When the folks at the German Tourism Authority reached out and invited me to explore Bremen as their guest as part of the #citybreakgermany campaign I found my curiosity piqued. This post and the two that precede it are done in partnership with Bremen Tourism who suggested my itinerary and arranged/provided all lodging and accommodation. The premise for the visit? Get an overview of what Bremen has to offer over a three day weekend (arriving Saturday morning and departing Monday evening) without a frantic schedule or an over-the-top luxury experience. This is part three of a three-part series. covering my visit.
Bremen, Did You Say Haggis?
Nestled in a corner just off Bremen’s market square and a stone toss away from the city’s famous monument to the Brothers Grimm’s story about traveling musicians, is a small doorway that leads down a steep stairwell. As we made our way inside, we descended into what appeared to be a cramped basement but, we were met by the exact opposite. A bit like that moment of transition when the adventurers passed through the wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia, the door and stairway into Bremer Ratskeller under-promises and over-delivers. What greeted us was a long chamber with high vaulted ceilings in one of Northern Germany’s most unique and historic dining venues.
As my eyes rapidly adjusted to the light they immediately took in the delicately carved deep burgundy hue of the stair’s aged wood beneath our feet, mirrored by the ornate crests and patterns decorating massive wine-casks that lined the left side of the chamber. The white vaulted roof brought light to the shadows and led my eyes from the vibrantly colored artwork on the front of the wine casks to a series of ancient wooden cabins seamlessly built to line the right side of the hall.
As my host guided me down the stairs, I was delighted to discover that we’d be taking lunch in one of the small cabins, or “Priölken”. Bremer Ratskeller sits in the basement and wine cellar below the Bremer City Hall, an incredible building with UNESCO World Heritage status. The Priölken consists of a comfortable oval booth inside a cozy square room lit as much by candle as artificial light. With high ceilings, the walls above the seat are old painted murals/frescos in earthy tones that must be hundreds of years old. Similarly, the front of the cabin is made of aged, delicately carved wood, with a door and lovely panes of old glass. Each Priölken is a small time capsule that transports you back to their initial point of furnishing at the start of the 1600s. They are also the ideal backdrop for more private discussions and were historically used for negotiations between merchants and shipowners.
The restaurant also boasts a 600-year history which is on display in every aspect of one’s visit. Though due to the timing of my visit, I wasn’t able to preview it, the restaurant also has one of the widest collections of wine in Germany, best collections of historic cask wines, and boasts Germany’s oldest wine: The famous Rose Wine from 1653. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to explore more of the cellar-portion of the restaurant or to see where many of the wines were stored. Luckily, I did have the chance to sample a delicious local meal with a generous portion that left me struggling to clean my plate.
Once settled into the booth and upon the suggestion of my host from the Bremen Tourism Board, I perused the menu. To my surprise, given the caliber of the venue and its unique offering, the actual price of the daily lunch menu was only 14 Euro, less than the price of a hamburger in most sit down restaurants in Copenhagen. But, as I was in Bremen and eager to try local dishes I opted for his suggestion: the Nr. 52, Original Bremer Knipp. It was described as “crispy fried haggis-style oat grout’s dish of pork with fried potatoes with bacon and onions, strips from gherkin and apple campote”. As someone who genuinely enjoys haggis, I was not only surprised to see any reference or comparison of a local dish to haggis outside of Scotland, but also extremely curious to sample the end result.
As I waited for my knipp to arrive, we started with a delightful broth of steaming soup. The taste was rich and robust while still fresh and light. It was the type of soup that reminds you just what a delightful addition a good bowl of soup can be to a meal and how delightful a proper steaming bowl of soup is on a crisp and rainy winter day.
Soup downed, my Bremer knipp arrived. It was served in a vintage looking skillet that served as a lovely complement to the rich intensity of the dish. The sprawling knipp patty (or pancake?) sat on a bed of delicious potatoes, onions, bacon and other flavorful delights. A bit of gherkin (pickled relish) sat on top ready to be blended with sweet applesauce and forkful after forkful of the knipp. The knipp itself delivers on its promise of having haggis-like traits, though it is, itself, of a different composition and flavor. Rich, salty, robust in flavor, and made of a wide range of secondary pork cuts, it provides a wonderful set of flavors all on its own, but then pairs brilliantly with the variety of secondary flavors on hand – from the added smoky bite of bacon, to the sweet cool flavor of apple, or the rich sweetness of onions. I ate and ate and ate, but ultimately found myself so stuffed I was forced to admit defeat before cleaning my plate.
