Session #26: Smoke Gets In Your Beer

April brings our 26th monthly Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, courtesy of my favorite big galoot, Lew Bryson, whose smokin’ hot topic this month is rauchbiers, smoked beers of all stripes, though I’ll let him tell you what he was thinking.

Before we get carried away with this health craze [after last month’s lagers], I’d like to invite everyone to join me out back of the barn, where we’re going light up some smoked beers.

There may be more smoked beers than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio; it’s not just rauchbier lagers from Franconia. Within the last year, I’ve had a strange smoked wheat beer, light and tart, that local brewers insisted was a re-creation of a Polish grodziski beer; a lichtenhainer, another light smoked wheat beer; several smoked porters; the odd Schlenkerla unsmoked helles that tastes pretty damned smokey; and, yeah, several types of smoked lagers. You’ve got three weeks, is what I’m saying: go find a smoked beer.

Because I’m not going to tell you that you have to like them, how you have to drink them, or whether you can have an expensive one or where it has to be from. But I do insist that if you blog on this Session, that you drink a smoked beer that day.

Sadly, I was unable to find one of the beers I really wanted to enjoy today, but I could not find a rauchbier from Bamberg anywhere in my neck of the woods. I suspect if I’d made the trip into San Francisco, City Beer Store probably would have had what I was hankering for. They at least have Schlenkerla Rauchbier on their beer menu. This got me thinking about place as a concept, as in is there a best place to drink a specific beer? Do some beers require that they be consumed in a particular place to get the most out of them? I suspect some will even find asking such a question a bit too snooty — Alan? But while I believe that for most beers it is, in fact, a somewhat moot, perhaps even silly, question, I think that for a very few beers that the old real estate saw “location, location, location” may indeed apply. You can undoubtedly see where this is all leading, it’s not exactly smoke and mirrors. I’ve long appreciated smoked beer, but generally have felt it’s a very limited style because it needs just the right circumstances or just the right food for me to choose to drink one.

They’re not the ideal choice in a variety of settings. They don’t go with a lot of different meals. They’re just not all-purpose beers by any stretch of the imagination. Unless ….

Unless you’re in Bamberg, Germany, where Rauchbiers are still king, that is. In Bamberg, Rauchbier is as ubiquitous as Bitters in England. As the German Beer Institute reminds us, “once upon a time, all beers were Rauchbiers, so to speak.” Huh? Well, they continue. “With the ancient kilning methods of drying green brewer’s malt over open fires, all grains picked up smoky flavors and passed them on to the beers made from them.” Almost all of today’s beers are made with malt that has been dried without using an open flame so any smokey or even roasted character is far more muted, if even noticeable at all.

But for some reason, in Bamberg they remained popular through the years and that popularity continues up to today. And here’s where the concept of place comes in. As I said, I can “appreciate” a good smoked beer, which is a sort of code that means while I can discern differences, can prefer one over another, and even very much enjoy the experience, it’s not a beer I often want an entire liter of. But when you’re there in Bamberg, at Shlenkerla or Spezial, downing multiple liters it not only feels okay, it’s positively the best thing you can do there. Anything else is almost wrong. My trip to Bamberg in 2007 was spent with a dozen beer journalists at the Schlenkerla tavern. With rich heavy dishes on a misty cold November evening, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect beer for that night. And that’s a particularly striking example for me of when place really does matter for the particular beer you’re drinking.

So back in California, it’s a relatively cool, but sunny, spring day. No German Rauchbier, but Alaskan Smoked Porter is as good an American substitute as I can imagine. Though technically a porter, it’s deep black color and thick tan head could make anyone mistake if for a stout, at least in appearance. The nose, of course, is another matter. The smokey aromas are unmistakable, and the Alderwood Alskan uses gives it different aromas than the typical rauchbier, in fact different from most other smoked beers entirely, giving it a singular nose. It has a silky smooth mouthfeel and a dominating smoke quality, naturally. A few times before I’ve had it with smoked salmon that Alaskan Brewing owner Geoff Larson has hand-carried from Anchorage. The salmon is smoked using the same Alderwood used for the beer and as you’d expect, it’s a match made in heaven. They compliment one another perfectly. I’ve never been to Alaska, but I wonder if the Smoked Porter tastes even better there under the glare of the Aurora Borealis? Again, it’s a really wonderfully well-made beer, with just the right amount of smokey character with rich malt notes and a creamy, dry finish. But I don’t think I’ll be able to finish the 22 oz. bottle by myself, not without it turning suddenly into a more frigid day or without some thick, meaty stew to have with it. C’est la vie. I think maybe it’s time to go back to Bamberg … or Alaska.



  1. says

    When I have the Alaskan Smoked Porter I always thing that it would pair best with something to contrast the alderwood smoke, as opposed to compliment it, as it’s so overwhelming. Not sure what, but I’m thinking cheese. Something creamy, with a bite? Maybe a lox and cream cheese kind of pairing?

    As for Aurora Borealis, I hear the place to watch them is Yellowknife.

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