The modern beer renaissance has led to the rediscovery and appreciation of many traditional beer styles, followed by a wave of experimentation among the more adventurous nouveau brewers. One of the more obscure historical ingredients useful for experimentation is smoked malt. It comes in several forms, but the most common type is the smoked malt (rauchmalz) of Franconia, Germany, especially from the city of Bamberg.
Until just 400 years ago, turning raw barley into malt for brewing was a clumsy process, to say the least, and most beers had some nefarious smoky character.
For the uninitiated, the slap of smoke in the aroma of a beer can be a little intimidating. The smoke flavor can be just as daunting, even for the adventurous, and rauchbiers (smoked beers) are not for everyone. Most people, however, can warm up to the unique flavor of rauchbiers as their palate acclimates.
Soul of Smoke
More than most beer styles, smoked beers are tethered to malting history. Until just 400 years ago, turning raw barley into malt for brewing was a clumsy process, to say the least, and most beers had some nefarious smoky character due to this manner of malt production. Farmhouse and domestic brewing, the norm through most of history, meant that each brewer was responsible for his or her own ingredients. Drying the sprouted barley was approached via various avenues. Air-dried malt would have been a feasible alternative in arid regions, but for most self-sufficient maltsters, some sort of heat was required. Most commonly, green malt was dried over open fires. This meant, of course, that the malt would adsorb much of the smoke’s components in its husk, and in turn would impart the smoke flavor and aroma to the beer. Simply put, smoke was an expected component of the finished beer.
Much historical notation survives about the preferred fuels for drying the malt. Wood and straw would have been commonly used early on, but wood became scarce as forests diminished across Europe. Straw survived as a clean, quickly renewable source for kilns. Peat was used in some locales to dry barley and is still in use today; its footprint can be noticed to varying degrees in Scotch whiskey and even a few Scottish beers. Coal was favored in some regions, but as a generally impure substance, imparted lots of dubious character to the malt. Coke, made from coal whose impurities are volatilized during processing, made cleaner malt. No matter what fuel was used, the malt would have been smoky and dark in color, with the beer mirroring the flavor and appearance of the malt. Changes were looming, however, as advances in brewing technology eliminated the smoky acridity and rough flavor of the malt. Today’s smoked beers are the rare smoldering nod to the olden days.
Wafts of Change
Perhaps nothing did more to shape modern brews than the invention of kilns that heated malt indirectly. Lighter malt and, more important, a flavor uncorrupted by the byproduct of the fuel were the result. Soon afterward, pale ales replaced the hugely successful porters and brown ales of the 18th century. In the 19th century, pale lagers replaced ales as the beer of choice and to this day remain the beer style most consumed worldwide. Nevertheless, many indigenous and historical beers have either held fort, or have been recreated in response to public interest. Porters, brown ales, dunkels and witbiers are just a few examples. No beer style, though, may be more representative of the ancient brews than the rauchbiers of Bamberg.