Rauchbier’s, pronounced “r-ow-k-beer” and translated to “smoked beer” in English, have long been a staple in the German beer diet. In Germany brewers used to dry many of their grains in an open fire which added a bit of smokey flavor to the beers. So many of the beers were smokey but not as a specific beer style.
While the style is nowhere near as popular as the IPA it does have a loyal following among many craft beer drinkers. Many brewers have offered an interpretation of the style and experimented with it in a number of other beer styles, but how does the smoke flavor get in our beer?
We see that many German brewers traditionally dried their malts in open fires which imparted some smokey flavors. This is still done today by many maltsters who look to offer breweries an array of malt choices. The smoked flavors in these malts can range from subtle to over the top.
Many brewers, especially German traditional brewers, create rauchbiers that are close to an amber colored lager, so the malts they choose tend to be lighter and are not dark roasted malts. The flavors from the malts come specifically from the roasting process of the smoke being given off and not from a longer roasting process as is typically seen for malts in porters or stouts.
Typically brewers will blend the smoked malts in with other malts to balance the flavors, although some brewers have brewed beers with 100 percent smoked malts. When they are brewed with 100 percent smoked malts the flavors are fully dominated by the smokiness of the malts and these beers are most definitely not for those who are new to the rauchbier style.
The other way some brewers have added the smoked malt flavor is through liquid smoke. Unfortunately, when this is done the flavor tends to stand out as an off flavor and detracts from the beers in a variety of ways, so many frown upon this process.
When discussing ruachbiers, the term smokey is thrown around. Many beers that are darker in color, the malts are described as roasted or toasted. This is a much different taste from the malts in a rauchbier.
The malts used in smoked beer give off flavors of freshly smoked food. If you are a fan of barbecuing over charcoal or a wood-burner, then you are familiar with this taste.
As the palate adjusts to these flavors a natural sweetness becomes apparent. This sweetness adds a flavor depth to the beer that cannot be achieved elsewhere. This sweetness makes using smoked malts in a variety of base beers something fun for many brewers to do.
Here are two highly recommended rauchbiers to get you started down the path to enjoying some very tasty beers! Both have a great deal of smoked malt flavor but still maintain balance and are approachable beers. Even more importantly, they will remain two of your favorite beers once you are accustomed to the rauchier style.
Brauerei Heller-Trum / Schlenkerla- Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen: Do not be intimidated by the long and very German sounding name. This is the standard rauchbier that many bottle shops will have on shelves. The base beer is the popular Oktoberfest style with rich caramel malts melting into smoked malts. The smoked flavors are present but balanced with a rich assortment of malts. The brewery offers a smoked Weizen style that has a brighter characteristic to it and is a great one to try if you are a wheat beer fan looking to branch out.
Jack’s Abby- Smoke & Dagger: Jack’s Abby offers world class lager beer styles since they first opened their doors. This beer walks the line between a black lager and a smoked porter. Dark in color with notes of coffee and dark chocolate settled perfectly into lightly smoked malts that have a huge impact.
Derek Warren is a beer fanatic, avid homebrewer and beer historian. Derek can be heard weekly on the Beer Geeks Radio Hour at noon on Sundays on WILK 103.1 FM with past episodes available on iTunes.