A Rotbier by any other name wouldn’t taste like Schlenkerla

When Bamberg’s world renowned smoke beer brewery Schlenkerla announced they were releasing a new beer, it created a lot of excitement in the beer world. Part of this anticipation was they were secretive as to what style it would be but as with most things, it leaked out that it would be a Rotbier long before it hit the shelves. I’ll have to admit to disappointment over the choice and also to not being a huge fan of the style. It’s an old style which got its revival in Nuremberg and after doing a Rotbier Round-Up recently, I mostly found the style lacking. Schlenkerla’s is named after the Weichsel River in Poland, an area ripe in sour cherries, this ground-breaking brew utilizes malt kilned over cherry wood rather than the traditional beech wood. The result is a subdued fruity smokiness. I was unable to attend the July 23rd release date weekend, when Weichsel flowed from wooden barrels, gravity dispensed, but went up the following weekend to sample it on regular tap at their atmospheric pub. It was so good, I picked up some bottles to savor at home and got lucky when they had it from the barrel on Saturday before I left. Of course, it was hard not to compare.

a trio of Schlenkerla Rotbiers to compare

While friends had mostly raved about the new brew, I was still skeptical but I made my way to the pub first thing in town to sample it on tap. It was visually appealing with a deep red hue and the brewery’s signature head retention. It was unmistakably a Rotbier with a malty/fruity palate which somehow melded easily with a light but firm smokiness. The thing that struck me right away was how dry it was. If you’ve drunk many Rotbiers, this is not typical even in the best. I found it odd to be served in a snifter as at 4.6%, it’s not a sipper and was very much a session beer. I was happy to get my next one in their standard pint glass, even though it is being marketed with the stemmed glassware.

I found the standard glass more appropriate

I picked up some bottles to bring home and figured maybe one day I’d be lucky enough to have it from the barrel. The next day after my tour, I met some friends at the pub and was ecstatic to find it flowing from the barrel once again. As expected, it was much softer on the tongue due to less carbonation but it wasn’t as pronounced as can be the case in less careful pubs, where keg beer can be overly gassy. The fruity element came more to the forefront and I finally got the berry connection. It seemed a tad less dry as well. At home, I sampled the bottles and found them closer to the versions at the pub than their signature Märzen fares. The beery element again more in the forefront.  That said, it wasn’t as dry and I felt it was a one or two bottle beer rather than the session beer I found it at their pub. While this is perhaps a no-brainer, the surprise came for me in preferring the regular keg version over the gravity barrel. I found the former a touch drier and the finish seemed cleaner. While possibly less fruity, it had a more quaffable quality.

I surprisingly preferred the keg version over the barrel

I generally prefer the low carbonation of barrel-dispense and detest fizzy beer but a possible reason for this not being the case here is that Schlenkerla is new to keg beer at the pub. In the past, they have only had true barrel beer. The Märzen is their standard and each of their four seasonal beers are served are from gravity dispense. They’ve started doing keg beer in the small gift kiosk in the courtyard recently. I was happy to see it not in the actual pub as it would take away from the old world atmosphere. The first one I had from keg was their Rauchweizen and it was much better than when I had it from the bottle. This is also where the Weichsel is dispensed from and it’s done really well, as you would expect from a brewery that takes everything seriously. It is not gassy in the least and is perfectly poured.

Rauchweizen on tap & the new Schlenkerla Rotbier

This attention to detail, their commitment to serving barrel beer when every other brewery in town has abandoned it along with a museum piece pub is what makes it the town’s signature brewery. Though Schlenkerla could easily rest on the laurels of their flagship world classic Märzen and formidable seasonal line-up, they continue to push the button with new creations like this, and have yet to fall on their face in the least. Rumors abound of a Rauchschwarzbier come autumn.

Heading to Bamberg? Don’t leave home without The Pocket Guide to Bamberg’s Best Beer.

If going in the warmer months, consult The Guide to Bamberg’s Best Biergartens.

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