Newcomers are often surprised that smoked beers even exist, but beer made with smoked malts are one of our most tangible link to the 18th century and before. At one time, most beers made with kilned malt had a smoky tinge, and maltsters strove to eliminate it. The exception is a handful of brewers in and around Bamberg, Germany, whose rauchbier (smoke beer) is still made with wood-cured malt in centuries-old fashion―the definitive smoke beer.
In the bigger picture, smoke is more characteristic than stylistic, as even the producers of Märzen-inspired rauchbier infuse their other German brews with rauchmalz (smoke malt). Porter also carries a measure of smoke flawlessly, approximating yet another retro beer, that of London’s heyday.
We are resigned to some speculation regarding the smoky character of malt, as many, if not most, brews exhibited some into the 18th century, yet not all spoke of it. Earlier kilning innovations were not necessarily available, affordable or desired by many pre-industrial brewers. Brewing was largely a local or homestead endeavor, with rural areas being quite isolated, and malt was influenced heavily by curing method and fuel type.
So common was the smokiness that little was made of it until the end of the Middle Ages, when brewing became less domestic and more commercial. Brewers began comparing, experimenting and documenting, noting the attributes and flaws of their curing fuels. The virtues of straw and wood were touted, largely because they were cheap and renewable. Wood was becoming scarce during the 16th century in England, so straw often became the default utilitarian fuel. Coal was also used extensively, but it was taxed heavily, and was impure and nasty.
Some reprieve from this rough character came in the 17th century with the advent of indirect malting kilns and coke fuel, an ultra-clean version of coal. This combination expedited the inception of pale, essentially smoke-free, malt. Coke was specifically put to use early on for malting in Derbyshire in 1642. But it was expensive and not feasible for large-scale brewing.
The beer of choice in England at the time was porter, made with brown malt, cured with kilns fired by wood. It was kept for several months in an effort to reduce the smokiness, which was never eliminated entirely.
This dark, smoky, aged brew was fancied by the masses. There is copious historical documentation from this era, much of it editorial, and it seems smoky flavors were either loved or loathed by brewers. Either way, this malt allowed brewers to realize great profit while simultaneously satisfying the hoi polloi.
By the early 19th century, smoky notes were gradually disappearing from malt. Traditional porter was essentially nonexistent by mid-century, thanks to the drum kiln, and the advance of pale ale and lager. The magical marriage of smoke and porter has recently been rekindled by a few adventurous microbrewers: it is a wonder that it ever fell out of favor.
Germany produces the only continuously surviving smoke beer. Rauchbier is often considered a specific style (Märzen), but those who make it usually incorporate some smoked malt into other styles such as bock, helles and weizen and designate them as such.
Historically, German brewers differed from their English counterparts in several ways. Coal was not used extensively in Germany, leaving maltsters to rely mostly on wood. It was abundant, allowing some selectivity, and beech eventually won out as best. German brewers were also more likely to do their own on-site malting. This personal connection provided an essential link between raw material and finished product.
Like the rest of Europe, German brewers largely moved away from wood-cured malt in the early 18th century. Thankfully, not everyone hitched their wagon to this “fad.” Several brewers in greater Bamberg continued to dry their malt as they always had. They were content with their familiar medium and wise enough to value and embrace tradition: ironically visionary. Bambergers have always loved their specialty, but the area is now considered a “must visit” tick on any beer hunter’s itinerary. It is the real home of smoke beer in, appropriately enough, the cradle of European brewing.
Bamberg lies in Upper Franconia in Northern Bavaria, with the densest concentration of breweries in the world. There are several dozen breweries around Bamberg, and nine within this city of 70,000. Two famous breweries in Bamberg specialize in rauchbier: they are the Brauerei Heller-Trum, makers of Aecht (genuine) Schlenkerla rauchbiers, and the Christian Merz Brauerei Spezial, brewers of Spezial beers.
They are essentially self-sufficient, with everything on-site to produce their unique offerings. Both do their own malting, drying green malt with native beech. Neatly latticed racks of wood are seasoned for at least one year, eliminating any risk of fouling the malt. Aged wood burns very cleanly and with little visible smoke, yet enough to leave its rustic fingerprint. Curing takes a day or more, and the malt is then stored for several weeks to mellow. Collectively, these measures minimize the harsh phenolic residues found in smoke that might otherwise make beer unpalatable.