The combination of meal and experience was easily one of my favorite meals across all of my trips to Northern Germany and in and of itself made the visit to Bremen worthwhile. Food digesting, my host gave me a brief tour of the open areas of the restaurant. This included pausing in two additional rooms, one of which has a beautiful aged mural that was clearly hundreds of years old and of the four musicians (depicted by animals) playing a game of cards. Though subject matter differs widely, I can’t help but feel that Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s A Friend in Need which depicts dogs playing poker, was at least partially inspired by the mural.
We then made our way down towards the Becchus-Keller, another layer down and situated out beneath the Market Square. There, muraled walls and vaulted ceilings were filled out with gorgeous tables, a central stage, and large wine casks with a beautifully carved grape-leaf clothed boy (or wine god?). As it turned out, they host a series of live theatrical and musical performance dinners every year in the cellar as part of the Dinner in Concert series featuring Ocean’s 3. While we had other commitments that evening, I’d love to return for the show. The backdrop looks and feels like something out of Phantom of the Opera, and I can only imagine the acoustics are spectacular.
While the Knipp fed my body, the most interesting tidbit of mind food that I took away from my visit to the Ratskeller involved an explanation of the various animals depicted on each of the massive ornately worked wine casks that dominate the sides of the hall. My host explained that each animal was significant and carefully chosen to reflect the personality of the wine. A monkey vessel housed a playful, vibrant, fun and slightly crazy wine. Dragons were reserved for strong and powerful wines with a bit of fire to them. The third, those that depict lions, house Reisling “the queen of grapes” and are viewed as the most valuable and delicious. Meanwhile the fourth and final depict dolphins which house young, elegant and playful wines. Though not as widely used today, some vineyards still adhere to the old imagery. Which, now, means I have a fun treasure hunt ahead of me as I look for opportunities to test my newfound knowledge.
You can peruse the menu and browse events at the Ratskeller here.
The Windmill on the Old Fortification
Perched atop the historic earthen fortifications that cut zig-zag through central Bremen, you’ll find one of the city’s last remaining windmills. The mill, which still has functioning blades and cuts an imposing silhouette against the sky, sits overlooking the fortified moat and now serves as home to Mühle am Wall and its cozy restaurant. There’s something magical about windmills. Perhaps it is their prolific use in fairy tales and fantasy. Perhaps it’s just the sheer innovation, mechanical brilliance, and role in enabling significant human advancement that catapulted our industrial capabilities forward. Regardless, it saddens me that so many have fallen into disrepair or been disassembled. All this only serves to make Bremen’s towering windmill that much more dramatic and exciting.
With a recently renovated and surprisingly spacious interior, the Mühle am Wall and Kaffee Mühle provided a wonderful venue to sample another take on local food. Our table, raised in a corner of the main chamber, provided a lovely view out through the narrow windows that ring the base of the mill. To my back, a gorgeous staircase climbed to the second floor, where additional seating was offered, while a modern bar wound in an S shape in the ancillary building attached to the base of the tower. There’s a wrap-around patio that would deliver brilliant views in the summer, and a nearby patch of soil which in summer months is used to grow flowers and crops, further contributing to the beautiful views and historic feel.
Lunch was the embodiment of one of my favorite aspects of a visit to Germany – hearty basics prepared with flair and an abundance of flavor. Appropriately cooked pork, paired with a thick gravy that complemented the meat while serving as the ideal dipping sauce for the boiled potatoes. All served with a side of cabbage. The dish hints at the shared heritage with Jutland and Denmark, and mirrors some of the most traditional dishes in Denmark, but with a distinctly German twist in both flavor and how the meat is prepared. I find most red cabbage dishes are usually quite good, but the true test falls in how the gravy is prepared and if the boiled potatoes boast much in the way of flavor. Kaffee Mühle passed both tests with flying colors. The gravy was rich, thick, full of flavor, and made its presence known in a wonderfully smooth fashion, while the potatoes blended salt and other fresh secondary flavors with perfectly boiled potatoes that navigated the risk of being overly starchy, or excessively boiled and made it clear that the water has been subtly seasoned.
Dessert was a beautifully plated dish with a thick, sweet, redcurrant Rote Grütze which Danes will recognize as very similar to Rødgrød med fløde. Thick, wonderfully sweet and without the tartness or excessive acidity which often ruins such dishes, the Rote Grütze was served with vanilla ice cream and a mildly sweet whipped cream. Though I had to navigate the dish carefully and limit how much vanilla ice cream or whipped cream I could enjoy with the dish due to my lactose limitations, I couldn’t resist a somewhat heavier portion.
