Vignette 25: Matthias Trum (Schlenkerla)
One of the most knowledgeable, entertaining, and quotable brewers in the world is Schlenkerla's Matthias Trum. My interview with him yielded reams of amazing quotes. I'll require future Vignettes to capture the fullness of his wisdom. Let's start today on the nature of rauchbier (smoked lager). Schlenkerla is, famously, one of the last producers still kilning their malt over a smoky beechwood fire, and the leading champion of this endangered practice.
“According to legend [an ancestor of the brewery] had an accident in the brewery and he was limping afterwards. In Franconian vernacular when you limp and you dangle your arms, this dangling is called schlenken. So a schlenkerla is a diminutive or the nickname for a person who dangles, who walks like that—very much like a drunk person would walk. That’s the second meaning and why it stuck around. So people say, ‘Okay, you drink smoked beers, so you gonna schlenka, you gonna dangle.’ At a time when nobody thought about brand names, about marketing, that was just a lucky coincidence.”
“At the first sip, the smoke flavor is extremely dominant on your palate. If you’re new to the taste you will notice nothing but the smoked flavor. Only as you go through your first two or three pints does the smokiness step back in perception and then the malty notes come out, the bitterness, the smoothness. So the second Schlenkerla is for you, the first time drinker, a different beverage than the first one. And yet the third one is different than the second one. From the third one on, you have the system running, so to say, and the locals who come here regularly don’t notice the smoke as much. For them it’s the maltiness from the first sip on. The second piece of advice that comes out of that, next to drinking three, is to take big sips at the beginning. You have to drink. Wash your palate.”
And then as a bonus, here's another little anecdote he told that seems to capture something essential about the German drinker: “I have my regulars who come in every day, some of them, some of them every week, every month—many come every day. Every year when we tap the Urbock for the first time, they ask me: ‘How strong is it this year?’ And the strength is every year the same—it’s always 6.5%. So I tell them, “Yeah, it’s 6.5%’ and they say, ‘Oh, that’s a little bit stronger than last year, isn’t it?’”