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Every region in Germany has its own traditions and conventions when it comes to drinking their national beverage. Bamberg and the surrounding region of Franconia is no different. It's also true that they often make fun of other region's conventions.
Düsseldorf and Colgone, beer producing cities along the Rhine, have a tradition of serving beer in smallish glasses (.2 to .3 l) but they serve it very rapidly so that sometimes it seems like a continuous, bottomless glass of beer. In Munich and Bavaria the 1 litre "Mass" is common, especially at festivals such as Oktoberfest. In Franconia there is a happy medium: if you just ask for a beer you generally will be served a .5 l glass or mug. This is sometimes called a "Seidla"
If you've been to Belgium you know they are very particular about the glass used to serve a beer. There are hundreds of different size and shapes of glasses. The Franconians (and most Germans) are not quite so particular. The style of glass used usually is determined by the style of the beer.
Wheat beers are generally served in tall, slender glasses with a big flare at the top. They generally are highly carbonated and produces a large head and this flare is to hold the massive head. Sometimes they will have a handle on the side, but that is exception rather than the rule.
If the beer is filtered it is generally served in half litre clear glasses of various shapes. Some look like elongated English pint glasses, while others are glass mugs of various shapes, some short and stout, some tall and slender. Almost all will have the breweries name and logo on them.
If you order an unfiltered beer, which is very common in the smaller countryside breweries, it will almost certainly come in an earthenware mug,. We might call a "stein" but they call a "krug." Sometimes they are plain, sometimes they have a brewery's name or logo. This unfiltered beer goes by many names, the most common being "Kellerbier" ("Cellar beer"), but you may also see it called "Landbier" or even "Ungespundetes" ("un-bunged" -- the conditioning tanks are not sealed so the beer has less dissolved CO2)
The krugs pose an interesting problem: with a glass your server can tell when you are empty and ask you if you want another. With an opaque krug there is no way to tell, so when your krug is empty and you want another beer the convention is to lay it on its side (thus proving it is empty). You will promptly get a refill. Be careful though and only do this to your own krug. You may think your neighbor is ready for another, but he won't appreciate the lapfull of beer he'll get when you turn over his not-so-empty krug!
You probably are familiar with the German (and other's) custom of everybody putting their krugs or glasses together and saying "Prosit" or "zum Wohl." In Franconia they add another step: after touching the glasses together (and make sure that no arms cross -- that is bad luck) they will tap the glass back on the table before drinking. This is in remembrance of those that are no longer with us (sort like saying "... to absent friends")
If you are not really thirsty (or you have driving duties that day) most places will serve you a .25 l glass of beer. You would generally order a "kleines" ("small") or a "kleines beer." Even though these are half the size of the standard beers, don't make the mistake of ordering a "half" or "halbes" -- that generally means a half litre and you'll get a regular size beer.
Lets say you've been drinking with some friends for a while. You are about ready to leave and you don't really want another whole beer, yet your friends aren't finished and you don't want to just sit there and watch them drink. You could order a "kleines" but there is another great tradition in Franconia -- just ask for a "Schnitt." This literally means a "cut" and what they do will fill your krug up to about the halfway point and will charge you half the price of a regular sized beer. These is a better deal than "kleines" and save you some "face" because anybody seeing you can't tell that you didn't start with a full beer! If you are a regular and welcome customer, sometimes your Schnitt will be 3/4 full or even completely full!
There is a catch, though. Most places will require you to buy at least one regular beer first and will sell you only one Schnitt. After all, the idea is just to have a little more beer before you go home. People have taken advantage of this and some breweries (such as Schlenkerla in Bamberg) will no longer sell a Schnitt. So use it, don't abuse it.
One of the more bizarre things you may see in Franconia is known as a "Beer Warmer" (bierwärmer"). It basically is an immersion heater that will quickly warm the beer up to room temperature and more. The coldness of the beer will disturb the digestive systems of some older patrons so the brewery will warm the beer as a convenience.
Many breweries will have a hallway with a shelf along the side for you to rest your beer. This is called the "Schwemm." While they are covered, they are not heated and are exposed to the outside air. There will be a little window somewhere that you can order (and pay for) your beers. If the window is closed, look for a doorbell button and ring it. I asked a local about this tradition, and he told me it was so you could truthfully say "I have not been in the brewery" when asked. I have no idea if this is true, but it sounds to good not to use.
Another thing that may confuse you if you understand a little German if somebody asks if you want to go to a "Bierkeller." That literally translates as "Beer Cellar" so I pictured a pub below ground level, maybe in a converted cellar where they used to lager beers. Well, I was partially right, except what in Franconia is a "Beer Keller" anywhere else would be called a "Beer Garden."
The story is, that long ago tunnels were dug in the sides of local hills to provide cold storage for the beer -- not only during the lagering phase, but to keep the beer cool during the warmer months when they did not brew. (It is much easier to dig a horizontal tunnel into the side of a hill than a vertical shaft ) Somebody noticed that is was nice up there in the summer, with cooling breezes and trees to provide shade. So rather than transporting the beer into town to drink, they opened for business on the hill and let the customers come to them. This tradition has carried on until today. Almost every brewery has one or more associated "Bierkellers" on a nearby hill. The granddaddy of them all is just outside the town of Forchheim which has 15 Bierkellers (20 during special events) on the side of one hill. You start at the top and drink you way down!
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