Why Bars in Bamberg punch above their weight
Bars in Bamberg are making big waves in the German bar scene. The town, known for its brewing prowess, has been making a name for itself in the cocktail world with some major victories on the global award circuit and a tight community of young, talented bartenders.
Things are being mixed up in Bamberg, a place traditionally considered a beer town. Located on the famous brewery route in Upper Franconia – the fiercely independent region of Bavaria with over 200 breweries to its name – the town is home to breweries such as Brauerei Schlenkerla, Mahrs Bräu, Klosterbräu, Brauerei Fässla, and Brauerei Spezial. Smoked rauchbier is its raison d’être. Or is it?
The town with a population of 73,331 isn’t even in the top 100 most populous places in Germany. But Bamberg has been making waves in the international bar community, predominantly due to the raft of awards being won by local bartenders. The victories are coming thick and fast for bars in Bamberg. Sven Goller of Das Schwarze Schaf won Diageo World Class for Germany in May, while Ostbar’s Matthias Ingelmann scooped up the Made in GSA prize last year and finished second at Academia del Ron.
That’s not to mention Joris Raible (Soda Bar), third at this year’s Made in GSA, Theresa Basel (Ostbar), a finalist at Academia del Ron and Gin Mare’s Mediterranean Inspirations, and Michael Rott (Kawenzmann), a finalist at Mediterranean Inspirations and Carlos I. The list goes on.
It’s a remarkable run of success for bars in Bamberg. After all, most similarly-sized towns in other European countries – Torquay in the UK, Calais in France – aren’t harbouring so many international bartending stars.
Bars in Bamberg: a world apart
Yet the glitz, glamour and high stakes of the international awards circuit – last year’s World Class final was held on Miami’s South Beach – feels a world away from the bar scene in Bamberg. Predominantly a student town, with many of its best bartenders studying by day, the bartending scene in Bamberg is small and community-driven. Bartenders work with much less here – you won’t find any fancy equipment like a sous-vide cooker or rotovap behind the bars in Bamberg. But the simple surroundings don’t stop the high-quality cocktails from flowing.
Ingelmann, who has since moved from Bamberg to London and is now behind the stick at Tony Conigliaro’s Untitled, sums it up: “It’s the community that has made Bamberg what it is today.” And it was Goller’s Das Schwarze Schaf which started it all. “10 years ago there was nowhere in Bamberg to drink cocktails,” explains Goller. “Good breweries and pubs of course, but for cocktails? Only a few bars where you could get drunk on bad drinks – at very cheap prices.” Indeed, Goller was the first bartender in Bamberg to focus purely on quality over quantity.
Das Schwarze Schaf – or The Black Sheep in English – is a fairly DIY affair in comparison to most cocktail bars. Goller mixes on an old desk in the middle of an incredibly cozy living room, with just a small pantry as his back shelf. The cocktail list is made with only fruit juices and homemade syrups and small, often organic, brands such as Revolte Rum and Birds (a white wine-based spirit) are given a prominent place in the concoctions. Clearly, the key factor here is the relaxed attitude at the bar. “We do not really care if you have a cocktail, a soda or a beer at our place, just have a good time. And we have a football table in the basement,” says Goller.
Riding the wave of creativity
After Das Schwarze Schaf opened, things started to snowball. Linda Le is head bartender at both Kawenzmann, a Tiki bar with a large selection of rum, and Dude Retro Lounge, a bar which marries shabby student cool with well-executed classic drinks. She explains how she and many other bartenders joined a group led by Goller at Das Schwarze Schaf. Their aim was increasing their cocktail know-how, and this led to a city-wide wave of cocktail bars in Bamberg raising their standards. “Gradually more and more bartenders from other bars joined our little group to hold tastings and to share everything, whether it’s knowledge or new liquors they bought to use at their own workplace,” Le says.
Soon, Goller and Le’s bars were joined by the likes of Ostbar, located on the outskirts of town. Ostbar is a relaxed neighbourhood bar serving up classic drinks. There was Schluckspecht, bringing the classic speakeasy vibe to Bamberg. Der Plattenladen, with an extensive gin selection and a bar – in typical Bamberg student chic style – made from wooden pallets. And Freiraum which, according to Goller, is the “perfect place to sample different whiskies and come for a great conversation”.
The young guns
Another factor here is the number of young ambitious bartenders who seem intent on staying in the city even after their studies have concluded. When asked about the best young bartenders in the city, Goller can’t stop talking. He lists some of Bamberg’s recent prize winners, including Rott, Basel, and Raible, but goes on to mention rising stars like Christoph Köll, Joshua Tinselboer, and Christian Herberholz.
How bars in Bamberg became so good
Why have bars in Bamberg come to the foreground in such a way? One theory is that, in comparison to other European countries like the UK and France, which are dominated by their capital cities, Germany has always spread its worth across the entire land. Outside Berlin, you can find top-tier bars in cities like Munich, Hamburg, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Dresden, Leipzig, just to name a few. On a macro level, that means newcomers don’t have to move to the capital to make a career out of bartending. For Bamberg’s current crop of young bartenders, there’s no reason to move to Berlin when they could stay on and later make the leap from Bamberg directly to London, like Ingelmann.
At this point in Bamberg’s success story, there’s also undoubtedly a self-perpetuating element at work. Now that the secret is out about Bamberg’s impressive cocktail pedigree, bartending there has gained serious cachet.
On that note, bars in Bamberg might be stealing the spotlight, but let’s not forget there are also other towns in Germany showing some underdog spirit in the cocktail stakes. Ingelmann notes places like Regensburg, Tübingen, and Rosentheim, all of which also have impressive bar scenes. Bamberg’s upstart success is definitely remarkable, but we think the future of bartending in the whole of Germany is mighty bright.
Foto: Photo via Andreas Birk.