If the season is right, don’t miss your chance to try Rote Grütze.
My meal at Kaffee Mühle served as the perfect transition to one of my other favorite foodie stops during my visit to Bremen. Kaffee Mühle translates to the coffee mill. As mentioned in my previous posts exploring Bremen’s history, the city has long been home to a robust coffee trade. The mill which now serves as home to the restaurant historically served as a coffee grinder. Next on my list? The Münchhausen Coffee Roastery.
An early morning knock on the door found me welcomed into the historic Münchhausen Coffee Roastery, by the current owner and daughter of the Roastery’s founder. The cramped entry area has a couple of waiting chairs, walls overflowing with memorabilia, coffee tins, vintage photos, tea, and a glass counter that feels a bit like the entry to an old general store or turn-of-the-century apothecary. To the right, two islands of desks serve as home to the business end of the establishment, while to the left a hallway leads back into the Roastery.
The charming cozy feel of the Roastery makes it clear that you’ve entered one of Bremen’s iconic local family-owned businesses. Founded in 1935, the Roastery is the oldest family-owned roaster left in Bremen. As my host took me through the premises, she outlined how drastically the local industry has changed. With more than 250 roasters producing in the 1930s, the current number active in Bremen has dropped to close to 10. At the start, most sold directly from their shop – not unlike how you’d go to your local bakery. Now, Münchhausen sells some of their coffee directly from the Roastery, but most goes through outlets or direct mail order.
To understand the region’s major economic powers is to dive into their coffee history. Just as coffee was long a major economic driver for nearby Hamburg, and has served to reinvigorate the city’s economy as coffee’s popularity has once again exploded, so too has Bremen’s history been steeped in the rise and fall of coffee. Now, with premium coffee blends and more complex tastes for coffee percolating into the mainstream, Bremen’s coffee heritage is booming.
The city, which claims to have been home to the first coffee shop in a German-speaking country (opened in 1673), is eager to showcase its prowess in the handling, grinding, and roasting of coffee beans. At Münchhausen, my host took me back through a packing room to the “new” roaster. A beautiful drum machine which was running under the careful eye of one of the local expert roasters. The roaster dates back to 1958 and uses an air roasting process to deliver more than 30 different raw coffees.
The slower roasting process, which requires that the master roaster monitors color by eye against sample roasts, provides a layer of control that helps Münchhausen lock in added aroma and achieve exactly the level of intense taste they want for each individual batch. The longer the roast, the better the aroma, and more intense the taste. The smell itself was intoxicating, rich, and left me eager to try a sample.
But, before we did, it was into the storage room where a wide range of print adorned coffee sacks were resting alongside similarly marked wooden barrels. Each had a small label denoting the location – Myanmar, Indonesia, Australia, etc. – sitting atop the beans for easy reference.
The biggest takeaway from my visit? An interesting insight I’d never heard broached previously. The team at Münchhausen roasts roughly 32 tons of coffee a year which isn’t anything to bat an eye at. But apparently, the big industrial roasters in Bremen can roast up to 14 and a half tons per hour. The difference is staggering but, also makes sense when you consider the meteoric rise of coffee. What’s not being advertised, however, is the difference these rapid-industrial roasts make in the coffee you end up consuming. The bulk and more accelerated methods used for these high-volume coffee roasters locks in significantly more acidity than a slow roast. That acidity impacts taste, but more importantly, results in coffee far more likely to serve up heartburn.
I had always assumed that the level of acidity had more to do with the way in which the coffee was brewed or the type of coffee beans themselves. But, given the roasting process is effectively curing the beans, it makes a lot of sense that a slow roast would do to coffee, what aging does for a delightful single malt. It also makes sense it’s not a factoid regularly advertised by most coffee houses and brands who, by necessity, opt for cheaper, high-volume roasting options.
Sure enough, the coffee I sampled at the end perfectly prepared me for the rest of my day navigating Bremen’s autumn weather. Guided tours are available with advanced notice alongside additional information on their homepage.
Hungry for a Bit of History and Culture?
As noted at the start of this post, this visit was organized and hosted by Bremen Tourism as part of the #CitybreakGermany campaign in collaboration with #NordicTB who arranged and covered all aspects of my stay.