“I don’t drink beer, I only like lager.” I’m always puzzled when someone, often apologetically, says this to me.
It shows that it’s not just the hardcore of real ale nuts who dismiss all and any lager as ‘Euro fizz’ who have missed the point.
Lager is beer. And anyone who knows about beer, rather than hiding behind jingoistic ignorance knows that, just as with ale, there is terrible lager and phenomenal lager.
I’ve always believed this, but I never appreciated just how ignorant we are in the UK to the possibilities of lager until I visited the German town of Bamberg in Franconia for the first time last week.
Many other beer aficionados (including the most passionate real ale fans) have a special interest in German beer, some even writing CAMRA guidebooks. But there’s a huge difference between reading these books and actually being there. So even though I knew what to expect, I was still blown away.
The best pubs in Bamberg are actually breweries, some going back centuries. They have low, beamed ceilings and brown or off-white walls. They embody what the Germans call Gemütlichkeit, a word that has no literal translation, but like the best German words means something it takes a sentence to explain in English.
It sums up that special kind of cosy warmth where you’re with friends, every face is glowing and you’re drinking enough to soften the edges and feel a glow inside, without being drunk.
Every pub has a line of coat hooks around the walls, and you’re expected to use them. Clearly there’s no worry of pickpockets here, and it’s considered bad form to hog chairs with coats and bags. The tables are long, bierkeller-style, and if it gets busy you shuffle up and share with other people.
The only exception is the Stammtisch, a special table with a sign indicating that it’s reserved for the regulars. You have to be invited to join, and it’s usually the best table in the house. Often, the staff — after hours of providing table service so efficient you seem to get a beer within seconds of sitting down — will fall into a chair at the Stammtisch with a beer and a plate of food when their shift ends.
Bamberg has many of the best bits of the British pub, but something else as well. It’s not what I expected of Germany at all. Whenever I make this observation, the people I’m drinking with say, “Ah, you’re not in Germany though. You’re in Franconia. That’s different.”
Ask for a lager here, and the chances are you’ll be met with a puzzled look. It would be like asking for ‘a beer’ in a British pub. Most Bamberg breweries produce
a light, fruity Helles, a drier, bitter pilsner, a strong, brown Märzen and a rich, heavy Bock — all of which are lagers.
Bamberg is also famous for its Rauchbier (smoked beer). The one we know in the UK — Schlenkerla — is the international superstar, but it’s also the most heavily smoked example of the style I came across on my visit. In lighter examples, the smoke just teases the malt out into a broader flavour, underpinning it and making it more interesting.
These beers are usually served fresh — unpasteuriused and unfiltered —straight from wooden barrels on the bar. Every single one I tasted was utterly wonderful.
Back home again, it seems bizarre that for most British pubs, lager is just lager — the same style offered at different strengths by as many as eight different brands on the bar, at a time when brand loyalty within beer has been all but destroyed.
Craft brewers across the world are starting to turn their attention to stripping lager of its dodgy image. With its delicacy and lightness, there’s nowhere to hide mistakes in a lager, making it the biggest challenge a skilled brewer can face.
In the UK, brewers such as Thornbridge, Camden Town and Freedom are starting to explore what lager has to offer.
Brilliant though they are, I doubt any will match what’s on offer in Bamberg, where the beers are the result of centuries of brewing skill and tradition, single-mindedly devoted to specific styles.
I went to Bamberg thinking it was all about the smoked beer.
I came back with a newfound appreciation for the most ill-used beer style in the world, and a yearning to see more of it here.