A short walk from the Linker Regnitz riverfront, on a well-maintained brick alleyway in Bamberg, Germany, lies the Schlenkerla pub, a beer icon since 1405. Over the course of more than five centuries, the brewpub has crafted marzen, weizen, Helles, and even schnapps, but the breadwinner is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, a smoky German-style lager. Its smoked-malt base is the standard by which other rauchbiers are measured.
American breweries are now introducing their own smoked beers — many in homage to the legendary Aecht Schlenkerla. Brewers are using smoked malts to challenge consumers’ preconceptions, honor ancient brewing history, and elevate and evolve their craft.
The team at Jester King in Austin, Tex., “love smoked beers,” according to founder Jeffrey Stuffings. The brewery produces Gotlandsdricka, a Norwegian-inspired farmhouse ale with three types of smoked malt, and Simple Means, a smoked altbier, a few times a year.
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Sean Spiller, senior brewer at Jester King, says smoked-malt beers are perfect for “everyone with an open mind. I certainly wouldn’t consider it a novelty, considering it’s been around for ages.”
Once upon a time, all malts were smoked, and beers fermented with yeast floating in the air. “They were likely smoky and tart given the malting process and mixed culture fermentation,” Stuffings says.
Part of the modern mainstream brewing process is slowly drying malts over indirect heat via a mechanism called a kiln. Before that, malts were dried over an open flame, which imparted the smokiness. The earliest evidence of using kilns dates back to 6000 B.C.E. in Yarim Tepe, in modern-day Iraq; but using indirect heat kilns to dry wet malts for brewing wasn’t common practice anywhere until the Industrial Revolution, and the genesis of the shift began in England. Modern breweries using smoked malts now, in other words, are doing so intentionally, not out of necessity.
Brewery Silvaticus, a small operation started in 2017 in Amesbury, Mass., built its business on wood (its name means “of the wood” in Latin). Brewers use wood as a vessel for fermentation and aging, but also as an inspiration for styles. Silvaticus’s Beacon, a rauchbier, is made using a blend of beechwood and locally-smoked cherrywood. Rogalian, a 4.8-percent smoked schwarzbier made in collaboration with Stone Brewing’s Liberty Station crew, uses cherrywood, beechwood, and mesquite to give it a rich, textured smokiness. It won the silver medal at the 2019 U.S. Beer Open.
“Everyone is so afraid of smoked beers,” says Silvaticus owner Jay Bullen, who previously brewed at Alaska’s 49th State. (The bronze medalist smoked beer at this year’s U.S. Beer Open, in fact, was brewed by 49th State using Bullen’s recipe.) “Ultimately, [smoked malt] is just part of the whole of a beer.”
“And it’s what beer would have tasted like historically,” he adds.
Smoked beers from regional, nationally recognized breweries include Surly’s Smoke, a Baltic porter; Revolution’s Chicago Smoke, a rauchbier; and New Glarus’s Gotlandic, which the brewery calls the “traditional brew of the Vikings.” Perhaps the most coveted smoked beer right now is Alaskan Brewing Company’s Smoked Porter, a perennial medalist at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup. It’s been a part of the brewery’s lineup since the Reagan Administration and it, too, is rooted in historic significance, but of a different kind.
“[Alaskan Smoked Porter] comes from one of the staples of Alaskan living, smoked salmon,” Andy Kline, communications manager at Alaskan Brewing Company, says. “Alder wood is used to smoke salmon here in Alaska, and we even use a repurposed salmon smoker at our brewery to smoke the malts used in the beer.”
The process is distinctly Alaskan, Kline says. “This beer is simply part of who we are.”
While it might seem like the best beer styles to accommodate smoky flavors would be dark, roasty porters or stouts, smoked malts are being used in lagers, farmhouse ales, Polish-style wheat beers called Grodziskie, and, yes, India Pale Ales.
Bullen believes lagers are the best vehicle to showcase smoked malts, but says “you can do it in any beer [style]. It’s just got to be a good beer.”
Six Smoked Beers to Try
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier: The gold standard against which all other smoked beers are measured is still revered today.
Alaskan Smoked Porter: The most acclaimed of all modern smoked beers is this Alaskan classic. It inspired Silvaticus’s Bullen to continue to develop smoked beers.
Live Oak Grodziskie: Spiller’s favorite non-Jester King smoked beer comes from Austin neighbor Live Oak’s 3-percent, oak-smoked wheat beer.
Fox Farm The Cabin: Connecticut’s Fox Farm utilizes smoked malts in The Cabin, a 5-percent smoked helles that is “very much inspired by Schlenkerla,” says owner Zack Adams.
Oxbow Bobasa: Oxbow blends a young smoked bière de garde with one- and two-year-old vintages of the same beer, and then rests them together in white-wine barrels.
Haand Bryggeriet Norwegian Wood: This Norwegian brewery isn’t old by European standards (it opened in 2005), but its interpretation of a traditional smoked farmhouse ale is timeless.