Jazz Kocsma, Szeged

back to Hungary

jazzkocsma

Kálmány Lajos u. 14, 6721 Hungary

One of the pleasures of travelling is the sense of inevitability of unearthing a gem, something even more rewarding when it has involved some level of adventure. That was certainly the case when discovering Jazz Kocsma in Szeged, a fascinating and typically Hungarian university town bordering Serbia, which I wrote about recently in my sister blog Undiscovered Europe. Being in Szeged was alone, rather off the touristic beaten path, and even for a well-seasoned traveller there was a certain sense of the mystic about it with its enormous twin spires brick cathedral with volleys of bats swooping around it, a similarly enormous synagogue and the whole Vojvodina region being largely unknown to me.

There are bars in Szeged city centre, as you’d well expect, although we found fairly few for a city of its size. Unfortunately due to being out of term time, it was also sheepishly quiet at times. The central pub scene seems to divide itself between student drinking and old man drinking, without too many crossover places (which were tacky and/or corporate in any event). It was quite difficult to find any drinking holes that looked like they’d made any efforts to be homely, characterful or different. After a couple of hours of mediocre boozing we decided to call it a night, with the option of a venue called Jazz Kocsma, which we would drop by on the off-chance it was still open in the early hours.

On an unlit back street 20 minutes out of the centre, in a spookily quiet backstreet (to the point of feeling abandoned), Jazz Kocsma hoved into view. When we approached the bar, its old wooden doors were shut, the ancient lettering above the door frame several decades old at least – from there it seemed impossible to think the place had opened to anyone for years. Remarkably its inception was in 1992, so one can only assume they were going for a 1930s speakeasy vibe from the word go.

However, desperate to find somewhere before heading back to our awful hotel (the Tisza Sport, if you’re interested, though please don’t stay there) we tried the doors and to our surprise and relief found light downstairs, the place alive and accepting guests. There was a short break of silence as we walked in (the entrance of four Englishmen at a late hour most likely unexpected), and while surveying the scene we discovered this very ramshackle ancient jazz club, with a corner bar area on the right and small stage on the left, with resident piano and giant old rug lending the place a somewhat homely feel – that is, if the home had been left vacant and squat in periodically for a decade – however that isn’t intended to be a criticism in this case.

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The beer options are perfunctory Hungarian stuff, unspectacular, with the risible Borsodi at least being cheap, and a dark lager option that will almost certainly prove a better bet. The bar staff were neutral and as impassive as ever for Hungary (it remains to be seen what actually surprises Hungarian middle aged men) and the bar area was a very typical example with lots of pinewood giving it an almost cabin type quality versus the look of the place as a whole.

However, while we were in search of a good beer in a good pub the primary quality of Jazz Kocsma is not beer but atmosphere. Being very late at night, events were slowing in pace, with groups huddling quietly around ramshackle tables and vintage furniture and paintings in the candlelight. The mood lighting and gentle murmur of the groups in each area of the room set the tone nicely, as does the homely, yet dilapidated décor.

Yes, the Jazz part of their title does actually mean something, and although there was no music playing at our late time of arrival, their events calendar shows their live music performances remain in full swing with 5/6 official events a month, and more if you count the open mic stuff. It was easy to see from the interior how a Jazz band would elevate the experience. Make sure to check before you go as you may find that your woozy late evening pint is interrupted by some energetic live music performances (or alternatively visit in search of those performances to find one man and his dog at the bar trying to dissolve into the scenery).

This venue is a historical slice of local life that seems determined never to redecorate or change. Impossible to tell whether it was always this ad hoc, old and crusty or it has been happy to become so worn down. Regardless, the end effect is a powerful and distinct experience that will elevate your evening out in Szeged and prove that sometimes the best pub experiences aren’t always going on in the centre of town. It’s telling that the place is still going strong despite the lack of marketing and obscure location, largely from word of mouth. Such institutions are rarely bad places to visit. This is one of those encounters that rewards curiosity and comes highly recommended.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 4/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 8/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

 

Schlenkerla, Bamberg

back to Germany

schlenkerla

Dominikanerstraße 6, 96049 Bamberg, Germany

The number one purveyor of ‘rauchbier‘ in the universe, Schlenkerla are a big international brand and export their strange smokey ale across the world. Bamberg’s tradition for beer brewing is well known about in Germany with nine active breweries in the centre itself, all of which existed long before this decade’s revival of small scale brewing. You might expect Schlenkerla’s brewery tap to be along the lines of many other German breweries, a vast beer hall serving high volumes to the masses, as the place certainly fulfils one of Bamberg’s central tourist functions.

It comes as a very pleasant surprise then to visit Schlenkerla and find  a small-to-medium sized pub, connected to a cloistered medieval banqueting hall, which while rather impressive to look at isn’t enormous either.

This certainly isn’t a criticism, quite the opposite. In comparison to many other breweries who go in for a far more corporate business-like approach to style and service, hard to hate but at the same time difficult to love, at Schlenkerla the preservation of the tradition, and a determined low-key approach seems to be the modus operandi. For whatever reason, outside of the peak weeks of summer, maintaining this normal scale pub seems to meet demand and work just fine.

