Thoughts of a crackling fire, a smoky slab of salmon, and glass of smoked porter are sure to stir primal reflection as the permeation of smoke melds food and ambiance. Smoked brews are not particularly common, but are easily crafted. Some styles fairly beg for a dose of smoke as a complement to toasty or dark malts. Others, especially porters, simply look like they should be smoky. Have a bent for historical brewing? Smoked malt reconnects brewers to days when essentially all beer had a smoky tinge. Using today’s versions as a starting point, it is easy to cobble together one of the many styles that would benefit from this addition. It is as easy as incorporating commercially available smoked malt into a recipe or, for the true hobbyist, fashioning your own.
Until the invention of the drum-style kiln in 1818, malt was largely cured with fires of wood, coal, coke, straw and peat. Care was taken to direct the smoke away from the green malt during the cure, but it inevitably was absorbed to some degree. Beer must have been pretty palatable in that condition though, as many historical documents tout the great flavor of one smoked beer or another.
Our objective is to purposely add that woodsy, rustic attribute. The best place to start is to sample some, if you haven’t already, bearing in mind that it might take some palate adjustment as the prominent phenols may overwhelm at first. The modern home of smoked beer, properly termed rauchbier, is Bamberg, Germany. Many brewers there have never stopped making rauchbier, and among them, Schlenkerla and Spezial are quite easy to find. The classic rauchbier is modeled on the märzen style, but between the two breweries, you can also find helles, bock and weissbier. Schlenkerla’s offerings are quite assertive, while Spezial lends a softer smokiness. Among the American micros, look for Stone Smoked Porter, Rogue Smoke Ale and the elusive Alaskan Smoked Porter.
As luck would have it, one of the most prominent malt suppliers in Germany, Weyermann Specialty Malts, is based in Bamberg and their authentic rauchmalz is available to homebrewers. The aroma is quite strong, but the smoky character after brewing is surprisingly mellow. They cure their malt over well-aged beech logs, precisely as both Schlenkerla and Spezial do. It can be used for 100 percent of the grist, but its light color (3-6 EBC, 1.7-2.8° L) fairly limits the styles that it creates under that scenario, with pale Vienna or maibock the best bet.
A great strategy would be to blend rauchmalz with Vienna or Munich malt to get the desired color and maltiness, or to augment with a small measure of CaraMunich. I prefer the former over the latter, as the sweet, melanoidin character of toasted German malt is a perfect complement for smoke. A measure of 20 percent in any dark grist, and 10 percent in a lighter one, would be quite noticeable without being overwhelming.
All porters, including Baltic; brown, Scotch and old ale; all bocks, including weizenbock; and imperial stout would benefit greatly from a smoky addition. A brawny Kulmbacher-style schwarzbier with some rauchmalz would be an excellent representation of a historical black lager. A brown porter with 20 percent rauchmalz would be an excellent way to create a London porter of 300 years ago. Ever thought about a Scandinavian smoked wheat beer with juniper berry? Should you decide on a wheat beer, take into consideration the phenols thrown off by the yeast when you make your recipe.
Many homebrewers take base malt (already cured) like pilsner, pale ale, Vienna, and Munich and toast it themselves in the oven for a little depth. Rauchmalz is a base malt, and rather pale, so toasting it would be an interesting experiment. Essentially, homebrewers take a ready-to-use malt and modify it themselves.
Now You’re Smoking
As with many homebrew experiments, it is best to start at the low end of the measure and with a familiar recipe. Since rauchmalz is base malt, it needs to be mashed, so if extract is part of your brewing protocol, a mini or side mash will be necessary. Be mindful of your hop strategy, as some American hops, especially at high rates, might detract a bit from profile. Smoked beers are best kept in balance in that respect.
Another option is peated malt. It is the same as that used in the production of Scotch whiskey, and can be purchased through homebrew outlets. The smoky, and phenol, character is extremely robust and much rougher than that of German rauchmalz. It should be used with great restraint, and is best in ales like porter and Scotch where a background character is preferred. Start with two percent of the grist and work from there. Peat malt is also a base malt, but at the level it is being used, a mash probably isn’t necessary and it can be steeped along with specialty grains.
OK, I know what some of you are wondering: “I have a smoker, can I smoke my own?” The answer is a resounding “damn straight!” In fact, there was a time when home malt curing was as much a part of the homestead as baking bread. There are a few considerations, but nothing terribly complicated. In general, think hard about the type of wood you plan to use, as they are as different as malt or hops. Milder types like beech, maple or apple would probably sit well in a beer, though there is no reason that oak, hickory or even mesquite can’t be used.
Either wet or dry malt can be used. Moistened malt will absorb the smoke a little better, but will need to be dried afterwards to prevent spoilage. A 15-minute soak in distilled, spring or well water should do the trick (avoid chlorinated water). As with food, long, slow, low-temperature smoking over a couple of hours or more should work the best. Recall that base malts are usually kilned at 200° F or below. Smoke enough for a few batches. Home-smoked base malts and subsequent toasting for authentic brown ale or porter would be a stellar way to capture a bit of Olde London.
I think I need to build a fire, pronto.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.