Smoked beer is often brushed off as a gimmick, but its origins are decidedly functional. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, malted grain for beer was dried either in direct sunlight or over an open flame, resulting in a smoky flavor no matter the beer style. But with the advent of Daniel Wheeler’s malt-drying drum kiln in 1818, drying malt with indirect heat became the norm, and smoky beer became less common.
Two breweries in Northern Bavaria have kept the tradition of rauchbier—literally “smoke beer”—alive and well for centuries. In Bamberg, Germany, the breweries Schlenkerla and Brauerei Spezial have become synonymous with rauchbier, so much so that smoked beer the world over is known as “Bamberg-style beer” and has developed a faithful following. Both breweries dry their malt over beechwood log fires, lending the resulting lager notes of campfire, bacon, and smoked meat. Younger breweries are experimenting with alternate fuels like cherry wood, hickory, and mesquite, and are straying from the Bamberg lager base to witbiers and porters. Finessing the traditional recipe has also enabled New World brewers to tease out nuances and deliver a more subtle smoke profile that plays nicely with a host of food pairings.
Though technological advances have streamlined the open-flame drying process, producing a smoked beer can still be a laborious and multi-stage endeavor; as a result, few commercial breweries are willing to take on the challenge. This has earned rauchbier a spot in Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, which catalogues endangered flavors from all corners of the globe.
The tasting notes that come to mind for this dusky brew are usually along the lines of chocolate cake, brown bread, or coffee. Adding smoke to that bouquet might seem a step too far for some, while others are happy to succumb to the midnight cloak that is a smoked porter. Pair with an externally-rinded blue or anash-coated chèvre to pierce through the smoky haze.
Märzen is often thought to hint at smoke without any added help, but for a true taste voyage to Bavaria, the smoked variety is as close to the OG rauchbier as you can get. If you can’t secure a bottle of Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier right from the source, there are plenty of non-German breweries jumping on the bandwagon. British Isle-born cheeses pair exceptionally well with smoked Märzen, where the salty tang serves as a foil to the amber-hued brew.
Traditionally a lighter beer with citrusy sparkle, the addition of smoke matures witbier’s flavor until it emulates toasted orange peel. Try pairing a crisp smoked witbier and a salty marinated feta, or opt for aged, non-smoked gouda styles to send the beer’s toasty profile to new height.