Once while wandering around as a young curious tourist in a beautiful corner of Germany, I found myself where most do, a local pub. I walked in and was immediately greeted by the bartender, and after I stumbled over a German greeting I asked to have a glass of what the locals drink. He brought me an amber beer which had a big fluffy head of foam and looked delicious. Then I smelled it and was shocked. I closed my eyes, believing upon opening them I would be greeted by a smoky piece of barbecued meat. But this scent wasn't coming from ribs, or sausage, or brisket, but a malty hoped carbonated beverage. This was my first experience with a Rauchbier, or smoked beer.
You can find smoked beer at many craft breweries around North America or get some sent to your home through a beer delivery club. Though, the tradition of using smoked malt comes out of central Europe many years ago. Rauchbier and other smoked beers are in a way a window into the past of malting. The smoky flavor comes from the malt that is used during brewing. Malting barley and other cereal grains have been connected to human civilization and tradition since ancient times. Before modern malting techniques and the widespread acceptance of using indirect heat to kiln the germinated barley, direct sunlight was used to dry the barley. Over time maltsters discovered it was easier and faster to dry the grain over a flame, with a side effect of picking up some smoky flavor. When brewing with this malt the smoke flavor becomes infused into the beer creating something unique and different in the beer drinking world.
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Originating in the Bamberg area of Germany, Rauchbier traditionally uses ingredients like that of a Bavarian Märzen lager, but with smoked malt added. One can also find in Poland a wheat smoked beer called a Grätzer or Grodziskie. Historically this Polish beer is typically made from oak-smoked wheat malt. This European smoky beer tradition has been opened to a new interpretation by American craft brewers. Here in the States, we are seeing smoky malt used to make smoked Porters and smoked Stouts along with many other kinds of smoky Ales. Any beer style can use smoked malt, but to make a delicious and sought after smoked beer the brewer must strike a balance between the smoky malt characteristics and the beer style's properties.
A maltster can utilize different materials to create the smoke, giving them an array of choices and flavors. Examples are peat-smoked malt and wood smoked malt (using beechwood, oak, or other woods). Rauch malt is a pale malt that has been smoked over a wood fire. It provides the characteristic smoked flavor of a Rauchbier. Though be mindful that the smokiness of the malt may vary from batch to batch, depending on the material used to create the smoke and amount of time that has passed since the malt was produced.
As summer and the BBQ season begins, so does the opportunity to enjoy that same smoky flavor in our beverages. Look for Rauchbier and other smoked beers at your local craft brewery or join The Original Craft Beer Club and you may find a smoky beer delivered to your door. Every brewer has their own take on this style, so be bold and try many. Though smoky beers can be a challenge to the brewer to get right, it adds another avenue and creative outlet for craft beer makers. And when you do find one done correctly it will be worth the search. Give this unusual beer style a chance and you may find yourself surprised at the complexity and unique flavor that a smoked beer can impart. Sit back and enjoy a Rauchbier and appreciate the tradition and history that comes with every sip.
Author Bio: Patrick Grass is currently a student at UC Davis, attending the Master Brewers Program. In his free time, he enjoys the restorative qualities of the wilderness and natural world.