A mouthful of rauchbier can create the sense of cognitive dissonance. Rauch (pronounced “rowk”), or smoke, is one of the most ancient accents in our culinary experience—but it tends to evoke meat, rather than beer, in our brain. We associate the flavor of certain woods in our mind with the meats they’re typically smoked over—hickory and ham, alder and salmon. Then, when we encounter them in a different context—hickory-smoked malt, say—our minds get confused. Beyond the dissonance, smoke is a strong, unfamiliar flavor one can’t ignore in a beer. For both reasons, people often abandon a glass after just having three or four sips.
Matthias Trum is the maker of the world’s most famous rauchbier—Bamberg, Germany’s Schlenkerla—and he has some advice. “If you’re new to the taste you will notice nothing but the smoked flavor,” he acknowledges. “Only as you go through your first two or three pints does the smokiness step back in perception. 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.”
You may wonder if there isn’t something ever so slightly self-serving about a brewer who insists you have to drink three of his beers, but Trum’s advice is solid. Schlenkerla’s malt is smoked over beech wood, but many people find bacon or barbecue in it. To my palate it’s more like a campfire: tangy, savory and very strong. Bamberg has one other rauchbier maker, Spezial, but Schlenkerla’s beer is a great deal more charred.
Trum is right about the smoke falling back, though. After a pint or two, the smoke, like background noise or a pervasive scent, recedes, revealing the beer underneath. There lies a warm, malty beer, and with enough time you can even identify some delicate German hopping. Schlenkerla makes several different beers, but the main flagship they call a Märzen—though it’s mahogany in color. (In Germany, Märzen is a strength, not a style or color.) That beer, once you puncture the smoky haze, has a nutty, plummy sweetness, but one that finishes dryly, in part because of the tannins in the smoke.
Many people who make the trip to the gorgeous, preserved city of Bamberg find themselves in Schlenkerla’s pub (Trum: “If you visit Bamberg and have not visited Schlenkerla, you have not visited Bamberg.”), but the brewery is actually a few hundred meters away. It’s a small, gas-fired system from the 1930s, and Trum uses a classic double decoction to make the beer. His lagers are aged 10 meters underneath the city at 41 degrees F for 6-12 weeks (and the Märzen gets eight).
But the real action happens nearby, where the malt is smoked. The barley comes from local farmers and then Trum has a special (and secret) process for kilning it. He uses the smoked malt as his base malt, which is why the flavor is so intense. In a beer like Märzen, there’s nothing but smoked malt. When I visited the brewery, I was surprised to find a pristine, whitewashed room with a door like you’d find on a large wood stove. Trum opened it so I could peer in and see the chunks of wood fueling a merry fire. “The thing with the smoke kiln is that we get a variance in the color. Plus, the wood never has exactly the same heat. For every batch, we make a laboratory analysis [of the color], and then we know exactly how we have to blend it.”
Matthias, the sixth generation of Trum owners, has had to use all his wiles to make Schlenkerla appealing to drinkers in the 21st century. After earning a master’s in economics at Bamberg University, he went to Weihenstephan for a master’s in brewing. When his father turned over the brewery to his care, he started extending the line. Particularly because his beer is so associated with antiquity, he couldn’t just start brewing IPAs, though. “So in Bamberg I wondered what I could do that was historically accurate on the one hand but inventive on the other hand.” To a line that also contained a helles and a bock, he’s added an oak-smoked beer, a Lenten beer and even a wheat ale. They are all smoky and none taste exactly “modern,” but they have helped the brewery grow to 20,000 hectoliters, or 17,000 barrels.
It may be that rauchbiers—and smoked beers as a whole—will never be much more than a niche. Asking a casual drinker to commit to, say, a liter and a half before deciding whether she likes them might be a tall order. On the other hand, if you’re ever in Bamberg, give it a try. The old tavern there dates to 1405 and looks out on a perfectly preserved medieval town, now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The winding lanes are so tiny that cars don’t bother trying to get down them, leaving the vista outside the pub, with charming half-timbered buildings dating back hundreds of years, intact. The warren of cozy little rooms inside have heavy wood supports stained in oxblood and smoothed by the centuries. I have never found a better place to drink beer and can’t imagine a better beer to drink in such a setting.
The following beers were tasted by Jeff Alworth.
Alaskan Smoked PorterABV: 6.5% | Smoked Porter (alder wood)
Tasting Notes: One of the most visible and lauded smoked beers, Alaskan follows Schlenkerla’s lead but focuses on the clean, ashy alder-smoked malt. The real difference is the base beer. Alaskan’s porter has huge fruity notes set against a deep chocolaty background. The smokiness performs a balancing function, like hops, keeping the rich sweetness in check. Like hop bitterness, Alaskan’s smokiness collects on the tongue and gets stronger with time.
Forgotten Boardwalk Morro CastleABV: 5.7% | Smoked Porter (beech wood)
Tasting Notes: With Forgotten Boardwalk’s entry, smoke is used to different effect. Here it’s an accent, designed to deepen the roasty bite at the center of the beer. This is a slightly acidic, acrid porter with little shafts of cherry sweetness. The light smokiness provides a glue to pull the flavors together.
BraufactuM RoogABV: 6.6% | Rauchweizen
Tasting Notes: A variation on lagered rauchbiers, Roog is a Bavarian weizenbier made with roast malt (Schlenkerla does one as well). It is a yeastily murky pour, like muddy water. That yeast provides characteristic banana, and the darker malt has a nutty flavor; these play against the toasted smoke note, a touch of flambé on the confection. Another example of how smoke can be used as an accent rather than the driving flavor.