I drank my way through the small Bavarian town of Amberg as best I could in the three hours I was there. Fourty minutes earlier I caught a late-morning train out of Nuremberg, and the plan, devised just the night before, was to hop off at Amberg for lunch and again later that night in Regensburg for dinner, before catching an overnight train to Brno via Munich and Vienna. Brno was still unexplored to me, and I had enough sense of Munich and Vienna from previous visits that my time was better spent elsewhere. Some place like a small random Bavarian town along the rail. Under bright blue sky and with a warm late autumn breeze I departed the train and walked a short distance into Amberg to explore breweries, food and city life in the heart of Oberpfalz.
The city of Amberg is home to 4 breweries at a population of 45,000. All are of small to moderate size, with Zum Kummert Bräu being the most well-known in town, and producing the highest number of different beers of the four. Located a short walk east of the town center, Zum Kummert offers a half-dozen of their products at any given time, on draft and in bottles. On this visit in late 2011, my focus was on the 4.8% 27er Urtyp unfiltered kellerbier and the 4.9% pilsener. Both were brilliantly Bavarian in character, the pils being especially clean and snappy with wonderfully soft, delicate and full carbonation. On this trip, the pilsner was one of the few sampled of the style (central/southern German classic pilsner) that I was legitimately blown away by. The striking cleanliness, satisfying sweetness and lightness of carbonation combined with a brilliant noble hop pungency and bitterness. It wasn’t a new experience; no, I’ve loved German pilsner for years. Rather it was a welcome and satisfying reminder of how good it still is. Through too many breweries and for too long a time it’s been more disappointment than thrill, with the occasionally acceptable pilsner, but nearly always with something off: hop rate too low, mineral content of the water feeling awkward, or the most common annoyance, something I call sweet malt goop lager. It started to feel like it was all in your head, the last great pilsner experience now so far back in memory that you start to think you made it up into more than it was. No. You didn’t make it up; your memories aren’t clouded; these experiences still happen; brilliant pilsner exists again.
The other three breweries of Amberg, Schloderer Bräu, Winkler and Bruckmüller, are located close in the city center. On this late November Monday, all were nearly empty save Bruckmüller, which was completely empty as it was closed. I found myself one of the few patrons at both Schloderer and Winkler. Schloderer came off as especially touristy given the overuse of brewania decorations, excessive branding on nearly any and every item in the restaurant, poor quality beer and an expensive and uninspired food menu offered for visitors. The disappointment at Schloderer was alleviated by a quick stop-in at Winkler, where I enjoyed another vibrant, fresh and clean pilsner whilst subjected to drunken rambling about city politicians, supplied by a very old, and very fat, German lush.
For three hours I criss-crossed Amberg from brewery to market, of course making sure to visit the small christkindlmarkt make up of about a dozen vendor booths. After a sausage roll and a pastry at the markt, I made a last stop at a grocery store known for stocking hundreds of different bottled lagers, at prices absurdly low to Americans (used to paying $3-6 per, that is). Admittedly, I bought more weight in bottles than I truly wanted to carry back to the train, but I told myself it was worth it – for science – as I had planned an educational experiment for the hour spent on the train to Regensburg: get to know German Kristalweizen.