There once was a time when most beer was smoky. This is because the final stage of turning grain into malt for brewing, called kilning, requires heat. In arid regions, that heat could come from the sun. But in the cool, wet climate of northern Europe, air-drying wasn’t always possible and fire was needed to generate the necessary heat. Prior to when kilns using indirect heat were developed in the 19th century, freshly sprouted kernels were exposed to the smoke generated by such combustible fuel as wood, hay, or, later, petroleum coke. The grains absorbed the smoky smell and taste of the smoldering fuel and passed it on to the beer.
The smoke flavor wasn’t always welcome. There are plenty of historical references to the unpleasant, acrid, and oily character of some beers—and the steps taken to minimize it. When newer malting technology finally arrived, brewers embraced it and smoky beers faded from the scene.
They didn’t disappear entirely, however. Brewers in Bamberg, a city in Bavaria, Germany, in Upper Franconia, clung to the old ways and have spent the last 400-plus years transforming what was once an unavoidable reality into a revered tradition. Bamberg rauchbiers like Aecht Schlenkerla and Spezial are hearty beers made with malt smoked over beech wood, and are beloved worldwide. The city’s taprooms have become top travel destinations for beer lovers. The style has grown in popularity here in the United States, too, with adventurous craft brewers experimenting and expanding the range of smoked-beer styles to include porters, stouts, IPAs, and more.
Depending on the beer style and the brewer’s predilection, smoky notes can range from subtle to intense. Some Bamberg beers are made up entirely of smoked malts, creating campfires in a bottle. Other beers may incorporate smoked malts in less than 10 percent of the overall malt bill, achieving just a faint, smoldering whiff of smokiness.
The types of wood used to smoke malt give different beers different smoke profiles. Beech wood is the most common, lending beer an oily, meaty, almost bacon-like appeal. Cherry wood smoke has a sharper, spicy edge that could be described as “char pit;” some cherry-wood smoked beers taste like they were made with chipotle peppers, but lack the heat. Oak has a softer character: woody, with hints of vanilla. Alaskan Brewing Company uses alder wood for its famous Smoked Porter, resulting in a briny, almost salty smoke with a touch of spice. Brewers also use maple, hickory, and other woods to achieve specific flavors. Even the peat-smoked malt from which Scotch whiskey is made has been used to make beer.
Smoked beers come in a variety of styles. The classic rauchbier from Bamberg is a smoked märzen—the malty lager style better known to Americans as Oktoberfest. The Aecht Schlenkerla line also includes a bock, a hefeweizen, a subtly smoked Bavarian helles lager, and an oak-smoked doppelbock. Several breweries make smoked porters, including Stone, Founders, and O’Fallon Brewing Company near St. Louis. There are plenty of local breweries contributing to the smoked-beer scene, too. Surly Smoke is a Baltic porter. Schell’s Chimney Sweep is a smoked schwarzbier. Lucid Brewing’s Ora is a caramel-dripped amber ale with subtle layers of smoke. HammerHeart Brewing, in Lino Lakes, takes smoke to a whole new level with an extensive lineup of smoked porters, stouts, a Scotch ale, an Irish red ale, an India pale ale, and more.
The Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines for the classic smoked märzen describe it as a medium-bodied beer with a smooth, lager character. The flavor and aroma come from the smoke and malt blend, which can vary in balance and intensity. The beech wood used to smoke the malt can come across as meaty, woody, or—rarely—greasy, but no matter the smoke flavor, the rich, malty profile of a märzen should always come through. Märzens can be moderately sweet with notes of toasted grain and medium bitterness—just enough to balance the sweetness. Spicy flavors of European hops are typically low to none, and the finish is medium-dry to dry with a crisp lager character.
Smoked beers are great with any kind of smoked foods. You might expect that the pairing would result in a suffocating cloud, but the similar flavors actually cancel each other out, making both the food and the beer seem less smoky. Smoked beers are the ultimate companion to grilled and barbecued meats—both dry-rubbed and sauced—as well as Chinese dishes featuring black-bean sauce.
About Smoked Beer
Märzen: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen, Spezial Rauchbier Märzen, Harriet Rauchfest, Rogue Smoke Ale (top-fermented version)
Porter: Alaskan Smoked Porter, Stone Vanilla Bean Smoked Porter, Surly Smoke, Epic Smoked Porter
Bock: Aecht Schlenkerla Urbock, Samuel Adams Cinder Bock
Other Smoked Beers: Lucid Ora, HammerHeart Surtr’s Flame, HammerHeart Bergtatt, Brau Brothers Bancreagie Peated Scotch Ale, Furthermore Three Feet Deep, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Weizen, Aecht Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier