Friday, September 11, 2009

Conceptual preview: Sandkerwa NA 3 at the Public House begins on September 24.

This is part one of the Sandkerwa preview (the concept). Part two, the actual lineup, is here.

Bamberg, a beautiful city of 75,000 people located in the countryside of the northern German region known as Franconia, has long been recognized as the epicenter of traditional German brewing and beer culture. Ten breweries operate within the city limits, and as many as 125 others are to be found within the outward radius of a good day’s bicycle ride. The majority of Franconia’s 300 breweries are family owned and operated.

For a half-century, SANDKERWA (SAND-kehr-wa) has been Bamberg’s end-of-summer street festival, one that originated as a church-related commemoration in the historic city’s oldest central district. For six days each year in late August, the Altstadt’s narrow lanes are filled with food, beer and people in a hearty celebration that brings Munich’s better known Oktoberfest to mind, but exists on a less crowded, decentralized and more enjoyably human scale.

Sandkerwa is an idea worth emulating, and Bamberg a state of mind worth honoring, hence Sandkerwa NA.

In 2009, NABC’s original German-themed draft beer fest kicks off on September 24, a few weeks later than usual to allow for a special delivery of gravity-dispense (Anstich) kegs from breweries in Bamberg and its Franconian hinterlands.

Each one of these Anstich kegs has 40 half-liter (16.9 oz) pours inside, and so the plan is to begin the festivities on Thursday night the 24th by tapping a couple of them, then trying to deplete one per day (perhaps excluding slower days of the week like Monday and Tuesday) until they’re gone. Once tapped, they will not keep for long, so a measure of finesse is going to be required. Those Sandkerwa kegs dispensed by CO2 will go on tap as usual, until depleted.


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 the late, great 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 75,000 residents enjoy the products of the city’s ten 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 125-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.

But there’s something to be said – and tasted – for each.

A few links follow:

Franconia Beer Guide
Bierkeller site
(in German)
Another Bierkeller site (in German)
Bierstadt Bamberg (in German)
Kaspar Schulz (brewing equipment fabricator)

1 comment:

Jerome said...

While I never made it to Bamberg I visited quite a few of the tiny breweries of Franconia when I lived in Germany (1989-1992). Most of the breweries were run by men in thier 60s and 70s. They were true farm house breweries -no more than 300-500 barrels a year serving the one or 2 gasthauses in thier villages.

A friend told me a few years ago to get back to Franconia soon, as many of the tiny breweries were closing. Many of the families who operated the breweries no long had children or grand children to take over the business. To make matters worse, the generations who supported the breweries are dieing off; they younger people in Germany either don't drink as much beer as thier elders, or drink only the mass marketed Euro Lagers. My favorite Franconian beer was made by a farmer in a tiny village not far from Crailsheim. It was a dark lager bottled in traditional ceramic steins with swig tops. It was his only beer, and he lagered it in his barn cellar. It was only available at the village Gasthaus.

When old Herr Weller died 7 or 8 years ago, his son sold off his mash and lauter tuns and boiler.

A sad passing. Visit Franconia soon.