppy and dry, sometimes crisp like the lazy autumn evenings imbibing outdoors, and other times mellow and cool as the summer mornings right after opening time when the town elders gather at the Stammtisch to begin another day’s session.
Tonight I sampled a rarity on American shores: Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier, the justly renowned Bamberg brewery’s golden lager that is brewed without any of its signature beechwood smoked malt used in the grist.
Previously, Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier has been available only in the Trum family’s venerable tavern in the epicenter of Bamberg’s Altstadt, but recently the B. United importing firm began bringing limited amounts into the States (kudos for the freshness of my bottle).
Even without smoked malt, and evidently by a process resembling zymurgic osmosis, the Helles Lagerbier boasts a trace of smoky character in the nose and the palate.
To imagine what this is like, imagine standing with a group of cigar aficionados for five minutes, the leaving the room, and still noticing the faintest sheen of the Dominican Republic’s finest on your clothes afterward.
It’s there, and it contributes a noticeable edge to a typically malty and full-bodied golden lager beer that is balanced by lovely noble hops. To swallow it is to notice and savor the tinge of smoky character that so massively defines Schlenkerla’s better known Marzen and Urbock, which remain my preference, and which render me helpless when in Bamberg.
And I’ll be there again in late August.
Meanwhile, if you’re game for a sample of Helles Lagerbier, it’s in stock at Rich O’s. Do it on a clear palate, and then gravitate back toward gravity.
Also coming soon is a keg of Schlenkerla’s annual Fastenbier, which is only served at the Bamberg tavern between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It is made with half unsmoked two-row barley and half-house beechwood smoked malt -- still perhaps a bit smokier than Spezial's everyday beer, but gentler than Schlenkerla Marzen.
Gravity Head’s currently crowding the draft lines, but I anticipate gaps by the end of March, so the guesstimate is Fastenbier around April 1.
More on Schlenkerla can be found here.
Top: Tac Milne enjoying Brotzeit and Bier somewhere in the Franconian countryside, September 2004 (taken by Karen Bujak).
Bottom: Matthias Trum, the author, Kim Andersen and Craig Somers at Schlenkerla's brewhouse in July, 2003 (taken by Pavel Borovich).