|Where There’s Smoke, There’s Beer?
Okay, here it is: my plea on behalf of smoking. Not cigarettes, certainly, nor cigars or other, less legal substances. No, I’m thinking of smoking—or rather, smoked—beer. There’s nothing faddish or newfangled about this brewing technique; the brewers of Bamberg, a small city in Bavaria, have been doing it for centuries.
It may be even more traditional than that. Malting these days is done with indirect heat, a 19th century development; prior that that, it would have been heated directly over coal, charcoal, or even wood, imparting at least some degree of smokiness. In Bamberg, this technique never died out, and today the town’s handful of breweries use malt kilned directly over beechwood, imparting a rich, smoky character to their beers.
The Schlenkerla is the most well-distributed and famous of these, its beers known as Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier (“Aecht” means “real” sometimes translated in this case as “original;” “rauchbier” means “smoke beer.” ). The brewery is first mentioned in documents dating to 1405, and today makes several different beers. Most are lagers, so while one malting tradition remained unchanged, another sweeping change, ales (top-fermenting beers) giving way to lagers (bottom-fermenting) has made an impact. The Schlenkerla beers are deeply smoky; the Märzen is the mainstay of their production, very smoky, with some light malt notes hidden within. The Urbock, which is slightly higher in alcohol (6.5% rather than 5%), is intended for the winter months; the malt notes are a bit darker and more prominent, the smoke is almost bacon-y, and there’s a touch of pruney fruit underneath. The smoke on the finish of these beers lasts forever; try the straight lager or the wheat beer (their one top-fermented beer) for a slightly less intense smoke.
Or try Spezial. They make a similar range, but at the moment only their Lager is available in the US. It uses a mix of 40% smoked malt with 60% unsmoked. The golden malt flavor from the latter comes through, as do some hoppy notes; the smoke is still the first aroma the nose picks up on, but is well-blanced by these other elements, especially on the palate. While the Schlenkerla beers are exceptional with barbecued meats and sausages, the Spezial is more flexible, and works well with items like smoked salmon, miso, and grilled chicken.
American craft brewers have certainly picked up on the virtues of smoking. Alaskan Brewing in Juneau has been making their Smoked Porter for two decades. Interested in trying it out, they convinced a neighboring salmon-smoking facility to let them smoke some malt there, using the alder wood that Pacific Northwest salmon is so often smoked with. The richness of the alder wood needed a weighty beer to balance it, hence the choice of porter, an English rather than German style. Lots of dark espresso and cocoa notes are also part of the nose on this beer, which even evolve into raisin and toffee touches as the beer ages and the smokiness recedes a bit.
Stone Brewing, in San Diego, also makes a Smoked Porter, rich in dark fruit aromas and just a touch of smoke. As with the Alaskan, this is an excellent pairing for desserts, particularly dark chocolate. In Oregon, Rogue makes a Smoked Ale, in the Bamberg style but with an American accent of drying, bitter hops on the finish; again, more suited to the barbecue. Several other breweries are also working a bit of smoking into their brewing habits, in styles that go from the occasional trace of smokiness to “two-packs a day,” or its beery equivalent.