Drinking Bacon: In Defense of Smoking Beer Slow & Low
Our columnist explores the unheralded world of smoky brews whose history goes back hundreds of years.
My name is Lew, and I am a smoker.
I smoke salmon, nuts, ribs, pork butts, eggs (amazing!), beef tips, onions...all kinds of things. I’m not alone. Smoking has become a popular hobby and cooking method among professional and amateur pitmasters alike. It adds a rich depth and complexity that can be mild and sweet if you use cherry wood, or screaming with spice if you use mesquite and hickory.
But what about smoked beer?
Even though people enjoy all kinds of crazy beers today—pastry beers, sour beers, juicy beers, salty beers, flower beers, glitter beers—the humble smoked beer gets little love or attention.
Rauchbier, as the Germans call it in their determinedly straightforward manner—it literally translates to “smoke beer” —is a classic. Indeed, at some point in the past, almost all beers would have been somewhat smoky because of the need for wood fires to dry the malt before brewing. I talked to four brewers about why smoked beer survives, and about why they make it.
The classic smoked beer is Schlenkerla (“Shh’LENK-err-luh”), brewed in Bamberg, Germany, since 1405. The brewery is owned and run by the Trum family. Matthias Trum explains how smoked beer came from the malting process.
“Drying the malt with open fire was the common technology, prior to the invention of indirect heating systems for kilns in circa mid-17th century in England,” he said. “Indirect (i.e. non-smoky) kilns are more efficient and can be built in larger sizes. By the mid-20th century, all but two breweries had stopped making malt the old-fashioned smoky way. Only Schlenkerla and Spezial of Bamberg kept the fires burning.”
It’s a literal fire, too. I’ve been to Schlenkerla and thrown a couple beechwood logs into the kiln. The bacony barbecue smell of that small room is simply incredible, a smell that follows you all through the brewery. You realize how deeply that smoke is ingrained in the brewery when you have a sip of their light, golden Helles, and taste its delicate yet definite smoky tinge. And then Matthias tells you the secret to this beer.
“The Helles Lager does not use smoked malt directly at all,” he said, with a broad smile, “but gets its smoky notes from being brewed in the same system and from being fermented with yeast that before had fermented classic Märzen smokebeer.” It’s just that smoky in there.
That delicate tinge is enough for some folks. That’s what Colin Presby has learned in his dream job as the brewmaster for Carnival Cruise Line. Presby, who is an old friend of mine, has been brewing beer on-board a couple of specially-outfitted cruise ships for the past two years, and one of his regular brews is ParchedPig Porter.
Presby brews the porter with German beechwood-smoked malt and some malt smoked right there on board the ship in Old Hickory smokers. Yes, smokers on board a cruise ship, because the brewery is part of a Guy Fieri-themed Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse Brewhouse.
“I designed the beers to go with that great food,” said Presby. “The smoky, bacony flavor and aroma complements the similar smokiness in the meat. Smoke is a great flavor for sense memory and comparisons. I get tasting notes from guests that might mention bacon, or brisket, or a campfire. But at the same time, it’s an easy flavor to overdo. Different people have very different thresholds for smoked flavor tolerance. I aim for the smoke flavor to be present, noticeable, but not overpowering.”
Unfortunately, sometimes just knowing a beer is “smoked” can be enough to scare people off. Jack’s Abby, a rare lager specialist craft brewer in New England, calls its Smoke & Dagger a “black lager.” The only indication that it’s smoked is in the name but, of course, a craft beer’s name can be any damned thing. While it has only 10 percent smoked malt, it has still been a bit of a challenge to sell it.
“We, at one point, really thought there was an opportunity to brew a decent amount of smoked beer,” said brewery co-founder Jack Hendler, “and we were very much wrong about that assumption. The key difference between Smoke & Dagger and our other smoked beers, like Fire in the Ham, is that the smoke flavor is quite subtle. Smoke & Dagger is definitely a balanced approach to a smoked beer, where there is as much roasted, chocolatey notes as there are smoked notes.”
That brought to mind something Matthias Trum mentioned. “There is an old proverb in Bamberg: only the third Seidla (half liter) will make you appreciate classic Rauchbier. In your first Seidla, your senses are overwhelmed with the smoky flavor, and therefore have a hard time noticing the other aroma components. With the second pint this effect is wearing off a bit, and with the third pint usually one is adapted to the smoky flavors, and only then the full character of the beer presents itself.”
I’ve had the full-throated Schlenkerla Urbock, and he’s right, the beer’s real character comes through as you adapt to the smoke. I’ve also had Smoke & Dagger, and it’s easy to love, with a restrained smoke flavor that comes through more as depth, and added richness.
What I haven’t had is Hammerheart, and after talking to brewmaster Austin Lunn, I want to get to Lino Lakes, Minnesota, and remedy that. Hammerheart may make more smoky beers than any other brewer in America. There were six different ones available when I checked the tap list today.
“Smoked beers are made by a few methods,” he said, “the first being smoked malt; the second, an ingredient that imparts smoke (smoked peppers, fruits or vegetables). Even cold-smoking hops is an interesting way to add a subtle smoke aroma and flavor to beers. I have done all of these methods and they are a lot of fun. After you adjust to the initial shock of ‘Hey, this beer tastes like smoked meat,’ you can find that there is a level of complexity and character hardly found in any other type of beer. Unfortunately, a lot of folks aren’t willing to get past that initial shock, or simply find the flavor of a smoked fizzy liquid offensive.”
Lunn’s pretty philosophical about the number of smoked beers he does. “In a beer scene where fruity and juicy hop profiles are currently king, smoke seems like a bad word,” he said. “Perhaps one day, a larger majority of people will come around and show interest in smoked beer...perhaps not. I will love smoked beer just the same, and always produce it, even if it’s in my kitchen for my own enjoyment.”
If you’re not drinking smoked beer, that’s the kind of devotion you’re missing. I hear Lunn’s passion, and I think of Trum’s heritage and single-mindedness, and Hendley’s determination, and Presby’s joy, and all I can think of is how long it’s been since I last tipped up a glass of liquid smoke, a darkly rich beaker full of bacon. I could jump on Presby’s ship, run up to Massachusetts, or make a pilgrimage to the wilds of Minnesota (just kidding, Hammerheart is only half an hour from downtown Minneapolis).
But instead I think I’ll fire up the smoker, throw in a pound of Brazil nuts and a couple racks of ribs over oak and hickory, turn on some cowboy tunes, and enjoy a pint of Matthias’s Schlenkerla. Nothing like it to ease the wait needed for properly smoking food slow and low.