Smoked beer is one of the most polarizing suds styles, turning on as many folks as it turns off. Luckily for current-day detractors, sipping a campfire-flavored brew is a personal choice. Centuries ago, however, people drank smoky beer by default.
Drying green malt, the basis of beer, over open flames was status quo during brewing’s early days—resulting in grains with pronounced smokiness. In the 19th century, maltsters (people who make malt) adopted modern kiln drying, which required indirect heat. Most brewers said so long to smoldering quaffs, save for the beer makers of Bamberg, Germany.
Since the early 1500s, breweries there have been celebrated for their smoke-infused brews, known as rauchbiers (rauch is German for “smoke”). Malts used to make the beer are still dried over beech fires, lending intense flavors and aromas to the brew. Take a sip, and you might think you’re drinking liquid bacon, barbecue, or even ham. I can’t convince my meat-averse wife to drink rauchbier—but know that not every smoky beer is so intense.
The smoked beer category encompasses a wide range of styles, from refreshing wheat ales to robust porters. Perhaps most common are moderate-strength, dark lagers such as Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen. (The Bamberg brewery, located beneath a cathedral, makes some of the world’s leading smoked beers, including lightly toasted Weizen wheat beer and full-bodied Urbock.)
In America, craft breweries are increasingly utilizing smoked malts in complex beers such as Jack’s Abby Brewing Smoke & Dagger, Dark Horse Brewing Company Fore Smoked Stout, and Stone Brewing Company Smoked Porter, the latter of which comes flavored with chipotle chiles, vanilla beans, or chocolate and orange peel.
Typically, smoked beers go hand-in-hand with grilled fare, but they can also find harmony with a cheese plate. Start with a meaty gouda, such as those from Wisconsin’s Maple Leaf Cheese and Vermont’s Taylor Farm, which smokes wheels over maple. For an extra layer of flavor, try Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue, which is cold-smoked over hazelnut shells. Or go creamy: Salvatore Bklyn Smoked Whole Milk Ricotta is a winner with rauchbier, while luscious triple creams like Brillat-Savarin or Champlain Valley Creamery Triple are fine foils. Aged cheddars, such as Grafton Village Cheese Two Year Aged Cheddar or British favorite Keen’s Cheddar, also stand up to the assertive porcine flavors.
Five Smoked Beers to Try
Jack’s Abby Brewing Smoke & Dagger
The family-run Massachusetts brewery focuses exclusively on lagers. This one marries chocolate malt with beech-smoked malt.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen
Bacon lovers, this beer’s for you. The German lager boasts a bonfire aroma and porky notes and—sip slowly—subtle hints of dark fruit and chocolate.
Bayou Teche Brewing LA-31 Boucanèe
Louisiana’s Bayou Teche specializes in Cajun- and Creole-influenced brews such as the amber Boucanèe made with cherry-smoked malt. (Wood from wild cherry trees has long been used to smoke meat, a hallmark of Louisiana cookery.)
Bierbrouwerij Grand-Café Emelisse Rauchbier
The Dutch brewery is one of the leading lights on Europe’s craft beer scene, turning out flavor-forward beers such as this lightly sweet smoked ale with bitter notes and nose of holiday ham.
Yazoo Brewing Company Sue
To honor the South’s smoking tendencies (swine, tobacco, etc.), the Nashville brewery dreamed up this imperial porter brewed with chocolate, caramel, and cherry-smoked malts. Think campfire, chocolate, and chicory coffee.