Most is kilned to Vienna or Munich malt specs, delivering the spicy-sweet, toasted and malty character familiar in the amber autumnal lagers and ideal for smoked Märzen. The smoke may be a bit strong to the uninitiated, but becomes as agreeable as any smoky delicacy after a few sips. Schlerkerla brews are a bit heavier on the smoke than Spezial, in general, often using a grist entirely composed of rauchmalz, with Spezial doing more blending with regular malt. Heller-Trum lagers in caves beneath the brewery as they have for centuries.
They are modest operations, with Heller-Trum producing 10,000 barrels and Spezial 6,000 barrels per year, respectively. Scattered around the outskirts of Bamberg are a handful of other breweries that make use of smoked malt in their own house specialties, a beer traveler’s dream.
Bamberg is also home to the venerable Weyermann malting company. Like the breweries, they use well-seasoned beechwood and age the malt. It has a lighter kiln, more like pilsner malt. The trained, deft palates of its own maltsters ensure the proper level of smoke, with various batches blended to create a consistent product. Weyermann’s smoked malt finds its way into many beers and is quite popular among American micro and homebrewers.
Smoke in the New World
On the American microbrewing scene, porter seems to be the most common style that incorporates smoke. Bock, Scottish ales, brown ale and stout are also favored from time to time. As noted earlier, London porter was expected to have a smoky character into the 19th century, but for about 150 years after that, porter was absent of this glorious enhancement.
Enter the Alaskan Brewing Co. of Juneau, who reintroduced the world to smoked porter in 1988. Having shared their respective wares with the nearby Taku Smokeries (specializing in salmon), they had them smoke some malt with alder wood for their porter. A finer collaboration could not have been imagined. It is full and robust at 6.5 percent ABV; creamy, black as night and ages with grace. Being seasonal and not distributed widely, it is one of the most coveted brews in America, and a show-stopping example of what experimental microbrewing is all about. These days there are numerous smoked porters, many outstanding, who emulate the blueprint set forth by Alaskan 22 years ago.
Smoked malt is also made in America, with Briess Malting in Chilton, WI, curing their delectable rendition with cherry wood. It is kilned to 5º Lovibond, roughly the color of Vienna malt, and the equal of any other. It has no doubt flavored many a microbrew.
The long-smoldering rauchbier culture of Bamberg has been fanned to flames recently by the burning interest in traditional and regional beers. This has sparked a further appreciation for smoky character in other beer styles with the soothing ambiance that we find in slow-cooked food and flickering fireplaces. Go ahead, get your burn on.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier MärzenABV: 5.1
Tasting Notes: From the heart of Bamberg comes this classic rauchbier, made with 100 percent rauchmalz. Smoky notes billow from the bottle. Deep amber, bordering on chestnut brown. The nose is heavy on campfire smoke and aromatic malt. Medium-bodied, with a chewy Munich malt foundation. The flavor is both rugged and amiable, with meaty smoke, toasted nuts and sweet malt. Served from oaken casks at the Brauerei Heller-Trum, in existence since 1678. Their Urbock (6.6% ABV) is a beefier version of the Märzen and without peer.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier WeizenABV: 5.2
Tasting Notes: Made with 40 percent rauchmalz and 60 percent regular wheat malt, this brew is even more complex than the Heller-Trum lagers. It pours rambunctiously with a hazy, rusty amber color and massive head. The aroma is playful with interaction between the woodsy smoke and yeasty phenols, and clove spice. The palate is creamy, the flavor like that of a dunkelweizen. The smoke flavor is somewhat reserved, the finish is crisp―an ideal match for a summer cookout.
Spezial Rauchbier LagerABV: 5.0
Tasting Notes: Founded in 1536, the Christian Merz Brauerei of Bamberg makes an impressive lineup of rauchbier. The helles lager and Märzen are imported to North America. Spezial Lager pours gold-copper with a cream colored head. The spicy grain aroma is reminiscent of Vienna malt, the smoke is restrained, clean and complementary. The flavor is earthy and fresh, medium light in body, with a crisp finish of lightly toasted malt and soft bitterness. Overall, a tidy, mellow and elegant brew. It is made with a blend of rauchmalz (40 percent) and regular malt.
Stone Smoked PorterABV: 5.9
Tasting Notes: This smoked porter is everything a grand, robust porter should be, with a dose of smoke to take it up a notch. It pours ebony-red, with an aroma full of roasted barely, woody smoke and hints of cocoa. The mouthfeel is silky, but not too full. The taste is bittersweet, with notes of vanilla, French roasted coffee, cocoa and caramel malt. The smoke level is perfect, the porter coming through admirably. It is well hopped, with American hop character in the aroma and flavor, and a solid bitter finish.