The Bamberg Files: Café Abseits Then and Now

Harris King, October 20, 2014

I lived in Bamberg, Germany for almost nine years between 1997-2006. It is Germany’s true beer capital, and it was there that I transitioned from a beer drinker not overly concerned with quality to a believer in the importance of beer culture. In this space, I plan to share with you on a semi-regular basis my experiences living in the town where the most beer per capita (280 liters/year) is consumed in the world. This is my first literary visit back to my Wahlheimat. 

Last Monday, I woke up and checked Twitter (as one does, right?), and clicked on a link tweeted out by the BeerGraphs’ account: “The 21 Best Beer Bars in the World” compiled by Zach Mack, owner of ABC Beer Co. in New York City, and published by Thrillist. I normally don’t click on such lists because I find them to either be 1) not well researched or 2) focused on big cities around the world that I more than likely will not be visiting anytime soon. However, it was forwarded by the powers that be here, so I gave it a click. Boy howdy, was I ever surprised! The bars weren’t ranked, but six bars down the page I did a double take when I read Café Abseits, a bar in Bamberg, Germany.

Yes, I have been there, but it was not some one-off visit while traveling, which would still be cool. No, in my nine years of living in Bamberg, I spent countless hours in Abseits with good friends, beautiful women and once even spent the evening discussing with a local beer “enthusiast” how Germany had gone to the dogs ever since reunification.

I lived in Bamberg from 1997-2006. Abseits was both a student bar, as well a bar for the locals in the neighborhood. I assume that is still the case. Even then Abseits was as close to a craft beer bar as it could be. Bamberg is located in Oberfranken (Upper Franconia) and is home to 9-10 breweries (more on that in a minute). The county/district of Bamberg is home to 61 more breweries according to Wikipedia.

This makes Bamberg the region with the most breweries per capita in the world, though I suspect this might have changed with the exploding number of breweries in the USA.  As I used to explain to people who had never been to Bamberg: Bamberg is a town of 80,000 people and has ten breweries. If you drive 5 kilometers north, you hit the village of Memmelsdorf with three breweries. Another five kilometers you hit the town of Schesslitz with three more breweries. In between Mememlsdorf and Schesslitz, there is a brewery. And that is just one road out of town.

Abseits reflected this amazing variety and choice in the region with their rotating monthly beer menu, which augmented the standards from town and the region with special treats such as Andechser Doppelbock. I lived a couple of kilometers from Abseits, and, while I do not recommend drinking and cycling, sometimes my trips home were a bit wobbly.

Clicking on the Abseits website, the format of the beer menu is still the same, but they have expanded their offerings. Much has been written on BeerGraphs about the lack of innovation in the extremely mature German beer market, but perusing the menu gives me much hope for the future of beer drinkers in Germany. You can click here to view the three-page menu. 

Some highlights on page one include Bamberg beers such as Schlenkerla Rauchbier Urbock, Keesman Herrenpils, Fässla Zwergla and my favorite Mahrs Ungespundetes (“U”). The right side of page one, however, has a new section that breaks from Germany’s mostly lager tradition. Underneath Obergärige Bierspezialitäten (top-fermenting beer specialties), there are several seemingly innovative beers, all from Germany. There are Amber Ales from Brinkert Brauhaus MAINSeidla and Wampenbräu, a Pale Ale from Maisel & Friends,  an XPA from Schoppebräu, an Imperial Stout from Private Landbrauerei Schönram and both a Blonde Ale called Bayerisch Nizza and an IPA called Backbonesplitter from Hans Müller. What is even more impressive is how the Hopfen (hops) are often listed on the menu. 

If you click on the websites of the breweries linked above, you get both a sense of German beer tradition and craft beer innovation. The breweries in and around Bamberg avoided the consolidation typical of Germany’s beer industry due to its relative isolation (it’s sort of in the sticks), but these smaller breweries have also had a hard time competing in the last two decades due to the opening of the European common market, as well as a change in tastes. It appears now that several of these breweries both near Bamberg and in other areas of Germany are now using their smaller sizes to embrace innovation. For example, Wampenbräu refers to itself as “Craft Beer aus Bichl.” 

In the description of Café Abseits in the Thrillist article, “the local darlings Schlenkerla and Weyermann” are mentioned.  When I read it I corrected it in my head because Weyermann is a Mälzerei that ships malt all over the world. But when I looked at page two of the menu, five different beers, all from Weyermann, are described in detail. The Schlotfergla is a Rauchbier. There is a both an IPA and an Imperial Black IPA, as well as a Bohemian Bock and Anna’s Minzweizen, a wheat beer that is made with 250 grams of mint leaves per hectoliter in the whirlpool. 

When browsing the Weyermann website, the beer section is referred to as the Weyermann®’sche Braumanufaktur and appears to be, which more than likely has always been the case, a beer lab where the brewers at Weyermann can experiment. Now that Bamberg has ten breweries, beer lovers can try these small-batch beers. On their Facebook page the public is invited to stop by the FanShop and try the just released RyePA. I once was giving a private tour of Weyermann and was most impressed with the production on the inside, as well as the beautiful red brick building that can be found on the tracks across from Bamberg’s main train station. 

Page three of the menu has the heading Bierspezialitaten aus Belgien. Belgium and Germany share a border and both have amazing beer traditions. Nonetheless, I rarely ran into Belgian beer when I lived there.

One reason is that most Belgian beers don’t adhere to the German Reinheitsgebot and were not allowed to be sold in Germany. But even since the Purity Law was reduced to mostly a marketing tool thanks to the European Common Market over 20 years ago, not many beers from Belgium have made it across the border. That has changed – at Abseits the following beers are available: Rochefort Trappistes, Bosteels Pauwel Kwak, Chimay Grande Reserve 2014, Duvel Tripel Hop (which is outstanding), Rodenbach Grand Cru, Lindemans Geuze Cuvée René and Boon Kriek (2012). That's pretty exciting. 

I had a great time living in Bamberg, a place that all fans of great beer and beer culture should visit. Visiting all of the breweries is easily done by foot with the occasional bus and taxi thrown in for good measure. And when you are there don’t forget to search out Café Abseits, which is a little outside of the city center and old town. And if you get lucky, it will be day when Weyermann is roasting it dark malt, which means you can smell it all over town. Either way, you won’t regret it.

Harris spent much of the time while writing this article thinking about Anja from Russia, the aforementioned beautiful woman. He can be found on Twitter, where he enjoys being an old dude among the youth of America talking about baseball, music and beer.