The other Switzerland

If you’re a seasoned traveller in Europe, you probably have a fair idea where both France and Switzerland are situated on the map, and you may even know that these two countries in German are known as “Frankreich” and “Schweiz”. What may come as a surprise to you, though, is that a large section of what is technically Bavaria doesn’t like to call itself Bavarian at all – rather, the proud inhabitants call this region “Franken”, in English referred to as “Franconia”, and a sub-section of this even calls itself “Switzerland” – or “Fränkische Schweiz” in the native tongue. Sounds complicated? Well, at least there’s a pretty solid reason for you to find this place on the map and book your next holiday immediately because this, ladies and gentlemen, is the region with the highest density of breweries in the world. Furthermore, these are not just any breweries, these are old, family-owned small breweries that soldier on in tiny villages, serving the local population and a handful of tourists with some of the best beers known to mankind.

The natural focal point for beer lovers in Franconia is, of course, the city of Bamberg. This city is so charming and pretty that every other city in Europe effectively ends up looking like a rubbish tip in comparison. It also has a crapload of breweries and it is the spiritual home of the “rauchbier”, or smoked beer in English, a beer style that for beginners may come as a shock since it tastes suspiciously like bacon, but for those who like this sort of thing is just about reason enough to move there. However, Bamberg has become rather touristy of late, so if you want to head off the beaten path you should rent a beer-friendly vehicle like a bike or a toy tractor and head off eastwards towards Switzerland (as it were).

When you arrive there, it’ll be immediately unclear why it’s called Switzerland since it looks nothing like its bigger (and much more expensive) sister country to the south. There are a few hills and some rocks sticking up, but no banks, no holey cheese, no yodelling and not a single referendum in sight. However, unlike the other one, you’re not unlikely to accidentally crash your bike or tractor into a brewery, because there are several of these on every street corner. Well, that was a bit of an exaggeration, but there are literally a couple of hundred dotted around an area not much bigger than a relatively small section of Belgium.

Once you’re there, one great way to explore the region is to park your bike or tractor and proceed on foot. There are several beer trails of varying lengths that coincidentally lead you past a brewery every kilometre or five, where you can stop for suitable refreshment. One of these is simply called the “Brauereiweg”, or “Brewery Way”, a very simple and ingenious name for a 13km long countryside walk that crashes into four very nice little breweries along the way. The great thing about the walk is that you can sober up a little bit between breweries, the great thing about the beer is that it makes the walk so much more fun, causing people to break into song, cow-tipping and other shenanigans along the way.
The Kathi-Bräu in Franconian Switzerland

Then there’s the beer. Oh, the beer. My talent for waxing lyrical falls light years short of the kind of celestial celebration I would like to write in its honour, but I will attempt it nevertheless. Picture Bach, Beethoven and Mozart getting together for a little jam session where they would combine their talents to compose the greatest symphony ever written, and picture listening to this in the most beautiful place you can imagine, such as a particularly nice pub. That would perhaps come close to the sensory experience of taking a sip of one of the beers that these breweries make. OK, perhaps this was slightly exaggerated and somewhat influenced by the sensory enhancing effects of the beers themselves, but you get my point. There aren’t many places in this world where you can drink better stuff, and you can perhaps even remove the “m” in “many”, though I have not been everywhere yet so I can’t be sure.

Another brewery, another beer.
For those of you who may wonder what the beers are like from a more down-to-earth point of view, I also have some information. First, there’s no Pilsner and second, the lightest beer colour you’re likely to see is amber. Most of the breweries brew only one or perhaps two beers, and the main one will be the style known as “Landbier” or “Vollbier”. These are malty, yet very well balanced brews that are full-bodied without being sweet, refreshing without being tart, and served cold without being frosty. Make sure that you order the brewery’s own beer on tap (“vom Fass”) – they may also stock some bottles from well-known national brands just to cater for those who think McDonald’s is a restaurant.

As if by magic, we came across yet another brewery.

As mentioned, there are many brewery walks in this region, and it is possible to do circular, triangular, square, straight and gay walks spanning anything from a couple of hours to several days. Some breweries even offer comfortable lodging, and if you can distract yourself long enough from the singing and cow-tipping whilst walking, you may also appreciate the scenery which is pleasantly rural with rolling hills, river valleys and occasional rocky parts where you may decide to climb up, fall down and kill yourself unless you bring a rope, in which case the rope may save your wife. Enough rambling (no pun unintended), the conclusion is simple: this is a great region for beer lovers, and you should make a pilgrimage at least once (a year). Explore Bamberg first, then rent the aforementioned bike or tractor and head towards Switzerland, do a few walks, drink some great beers, meet some new friends, say goodbye, meet the same new friends at the next brewery, and so on. You can’t go wrong, there are signs everywhere and it’s really confusing. As they say in Mongolia: Tulatsgaaya!!