The expression smiling all the way to the bank suddenly came to me as I could feel a bit of a smirk on my face as the conductor asked for my ticket. It’s true, I had had to buy two tickets that day instead of the usual Bavaria ticket that would have been good for both of my journeys. It had cost an additional €28 but I had just come from an incredible Bockbier Anstich (first beer tapping) at the Kneitinger Brewery in Regensburg that starts early in the morning and features a parade led by a goat drawn wagon. That’s not why I was smirking however. What had me so giddy was that I was not on my way back home with the second ticket but to one of my favorite German cities, Bamberg. Now, I’ve been to Bamberg more times than I can count and go a few times a year now that I live in Munich but there’s one day I had never been there before: the first Thursday following German Reunification Day (October 3rd). As you might gather now from all of my talk of Bocks and Anstiches is that on this Thursday, the famed Schlenkerla pub in the cobblestone gem has the first tapping of their formidable Bock.
Bamberg is justifiably popular and it’s that rare place that is nearly as noted for its beer as for its sights. The beer in question is smoke beer, a beer with an unmistakable smokey quality. In medieval times, the malt used to make beer was heated with beechwood fires and this imparted the quality to the beer. It’s likely this was the case everywhere at that time but for reasons of isolation or just plain adherence to tradition, Bamberg continued the practice. Not all beers in Bamberg are smoke beers but two breweries specialize it it: Heller and Spezial. Spezial is a local favorite and not as well-known but makes a perhaps easier to get acquainted version of this admittedly acquired taste. Heller might not ring a bell as most people know it from the beer label that actually refers to the former brewpub and now brewery tap, Schlenkerla. This is not only a place of beer pilgrimage but also one of the top sights in Bamberg. It’s a dark wood affair with a timeless quality. If the lights were not electric, you’d swear you’d walked into another century. You can’t go to Bamberg and not go here and I do just that ever time in town. You might not like the beer, it is very smokey and the Bock is another notch up on both the alcohol and smokiness levels.
The many barrels of Bock
I had secured a room right across the street from Schlenkerla and was a bit early for the Anstich so went inside to see if any seats were available. Most tables were either full or had signs saying they were reserved from 4, the time of the tapping. The weather was pretty awful; it was raining steadily so I grabbed one of the few open tables even though the actual tapping was to occur in the courtyard where the Biergarten is located in warmer months. I ordered some food and their signature Märzen as the waitress explained the Bock would not be available for another half hour. I figured I’d go out when the weather got better. I got one Bock for good measure after my meal and ventured out into the Anstich area to find a fair-sized crowd downing the dark strong brew like it was water. Though the weather had cleared a bit, it was not really an evening to be outside but these were hearty Franconians who wouldn’t miss this annual event for anything. There must have been 80 large wooden barrels and though the crowd was not small, I couldn’t fathom how they’d go through all of it. I grabbed one myself and sucked up the bustling atmosphere. It was quite an operation with at least three barrels tapped and the beer constantly flowing. Let me qualify this, I love this Bock but it is not the kind of thing you can just throw down. It’s a formidable brew to say the least.
I had another but with my room across the street and not being a hearty Franconian myself, I retreaded to my warm oasis. Being so close, I could hear the cacophony of people talking, becoming an ocean like sound in the background. It would have been easy to stay put but after a rest and dressing more warmly, I headed back over for round two. The crowd had swelled considerably and now many of those barrels were empty. The weather was even worse but it didn’t dampen the crowds thirst and now it seemed fairly certain that all the barrels would be empty before the end. I met a local who explained it was the most looked forward to event in the Bamberg Bock calendar. From the size of the ever growing crowd, it seemed all of Bamberg was in indeed there. I had another one but with less and less space and a long day featuring two Bock Anstiches behind me, I knew it was time to call it a night. Two Bocks might be better than one but two Bock Anstiches might be more than anyone should try to bite off. I think I’ll go to both again one day, but not both in the same day!