Chances are good that when you hear the term “smoked”, you think of things like ham, sausage, salmon, chicken or some other meat product. There are good reasons for that – smoked meats are really all the American public is used to seeing. However, craft brewers are changing that and they’re doing so in some inventive, innovative and downright tasty ways. Enter the world of smoked beer.
The Origins – Rauchbier
The origins of smoked beer can be traced by several centuries to the 1500s in Germany. It’s possible the process dates even farther back, but rauchbier (rauch=smoke and bier=beer) first came about in Bamberg, Germany during the 1500s.
In terms of body and flavor, there are many similarities to Oktoberfestbier, but rauchbier is darker than its fall-centered cousin is (and it’s consumed throughout the year as well). This style of beer has been available in the States, but not in any great concentrations, and not until recent years has it begun to gain a bit more popularity. Before you rush off to buy a sixer of the first type you find, though, let’s take a closer look at what smoked beer is and why you might not actually be buying rauchbier.
The Smoking Process
Smoked beer is called “smoked” because, well, it’s smoked. At least one of its major ingredients is smoked – green malts are smoked over an open flame in the traditional brewing method. In order to be authentic to German tradition, that open fire has to be burning beech wood as well.
In order for gains to be used in the brewing process, they have to be malted. This involves soaking the grains in water until they sprout. Once sprouted, they’re dried. Sun drying was once the most common way, although fire drying was also known (predecessors to the actual rauchbier style). However, beginning in the 1800s, a new way of drying malt became prevalent. Industrialization made kiln drying the preferred method for bigger production and more predictable results. Unlike fire drying, kiln drying relies on indirect heat.
The kiln has remained the preferred method for drying malts to this day, and you’ll find it at work in both the big beer industry and the craft beer segment.
Fire drying is a different process completely. It’s direct heat – the heat from the fire is applied directly to the malts, lending them a smoky flavor that is carried over to the beer. Depending on the heat of the fire, the type of wood (or other fuel) being burned, the type of malt and the duration of the drying, you can get varying degrees of smokiness in the finished product.
About the Flavor
If you’ve ever sampled Scotch whisky, you know how well the flavor of the smoke can carry over from the distillation process to the finished product. The same is true with smoked beers. However, there are a lot of different factors that affect the actual amount of flavor in the brew.
Smoked Malt Added – Perhaps the greatest factor here is the percentage of fire-dried grains actually added to the brew. The higher the percentage, the smokier the finished beer will be. Some brewers use almost 100% smoked grains, while others use only a small amount as a finishing touch and to impart a slightly different flavor to their brews.
Type of Fuel – Another factor is the type of fuel being burned. German brewers use beech, but that’s not the case elsewhere. Peat is a very common type of fuel (particularly in Scotland, but also in other areas of the world). Peat lends a much stronger and more pungent smoke flavor to the brew. Apple wood, oak and other fuel types are also used, each bringing something different to the mix.
Style of Beer – The style of the beer in question will play a role in how prominent the smoke flavor is. In milder brews, it’s possible for the smoke to be very strong. However, in a porter or a stout where smoky notes are common anyway, it can be less pronounced.
Depending on your preference for smoke flavor and the type of smoking process involved, you might find that the flavor itself is strong, robust and powerful. Those not so fond of smoking might term it overwhelming or pungent. It’s really all down to personal preference, but that’s part of what makes exploring the world of craft beer so much fun.
Where Can You Find It?
Once, you’d be hard pressed to find a smoked beer in the US. That’s no longer the case today. There are plenty of breweries putting out their own unique take on this interesting beer. Here are some of the more readily available options:
Stone Brewing Smoked Porter – Stone has a reputation for pushing the envelope, and their smoked porter slots in nicely with that penchant. It’s flavored with vanilla beans as well, giving a little bit of sweetness. It’s also relatively low in alcohol, coming in at 5.9%.
Orkney Brewery Skull Splitter – Brewed as a Scotch ale, Skull Splitter is strong, coming in at 8.5%. It also uses peat as the smoking fuel, which is one of the stronger options used today. If you’re not a fan of smoked products, this one might not be the best option as a trial run, but for confirmed smoke lovers, it’s a great brew.
Aecht Schlenkerla – Brewed by Brauerei Heller-Trum, this is an authentic German rauchbier. It’s relatively low alcohol (5.4%) and balance of sweetness from the malts help offset the serious smokiness.
There are plenty of others out there. Left Hand Brewing out of Colorado recently announced their own smoked porter (Smoke Jumper), although it only has limited distribution as of yet. There are also numerous other breweries doing things with smoke (Rogue, for instance). What smoked beers have you tried and where they worth the experimentation?