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.
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.
Bamberg, situated in the northern part of Bavaria known as Franconia, is historically important as a former outpost of the Roman Empire. In the world of beer, it may be the epicenter of brewing. Of the 1,300 breweries in Germany, half are in Bavaria, 300 are in Franconia, and about 100 surround the city of Bamberg. Nine call the city home. It is also a malting center, home to the venerable and famous Weyermann Specialty Malting Co. Bamberg is also an agricultural center and very traditional. Perhaps this is why the city’s brewers have held on to their roots.
Bamberg’s rauchbiers are the only smoked beers that have been brewed without interruption over the centuries; others are recreations. When all other brewers were more than elated to move away from the rough character of the smoky brews, Bamberg embraced them. According to the brewers, this is merely a matter of tradition and nothing more.
The breweries in and around Bamberg brew a wide range of German-style beers–bocks, pilsners, helles, dunkels, and even weissbiers–and many of them make a one-of brew that contains a measure of rauchmalz. Two family-owned breweries, however, brew rauchbier almost exclusively.
The Brauerei Heller-Trum Schlenkerla is widely considered to be the quintessential rauchbier brewery. Its rauchbier märzen is a world classic. A rauchbier weizen and a rauchbier ur-bock also grace the portfolio. Schlenkerla does its own maltings, a rarity among breweries, even in Germany today, and uses the indigenous beech wood, aged to perfection, to kiln the green malt.
The märzen and bock use exclusively rauchmalz. All beers are labeled “Aecht,” denoting an original type. While it is the smoky tail that wags the dog at Schlenkerla, the classic märzen, bock and weizen characteristics emerge wonderfully from beneath the smoke. In each case, the style of beer is not in question. Of the two rauchbier breweries in Bamberg, Schlenkerla is the more intrepid.
The Brauerei Spezial, founded in 1536, is the oldest of the rauchbier brewers in Bamberg. Though they make a rauchbier in the märzen style as a seasonal, their signature rauchbier is more in keeping with the Vienna style. There is a soft maltiness and a relatively mellow smoke character. It contains 40 percent rauchmalz and 60 percent Bavarian pilsner malt, and has an alcohol by volume content of 5 percent. The märzen is much bolder, with 70 percent rauchmalz, a deep amber color, and the requisite malty opulence.
Other Smoked Brews
Smoked beers outside Germany are not altogether rare, though most are not brewed in the rauchbier style. Peated malt from England and Bamberger rauchmalz are both available for brewers around the world. Peat-smoked malt, made specifically for use in Scotch whiskey, is employed to a small degree in both Europe and North America. MacQueen’s Nessie from the Eggenberg in Austria is brewed in the style of a Scottish wee heavy at 7.5 percent ABV. It is malty and smooth, and worth checking out. Unibroue’s Raftman is a bottle-conditioned ale that has a whisper of whiskey malt, proving that a little peated malt goes quite far.
Traditional rauchbiers do show up from time to time. Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh makes a classic märzen rauchbier that is quite highly regarded. Mammoth Brewing Co. in Mammoth Lakes, CA, brews a smoked amber bock that is potently malty, with a subdued smoke background. It’s a perfect bracer for the ski season.
The Alaskan Brewing Co. of Juneau makes what is perhaps the most famous smoked beer outside of Germany. The beer arose out of the discovery that Alaskan brewers of the gold rush era over 100 years ago roasted their own malt over fires. Stands of alder provided ample wood for the local smokehouses. In the tradition of the rauchbier breweries of Bamberg, this brewery smokes its own malt using alder wood to give Alaskan Smoked Porter its unique character. This is one of the most feted beers in America, is substantial and complex, and ages extremely well. Embracing and recreating history have never tasted better.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier MärzenABV: 5.4
Tasting Notes: The smoky aroma is evident the second you open the bottle. Deep copper-chestnut, with a stiff but fleeting cream-colored head. The aroma is a mixture of smoked food, malt and campfire. The sweet, malty backbone is the perfect foil for the meaty, smoldering smoke forefront. Somewhat dry, with a medium mouthfeel. Very complex and amazingly inviting after a few swigs. This classic is made entirely from rauchmalz.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier WeizenABV: 5.2
Tasting Notes: Pours a hazy reddish brown like a dunkelweizen, fulfilling the promise of a requisite, billowing weizenbier head. A complex aroma, with phenol from both the smoke and yeast; also clove and banana. Fairly smoky in flavor, but the weizen character definitely is allowed to come through. Finishes crisply with the smoke flavor lingering. Brewed with 40 percent rauchmalz and 60 percent regular wheat malt.
Christian Merz Spezial RauchbierABV: 5.0
Tasting Notes: Coppery in color, with a creamy, off-white head. The smoky aroma is fresher than most, and somewhat restrained. German noble hops and a light grainy nose is also present. The flavor is crisp and clean, as is the finish, with some malt and caramel. Reminiscent of a Vienna-style lager. Very drinkable, with a mellow loitering smokiness. Brewed with 40 percent rauchmalz. This would be a great intro to rauchbier.
Alaskan Smoked PorterABV: 6.2
Tasting Notes: The legendary beer from Alaskan Brewing Co. pours with a rocky head and is black with ruby highlights. The smoke aroma is present but plays a supporting role rather than first chair in this beer. Bitter chocolate, coffee and hops mingle with the smoke. The flavor is complex with the smooth smoked malt very noticeable among the chocolate malt, full-bodied, roasty character. Even without the smoke, this would be a world-class porter. A perennial award winner, few beers go down as well or match more perfectly with a campfire and smoked food.