You Love The Smoke (Beer)
I’ve been drinking craft beer longer than some of you have been alive. One thing I remember distinctly from the early days was when I’d ask a bartender if they had something other than Bud, Bud Light, Coors Light, or Old Milwaukee. ‘No,’ they’d say, ‘that shit doesn’t sell.’ And I’d get a Jack & Coke, thinking “It can’t sell if you don’t have it, ya dope.”
That’s the same argument I’m getting when I suggest to brewers that they might want to try something different: a rauchbier. (If you know what rauchbier is, relax; I have to explain it. Catch up with me in a paragraph.)
Rauchbier is literally “smoke beer” in German. How do you get smoke in beer? You do it in exactly the same way you get that peaty smoke flavor into Scotch whisky. When the maltster dries the sprouted barley to make it malt, they heat it over a smoldering, smoky fire. As the malt dries and toasts a bit, it takes up that smoke. Malt for smoked beer tends to get smoked over wood – beech, alder, mesquite, fruitwood, oak – more often than peat. Brew the beer with the smoked malt, and you get smoky beer, anywhere from a wispy hint to a fog bank of fire-borne flavor.
I’ve been a fan for years. Schlenkerla is generally acknowledged as the gold standard of a rauchbier brewery. It’s in the mecca of rauchbier, in Bamberg, in southern Germany, where rauchbier is expected of a brewery. I’ve put beechwood on the fire at Schlenkerla, I’ve drunk their rauchbier in their cellars, carved out of the sandstone the town sits on.
I hunt for rauchbier. Alaskan Brewing’s Smoked Porter is famed. DeGroen’s, the late lamented Baltimore brewer, made a killer rauchbock that made its reputation. Dovetail, in Chicago; Hammerheart, outside Minneapolis; Jack’s Abby, in Framingham, all make smoky beers. Do they sell? Hell, yes. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t keep brewing them.
But when I suggest to a brewery that they make a rauchbier, all I hear is “They’re so polarizing. People hate smoked beers. I’d never be able to sell that.” Honestly? If Fritz Maytag, Ken Grossman, Jim Koch, or Steve Hindy heard you saying that, they’d weep! While they kicked your ass for you, that is.
People ‘hated’ anything other than light beer 30 years ago, and then they discovered they actually loved beers that weren’t light beer. Why? Because brewers with some damn guts and hustle made them, and then showed people why they were good.
Where’d that spirit go? It’s still around, I guess, because I see brewers and retailers standing ass-deep in big cans of pineapple habañero sour cream gose, and gooseberry pop-tart imperial stout, and elderflower graham cracker milkshake IPA, unafraid to make something that’s, holy crap, way out of the ordinary.
Then these chickenshits, who live in a world where bacon is a fetish, where backyard smokers are the hottest hobby after singing sea shanties (I’m kidding to make a point), have the gall to tell me that smoked beers won’t sell.
Are you kidding me? There’s a damned competition circuit for barbecue, rib joints have sprung up all across the country. You can’t shut people up about brisket, pulled pork, and smoked salsa. Alton Brown tells you how to make a smoker out of big cheap-ass flower pots, or a cardboard box! Smoked paprika is the darling spice of home cooks.
If that’s not enough, ask me about the other drink I know better than you do: whisky. Thirty years ago the Scots couldn’t give peaty whisky away; people cringed in fear when they smelled it. Then they wised up (LIKE YOU SHOULD!), and realized how good that smoky spirit smelled, and how it filled their hearts and innards with the power of the Highlands, and made their food taste so much better (especially oysters, wow). Now smoky Scotch is the standard, and distillers are in a smoky arms race to make ever-smokier peat bombs.
But you? You sit there with your four-pack of lactose-infused fruit sludge, spiked with donut holes and pumpkin spices, and your trembly lower lip, because a smoked beer is too weird, too polarizing?
Here’s what you do. Get some Schlenkerla. This is one time starting at the top won’t hurt at all. If you want to ease into it, try the Helles, a gossamer tissue of smoky malt that’s great all year round. If you prefer to go polar bear plunge-style, get the Märzen, or shove the throttle all the way to Urbock, and see what it’s like to drink a glass of the best double-smoked bacon you’ve ever tasted.
And if you really don’t like it, well, that’s okay, you tried. But the next time you have a BLT, or a rack of ribs…try it again. And when you realize how good that is, you’ll thank me.
Author of Whiskey Master Class, Harvard Common Press (2/18/2020 release); “To enhance your knowledge in the magical world of distilling, my friend Lew Bryson is the perfect place to start.” — Colum Egan, Bushmills master distiller
Another great whiskey book I wrote: Tasting Whiskey, Storey Publishing; “Tasting Whiskey is a book that I would have loved to have had close at hand when I first started getting into whiskey.” — David Wondrich, author of Imbibe and Punch