Rauchbier: Smoke Gets in Your Beer

Style Profile by | May 2008 | Issue #16

I’ve got a beer-drinking buddy who’s an absolute Luddite. To him, progress did nothing but ruin the flavor of beer. Aluminum kegs, artificial CO2, refrigeration and bottles—he sneers at it all while he sucks down pints of room temperature, cask-conditioned ale that’s been hand-pumped from oaken firkins. Don’t get him started on Pasteur.

But pass him a glass of Rauchbier, and he whines like a baby, “too smoky.”

Too smoky? Yo, pal, before the 1700s, that’s the way most beer tasted. Unless it was laid out on straw under the warm sun, malt was typically dried in wood-fired kilns that imparted a distinctive smoky aroma and flavor. And it could be nasty. One often-cited 18th century beer guide noted that in some parts of England, “Their malt is so stenched with the Smoak of the Wood, with which ’tis dryed, that no Stranger can endure it, though the inhabitants, who are familiarized to it, can swallow it …”

Technological progress gave us coal- and oil-fired furnaces, indirectly heated kilns and beer that didn’t taste like a carton of Chesterfields. Rauchbier should’ve gone the way of buggy whips and Windows 95. And yet, some brewers still insist on smoking. Alaskan Brewing makes a popular Smoked Porter, Rogue brews a Smoked Ale and you’ll get at least a whiff of smoke from many Scottish ales.

But the classic style of smoke is Rauchbier (rauch is German for smoke) from the town of Bamberg.

Seven breweries operate in the baroque Franconian city north of Bavaria, but only two—Spezial and Heller-Trum—regularly produce Rauchbier. The latter’s Aecht Schlenkerla labels, which have become the benchmark of the style, are available in America. But for a better waft, head over to the brewery’s 600-year-old tavern on Dominikanerstrasse and enjoy the smoke in half-liters served up from wooden kegs.

Schlenkerla produces a Bock, a Weizen and a Helles, but it’s the Märzen that will asphyxiate your senses to the fullest. Plunge your nose into a glass and you’re greeted with a smoky aroma layered over a rich, strong malt base. A frothy glass is liquid Westphalian ham. It’ll take two to wash down a pork knuckle, a third to douse a stuffed Bamberg onion slathered with beer sauce.

Quality malt is the essence of a true Rauchbier, said Victory Brewing’s Bill Covaleski, whose Scarlet Fire is as close as any American brewer has come to the Bamberg original. “The real key in getting it right is keeping the hops in check,” he said. “You don’t want the hops to overwhelm the malt in any way.”

Schlenkerla smokes its own malt, going through cord upon cord of seasoned Beechwood at its brewery. Homebrewers can do it themselves, too, with a few chunks of hardwood and a Weber grill. In an inevitable nod toward progress, however, American craftbrewers usually turn to a malt supplier. Several produce a modern variety that is pre-stenched, as my drinking buddy might say, with the Smoak of the Wood.

: Smoke varies from light to intense with roasted malt
Flavor: Malty with various levels of smoke, light hops
IBU: 20–30
ABV: 4.8–6.5 percent
Examples: Aecht Schlenkerla Ruachbier Märzen, Victory Brewing Scarlet Fire Rauchbier, Sierra Nevada Rauchbier, Spezial Rauchbier Lager, Saranac Rauchbier, Rauchenfelser Steinbrau, Eisenbahn Rauchbier, Triumph Rauchbier