Most anyone will agree there are certain occasions in life where a cold beer goes a long way. But it's probably more of a guy thing to go a long way for a cold beer. That's precisely why I find myself in one of the most remarkable watering holes I have ever had the privilege of drinking in - the Spezial Keller in Bamberg, Germany - gawking at the views of the single greatest beer-producing city in the world. Bamberg is for beer lovers. There are 10 historic taverns in this small town (population 70,000), many dating back to the 16th century, and 300-plus breweries in the surrounding countryside (the highest concentration per capita in the world). Many of the beers for which this region is famous are rarely found outside its boundaries. It hardly needs pointing out that Bamberg beer is unparalleled, and brew fans don't think twice about traversing oceans to get hold of some. So grab a buddy (you'll need each other to navigate the cobblestones at night's end) and get acquainted with the holy grail of pub-crawls.
Fly into Frankfurt (we'll get to that later) and Bamberg is a two-and-a-half-hour train ride west into northern Bavaria, but don't tell anyone from Bamberg that. The city sits deep in the staunchly ethnocentric region of Franconia - no Bavarians here - an area that prides itself on, among other things, its beer (insert testosterone-fueled bellow of joy here). As if God were playing some sort of joke on your local swill house, Bamberg is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, having emerged from the bombings of World War II virtually unscathed. As you bar hop through the city's perfectly preserved Old Town (many buildings date back to the Middle Ages), you'll literally drink in the history.
Bamberg's beer culture is as old as the city itself. Yearly consumption in 1450 was said to be 116 gallons per person - that's 1,237 longnecks, folks - none too shabby considering modern soccer wouldn't be invented for another 400 years. These days, Bambergers head in droves every summer to their favorite Keller (German for "cellar"), which can be a tad confusing to visitors. Bamberg Kellers are actually outdoor beer gardens located above the cellars underground, where beer was traditionally stored to keep it cool year-round. Several of Bamberg's traditional pubs operate Kellers, usually in separate locations from the main brew pub. The Spezial Keller, located high above town on Sternwartstrasse, should be your first stop.
Spezial is one of two taverns in Bamberg that still brew the city's most famous local beer, Rauchbier ("smoke beer"), a dark, subtly burned-tasting beer whose unique flavor is the result of malt dried over an open beechwood fire. On tap, it is surprisingly light and crisp - an explosion of charred richness rarely seen in American brews. It is a perfect accompaniment to the vistas of Bamberg's seven hills (the town is often referred to as the Franconian Rome) and its centerpiece, the four-spired Der Bamberger Dom cathedral, a towering mix of Gothic and Roman styles built in 1237. Views like this never tasted so good.
First-time visitors to Bamberg should elicit the services of local beer enthusiast and historian Dieter Morcinek, who considers it a bonafide profession to tour the town's historical brew pubs with visiting beer hounds (no, really). In all fairness, nobody knows Bamberg brews better than Morcinek, who is an official guide (or Gästefühere) with a specialty in beer for the Bamberg Tourism+Congress. We meet up at Brauereiausschank Schlenkerla, a staple since 1678.