Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Café Abseits in Bamberg.

I have no excuse, plausible or otherwise, for having traveled to Bamberg so many times before without once setting foot in the Café Abseits, at least until Monday, December 21, 2009, which at long last marked my first foray into this comfortable and friendly specialty beer bar.

Like another, eerily similar place close to my heart, the NABC Public House, Abseits began life more than a quarter-century ago as a student hangout, steadily evolving into the beer lover's haunt while retaining its convivial, Bohemian character.

Perhaps the café’s location (Pödeldorfer Straase 39) always threw me, but never again. Like the Weyermann malting firm, Abseits is on the east side of the train station, and because there isn’t a direct eastern exit under or over the tracks, getting to either one of them requires leaving the station, turning right or left, and doubling back. At the same time, Bamberg’s historic inner city, tourist attractions, nine breweries and numerous taverns lie to the west, and it's the easiest thing in the world to walk right down the street in front of the station and keep going until you reach the front door at Schlenkerla.

There were two further investigative visits to Abseits during my most recent Franconian idyll in December, 2009, and there’ll be even more in the future as I continue to cope with my profound embarrassment at having unfairly neglected this wonderful institution for so long.

In the end, it's true that I’ve only hurt myself.

Oddly enough, it was basketball as much as beer that finally brought the Publican and Café Abseits together. During the planning stages of our trip, the Café Abseits’ owner, Gerhard Schoolman, fortuitously popped up on the Franconian Beer Message Board to answer one of my questions.

As the chat progressed, it transpired that not only is Gerhard a rabid basketball fan in a city that prides itself on its hoops tradition, but also that tickets for the Brose Baskets, Bamberg’s entry in the top German round ball league, were available from the Café Abseits as part of an annual promotion of the team. Gerhard held two tickets back for us to pick up the day before the game against Paderborn, and the rest is belated history.

As an aside, the Jako Arena serves local beer from Eschenbach, a few clicks down the road to the northwest of Bamberg, and also provides previously unseen concessions delicacies like the Leberkäse Wrap, which combines the old (bologna-like meat loaf) and the new (flat bread) in hand-held form.

However, it’s always about the beer, and Café Abseits offers a distinctive interpretation of the classic specialist bar’s theme of a small, well-chosen beer list. The emphasis at Abseits is on local and regional beers from the brewery-rich Franconian hills and valleys in and around Bamberg. Four drafts are constant and another rotates seasonally (Mönchsambacher Weihnachtsbock during my visit), but it’s the bottle list that really shines.

30-35 bottled selections are constant, grouped in categories that reflect the Franconian brewing tradition: Kellerbier, Rauchbier, Dark Lager, Weizen and (I think) Helles/Pils. The only foreign beer I recall seeing on the list is Guinness Extra Stout, and only a handful come from elsewhere in Bavaria (beers from Kloster Weltenburg, Schneider and Andechs prime among them).

Better yet is the seasonal rotating (monthly) bottle list. In December, 2009, it featured six regional Bocks for the holiday season, which in most cases translates into Pale/Helles Bock, blonde, rich and malty, and ideal for the cold weather. Personal favorites were Hummel-Bräu Leonhardi-Bock and Nankendorfer Schroll-Bräu Bock, the latter far more along the lines of Doppelbock.

The food at Café Abseits reflects diverse origins, with a weekly special menu, breakfast items, Tex-Mex, wings, a touch of curry and Asian influences here and there. Excellent pizza is served in the evening, beginning at 6:30 p.m. In short, it’s broader and better than the usual pub grub, and provides a welcome contrast to the heavy, pork-laden fare at Bamberg’s historic watering holes – cuisine that I dearly love, but can happily step away from every now and then. Apart from beer, there are coffees, teas, liquors and wines.

I made a final stop at Café Abseits just before its 2:00 p.m. closing time on New Year’s Eve, not to eat lunch, but to cap a brisk stroll from Altstadt with two of the seasonal Bocks. Glancing around the intimate confines, I saw that each of the ten or so persons present looked to be drinking a different beer. There were glass half-liters, stoneware mugs and tall wheat beer glasses, and shades of liquid ranging from blonde to reddish-brown to black.

After a bit, a strangely long shadow descended over my bar seat as a customer came forward to sign his tab. The gals behind the bar had been visibly fawning over him, but I thought nothing of it until he stood and blocked the ceiling lamp. It was Tibor Pleiss, the 7’ 1” starting center for the Brose Baskets, also a member of the German national team, who had returned from a road win against Trier the night before to drop by Abseits and polish off a huge bowl of spaghetti and a fruit drink (not beer).

No autograph requests from me, just admiration for a “good beer bar” that accommodates both Brose Baskets and Bocks. Very, very nice.

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