Wednesday 15th May 2013
Prior to this visit, on the previous evening, I and the affable members of the Brewery History Society had dinner at the world-famous Schlenkerla tavern in the Bamberg's Old Town. There we met owner and Managing Director of the company, Matthias Trum, who explained some of the history of his magnificent hostelry. It is a fascinating tale and the full details are to be found in a separate article in Pub Visits.
But now we were at the brewery. The location had started off as the storage cellar (keller) for beer maturation.
As far as this actual brewery is concerned the history begins with Johann Wolfgang Heller, who purchased the company in 1767 and gave it the name that stays with us today. He already owned cellars on the Kaulberg hill but then moved them to the Stephansberg, another hill south of the city centre.
Over many years from the end of the 19th and in to the 20th century the brewery was moved from the Schlenkerla location to Stephansberg. After assembling outside the brewery, Matthias met us and took us inside. He explained that the initial brewing process was by decoction and not infusion.
The copper was originally fired by wood, then oil, and now, gas. It was computerised in the 1990s and Matthias said this was an important move as they could brew confidently at night. Previously there had been problems with the night shift not paying sufficient attention to the equipment. Now, a brew could be started and then monitored remotely. From Monday to Thursday there were three brews per day (24 hours).
Probably the most significant aspect of brewing that sets this brewery apart from most others is that they smoke their own malt. If you have tasted Schlenkerla Rauchbier, you will know that it possesses an intense smoke taste, more so than others. This is not a problem; witness the fact that it is the biggest selling smoked beer in the world. This is achieved by the brewers (maltsters?) being in control of the malt they are to use later.
It was a real privilege to see the furnace in action and the stacks of beech wood waiting to be fed to the flames. This is a double process as not only is the malt dried but it is infused with the smoke to provide its unique flavouring properties.
Matthias told us that the initial fermentation was made in open vessels up to the 1980s. Now it is a closed system like most breweries in this country. The main fermentation is for one week and then the secondary maturation continues for a further two to three months. He said from the raw grain arriving to the beer to leaving the brewery in bottle or barrel was more than four months, as the malt has to be rested for a month after kilning.
We were told that brewing was almost at full capacity. Each normal brew is around 50hl and we were taken down steps deep underneath the brewery to see the fermentation area. The vessels are located in caves and come in three sizes: 45hl, 92hl and 190hl.
It was here that I and the other members experienced a rather surreal moment as Matthias served us all a glass of Schlenkerla Rauchbier direct from one of the fermentation vessels. It was wonderful beer in optimum condition, simply superb!
Whilst we were savouring this unexpected treat he told us that 20% of all their production was sold through the Schlenkerla tavern. I thought this was an amazing statistic and indicates how much beer can be drunk in a Bamberg pub, although this figure will include that purchased for home consumption. I know the place is large, but I still think that it is a remarkable fact. Another 50% goes the pubs and biergartens in the greater Bamberg area. The remaining 30% goes to the rest of Germany and the world.
The Schlenkerla and other selected taverns and biergartens receive their draught beer in wooden barrels and there was a good stack of these on the brewery floor waiting to be filled.
Naturally, most drinkers know of the company's main product, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen (5.1%). This is found throughout Germany and further afield, especially in the USA, where it can be found on draught as well as in bottles. However, that is not the only beer coming out of this brewery. Schlenkerla Rauchweizen (5.2%) is brewed and for sale all year round. It is only found in bottles but the beer is bottle-conditioned.
Helles Schlenkerla Lager (4.3%) is another beer brewed and available all year and is interesting as it is the only beer they make that doesn't use barley malt kilned and smoked in-house. Because it uses the same brewing vessels and yeast as the other beers it picks up a residual taste of smoke during the process.
There are also a number of seasonal beers. One is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Urbock (6.5%) which is available from October to early January (The coming of the Three Kings). I've tasted this beer on a previous visit and liked it a lot as it has more bitterness yet that is accompanied with a nicely smooth but dark taste. The smoke taste is also not as powerful as the Märzen.
Also at Christmas time you can sample Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Eiche (8.0%) which is only on sale over the holiday itself. This powerful beer utilises malt smoked with oak rather than the normal beech. It sounds very interesting and I would like to try it one day.
Another two beers for specific times of the year are Aecht Schlenkerla Fastenbier (5.5%), available from Ash Wednesday to the Easter weekend. It is a ruby red colour with a natural haziness and has a slight bitter aftertaste.
Finally, for the summer months is Aecht Schlenkerla Kräusen (4.5%). As indicated in the name it is a krausened (English verb) beer. This is a beer when it is almost ready to leave the brewery, has an amount of newly fermenting beer added. Previously I've known of this practise occurring with two brews of the same type of beer. Yet here, it is different as this beer is brewed, matured and presented as a slightly smoky lager beer and then is infused with some green Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen that has only just commenced its maturation. So the beer added is brewed to a different recipe to the original.
We had a long climb up from the caves to the brewery courtyard but it was worth it, as the tour had developed into a wonderful visit, and I have to thank Matthias for what was a fantastic glimpse into the history, production and current situation at his brewery.
This was a private visit for the Brewery History Society and I haven't found information whether the company does tours. I'm sure it would be obvious if they did.