There is a luxury to be had bathing in stereotypes from time to time, and you will find the unabashed gothic agricultural charms of Schlenkerla’s tap house so distinct and powerful, encompassing a stereotype of the traditional Germanic identity, (the Middle Ages in particular), as to make a lasting impression.

The exterior of the pub is a beautiful traditional fachwerk house (as could be expected) with the classic Schlenkerla motif on the lantern outside, the name loosely translating to ‘limping man’ (though I believe the direct translation is slightly less politically correct). The location of the pub could hardly be more central, almost at the epicentre of operations in Bamberg’s Altstadt and just a short walk from the absurd and brilliant Altes Rathaus perched halfway across a bridge over a fast-flowing river. You can read more about that in my general review of this modest yet spectacular city here.

Turn left as you walk in to enter the pub room, and notice the Schlenkerla beer served gravity pulled direct from the barrel at the bar. The interior is black beamed, previously having been washed in ox blood, presumably for some superstitious reasons. Bamberg was one of the centres of witch trials in the middle ages and like a few corners of Germany, does enjoy trading on a rather gruesome history. The room itself feels like it could have existed hundreds of years ago, and save perhaps for certain added sounds and smells that would take you there it is remarkably transporting all the same.

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The pub offers communal seating, and was so appealing to dive into on a winter’s day none of my inherently reserved Britishness about sharing communal space came into play. Find any space going and place yourself there – perhaps be polite to ask first, but it’s unlikely anyone will decline – it is the done thing. The serving wench (I do use that term advisedly) is stodgy and middle aged, which suits the place perfectly, being after all, a stout and venerable operation. With her level of dour scrutiny over proceedings, your beer will arrive in short order and be replaced just as swiftly when you’ve finished drinking. Keep the bar mat handy as she will be keeping tabs via pencil marks and you’ll settle up at the end.

Schlenkerla’s rauchbier overwhelms your mouth at first with smoke and bacon flavour, but once it has laid the flavour there, that recedes to the background, or at least becomes the ‘medium’ if you like. From there, drinking the rauchbier becomes milder, with their Marzen being similar to a sweetish nut brown ale, with that background smoke and a refreshing hoppy finish to boot. Similar to trying your first pint of Guinness or other stout, once you overcome the initially strange flavour there is a fantastic drink to be had and one you can put away volumes of in one sitting. The guy I sat next to assured me it takes three full pints before you appreciate the virtues of a rauchbier.  And check out the value as well! Germany has generally offered a large beer for 3 euros 50 cents for a while now, but in Schlenkerla it’s well under that for a glass, meaning you can have a whole session in here without worrying about rapidly draining your funds. Good value is hardly a common feature of any sizeable brewery tap I’ve been to, so here’s another feather to its bow.

The pub room is really cosy and friendly, with many traditional pub staples, including even a serving hatch with a stained glass window, and a door leading to a courtyard of high medieval design where one can get fresh air and nosy around at the general environment at this terrific venue. At the time of my visit it was even snowing in the courtyard heightening the atmosphere further. Diving back inside I spent a good few hours alongside a Brazilian family who were being introduced to Bamberg by their daughter’s husband. Even though I was suffering from a bad sore throat at this point it still counted as one of the highlights of the stay. You know there will be little stories and vignettes shared every day by people who bumped into some stranger or other in Schlenkerla and for a brief moment in their lives because well-acquainted. Such socialising cuts to the heart of a pub’s function.

Although they serve food in the pub area, the best place to be for that sort of thing is their banqueting hall through the other side of the building. The styling inches even further towards medievalism without going over the top as with some themed-restaurants. Schlenkerla serve food built to withstand the power of a smoked beer, and the offerings are intensely flavoured, stodgy and agricultural. The Bamberger sausage is charred black, comes on a spartan metal plate and will make your breath stink for weeks. It’s delicious. The Bamberg Zwiebel is a giant onion stuffed with mince. You’re probably getting the idea. You can even push the boat out and order Schlenkerla’s doppelbock beer. The combination of a complex strong beer and smoked effect on top pushes the boundaries of what a tongue can cope with, and it’s a specialist kind of brew.

All venues that see a high volume of traffic such as this one can suffer from the service being a little jaded and that also applies to Schlenkerla if you’re doing any more than drinking. I got the impression the majority are well meaning but they certainly seem to tire as the day goes along. Most of the negative comments online also pertain to this, and I think they have little patience for the more ignorant tourists, finding their other tasks quite challenging enough as it is. However, that’s a rather mild criticism in what otherwise is a richly enjoyable experience.

As a pub I would recommend this all day long – it is one of the finest drinking spots I’ve ever been to and I wince with regret that we haven’t developed matter transporters so I can press a button and visit every week with impunity. In many ways Schlenkerla sums up what pub going is all about and takes several of those aspects to the very highest level of enjoyment. Stunning.

  • A: Quality and/or choice of drinks – 9/10
  • B: Style and Decor – 10/10
  • C: Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • D: Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • E: Value for Money – 9/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

Update: Since my first visit in 2017, I’ve returned twice in 2018 and 2019 and the operation is going strong much as before. Interestingly, all three visits have been in totally different weather conditions, hot sun, pouring rain, and snow. Schlenkerla was just as attractive a prospect in all 3 and is surprisingly cool and pleasant inside when it’s hot outside.