Bavarian Beer Trail Cycle: Gears and beers
On a Sunday morning, the roads in Germany's Aisch valley are as quiet as a hangover.
Cars are few and village doors are firmly shut. The only sound as I cycle is the rattle of the cornfields in the wind.
That it should feel like the morning after is fitting after a night spent in Bamberg. Few places in the world are so intricately coupled to beer as this medieval Bavarian city.
At one point in the 19th century, Bamberg was home to 65 breweries, of which nine remain. It has a brewing museum, dozens of beer festivals each year and it was the site of the Bamberg Beer War in 1907, when city residents boycotted breweries after they upped the price of beer. It's also my first night's stop on the Bavarian Beer Trail Cycle.
This 340-kilometre bike route loops through some of Bavaria's most beautiful towns and cities, the likes of Rothenburg, Bamberg and Nuremberg. But scenic splendour is not its prime asset. On this ride, beer is everything.
Through the Aisch valley, there's said to be an average of one brewery every kilometre, in what's claimed as the world's greatest concentration of breweries. It's a ride on which I'll need to pace myself, not so much on the bike, but in the breweries.
Cycling past a canola crop near Bamberg. Photo: Andrew Bain
My journey through liquid temptation begins in Nuremberg, a city more famous for its trials than its trails. Though I'm a day's cycling from the Aisch valley, still my map shows 56 breweries or beer cellars in about 70 kilometre of cycling to Bamberg.
Navigation this day is simplicity itself, as I quickly join the banks of the Main Danube Canal, which I will follow into Bamberg, riding into a pall of rain. Enormous canal boats cruise one way, riding elevators of water through the locks, and I pedal the other way on the ruler-straight towpath.
It's a glimpse into the ease of European cycling, which is flat, traffic-free and a plethora of signposts pointing the way, but still I've worked up a thirst by the time I reach Forchheim, about 45 kilometres from Nuremberg.
Though Forchheim is a pretty town of cobblestones and half-timbered buildings, and was once part of the Franconian royal court, it remains far from tourist itineraries. It's the kind of town you probably only see if you're on a bike, in need of a break. Or if you want a beer.
As I enter the old town, two breweries sit side by side along the cobblestones, but I ride on through to Forchheim's outskirts and Kellerberg Hill. Covered in thick forest, this hill is also tunnelled with beer cellars. These are caves cut into the hill to store beer at a constant, cool temperature for the town's breweries, which once numbered 33, but have been whittled down to four.
Today there are more than a dozen cellar pubs across the Kellerberg slopes. I roll my dripping bike into Winterbauer-Keller for lunch and the first stein of my trip. When I emerge, the sun is shining for the first time that day ... or is that just the beer talking?
Rothenburg is one of the most beautiful cities along the Bavarian Beer Trail Cycle. Photo: Andrew Bain
Tonight I'm staying in Bamberg, and the city's umbilical connection to beer is apparent from the outset. As I approach the city limits along the canal, there's a beer cellar right beside the towpath. Opposite my hotel is a bierothek, selling more than 70 different beers. And quickly I'm handed a brochure for the city's own brewery trail – a trail about beer inside this trail about beer.
The Bamberg Brewery Trail guides guzzlers between the city's nine brewery pubs. A few steps from the city's famous old town hall, which sits in the middle of the Regnitz River, the 700-year-old Schlenkerla is a brewery pub for the masses.
On a Saturday night, a crowd worthy of a football match fills the pub, spilling out across the cobblestones. Inside, is a warren of rooms and tiny hole-in-the-wall bars dispensing Schlenkerla's speciality, smoke beer, from wooden barrels.
Two buildings along the street, the more refined Ambrausianum is like a stylish cafe, while across town I'm a few weeks early for the seasonal Doppelbock-style Bambergator at Fassla brewery, so a lager has to suffice as carbo-loading for the next day's ride.
From Bamberg, I return along the towpath for an hour before swinging into the Aisch valley, where the beer trail switches between bike paths and gently undulating country roads. Villages queue through the valley. Some are too small even for a store, but they're rarely too small for a brewery.
The beer bike trail runs along the the Main Danube Canal. Photo: Andrew Bain
Following the Aisch, now just a trickle in the landscape, I arrive into Neustadt, a town of familiar sights: Bavarian cobblestones, Bavarian timbered houses, Bavarian breweries. Home to the giant Franken Brunnen brewery, it also has the now-customary sprinkling of small breweries. Tonight I'm not just cycling past them, I'm staying inside one.
Sat beside the path, Kohlenmuhle started brewing in 1401 and today occupies a historic mill on the bank of the Aisch. It brews four beers, including an ice wheat beer, and while the upstairs guest rooms are tiny, it's a short walk home after a few drinks.
After two days of hazy weather and a hazy head, my final day is almost detox on a bike. Between Neustadt and my finish in Rothenburg, the trail is almost devoid of breweries.
Instead, I ride through a rural idyll. This beer desert is painted yellow with canola, and the hills are green with forest. Church spires rise above tiny villages, and apple trees hang over the roads, dropping cycling snacks to the ground.
Less than 30 kilometres from Neustadt, the Franconian Open-Air Museum in Bad Windsheim sounds as dry as my day thus far, but among this vast collection of historic buildings, there's a final salute to beer.
At one end of the museum, steam pours from a chimney and a wonderful malty aroma flavours the air. Bad Windsheimer Bürgerbräu is one of two working breweries inside the museum. Using an 1850s kettle drum, it brews four times a week, producing commercial batches of Zwickel and Dunkel beer.
Adjoining the brewery is a 16th-century inn from the French city of Mulhouse. It's barely lunchtime, and I still have a few hours to ride, rolling through perhaps the most beautiful stretch of the trail. But there's time for a beer or two, right?
SEE AND DO
UTracks runs a seven-day Bavarian Beer Trail Cycle trip from April to October, including bike hire, accommodation, luggage transfers and excellent maps and notes. Trips are priced from AU$1090 (NZ$1221). See utracks.com.
The writer travelled as a guest of UTracks and Rail Europe.