Matthias more recently. Photo credit and fine story here: Schlenkerla tavern taps 609-year-old tradition, by Kerry J. Byrne (Boston Herald)
It can be seen that a proper respect for tradition is the norm in the Schlenkerla pub and brewery, but Matthias prepared for his career with thoroughly modern diligence after assuring his parents at an early age that he fully intended to go into the family business.
The same grandmother who rejected public lip-locking contact out of wedlock and shunned the tourist’s flowery Bermudas heartily encouraged the notion that Matthias should first attend university for a degree in business and economics before immersion in beer and brewing.
Afterwards, Matthias studied at the prestigious Weihenstephan brewing institute near Munich and served an apprenticeship at Zum Uerige, the most traditional of Dusseldorf’s Altbier brewpubs. He then worked the family brewery from top to bottom alongside the maltster, brewer and forklift operator.
When German Trum passed the baton to his son Matthias and retired from the business that he had directed for three decades, he did so without qualification, and has not visited the brewery since. It would appear that capable hands run in the family.
Meanwhile, Bamberg’s remaining breweries cope. Contemporary Germany is no different from any other Western consumer society. Its citizens are forever being offered “new and improved” beverages, foods, entertainment options and lifestyle choices.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, beer consumption has been on the decline in Germany for many years, and in Franconia, home to 500 or more breweries as recently as the 1980’s, the number has dropped to just above 300 now.
British beer writer John Conen, a close observer of the Bamberg brewing scene, says that the hemorrhaging has slowed of late, but to return to the analogy of disappearing species in the Amazon, the continued attrition of these small, distinctive breweries bodes ill for the future of German brewing.
I’m not speaking of German brewing in the sense of it functioning on its largest level as a multi-national business enterprise, for there are no shortage of large brewing companies actively pursuing acquisition, consolidation and the transformation of beer into a standardized supermarket commodity in Germany just as in the rest of the world.
Rather, I’m lamenting the inevitable decline of brewing in the artistic and cultural senses, for it is in these milieus that individualistic, highly localized attitudes and methods, once lost, can never be regained.
Bamberg’s nine breweries deal with problems of survival in varying, generally complementary ways.
Kaiserdom, the largest and least interesting to me, seeks to maintain a niche export market and positions itself as up-market “premium” at home. By contrast, the late Maisel (closed in 2008) brewed the local working man’s Pils and Weizen.
In the neighborhood known as Wunderberg, arguably Bamberg’s Brooklyn, Mahr’s and Keesman occupy opposite sides of the street and both make great beer. It is alleged by certain observers that the workers patronize Mahr’s and the bosses visit Keesman, but despite long hours spent at both establishments, I cannot verify it. However, I can attest to the lip-smacking beers that both produce.
Close to the Rhine-Main-Danube canal on Obere-Konigstrasse, Fassla is a brewpub and guesthouse that unashamedly caters to the working man. It I more “real” than Anheuser-Busch ever will be. Directly across the street, Spezial brews the city’s gentler, delicious smoked lager and operates the finest beer garden (Spezial Keller, located a few kilometers away on Stephansberg hill) in Bamberg, and maybe all of Germany.
Klosterbrau parlays its Old Town location, monastic religious connotations and rich textbook dark lagers into a steady trade with tourist and local alike. Greifenklau possesses yet another lovely hilltop garden with a view, and runs a big hotel that is favored by tour groups.
And then, there’s Schlenkerla. The Trum family resides above their pub, so there are no overnight rooms, but an outdoor garden for warm weather seating has been added, and the historic pub itself is jewel enough. It oozes history. Half of its current floor plan originally was part of an adjacent monastery, and the location deep in the epicenter of Bamberg’s old town is exemplary. Insofar as tourists can stomach real, unalloyed beer, Schlenkerla draws them, but at the Stammtisch (i.e., reserved table) are clustered with regulars who have been drinking in the same spot since long before Matthias’s birth.
Small amounts of Schlenkerla’s beer reach aficionados throughout the world, and there are off-premise accounts in Bamberg and its environs, but by far most of it is consumed at the bustling tavern, lovingly drawn one pint at a time from the real wooden barrel perched atop a venerable metal-topped counter, and consumed alongside smoked ham, horseradish and pungent beer cheese.
Time spent with Matthias Trum convinces me that Schlenkerla will remain a safe house amidst the destructive tsunamis of the warring multinational brewing conglomerates, and for this alone I keep going back to Bamberg.
How I manage to convince myself to return to Indiana remains a mystery to me … but somehow, each time, I do.
Maybe someday this will change, and I won't.