In the early days of brewing, malt was dried by the warmth of the sun and the air. As these malts were quickly used by early brewers, they did not have to be dried to the levels modern brewers require for storage and transportation. With the development of kiln technology, malts were eventually dried over open fires. While more effective in the drying of the malt, this process added an unwanted flavor to the beer. "Three centuries ago, all beers had a smoked taste about them because the kilning took place over an open fire," says Matthias Neidhart of B. United International Importers. "Then the Industrial Revolution came and people were able to kiln malt through other means."
In their recent book, Smoked Beers, authors Ray Daniels and Geoff Larson undertake a lengthy analysis of the development of smoke in beer. The authors conclude that much beer produced before the dawning of the Industrial Revolution contained smoke as a noticeable flavor component. The book notes that smoke was considered an offensive flavor to many brewers who tried to filter it out. Brewers and maltsters eventually developed smokeless kilns, or began relying upon less smoky fuel sources, such as coke and coal. "When smoke was unavoidably in the beer, it became a challenge to keep the smoke at its lowest level, and they tried their hardest to get the smoke out of there," says Geoff Larson, author and brewer/owner at Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau. "Ultimately, through the increased sophistication of brewing, they succeeded, and history eventually had smoke refined out of the product."
While brewers of old took great care to prevent the infiltration of smoke flavors into their beers, not all modern brewers have abandoned this brewing relic. Despite the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the elimination of smoke flavor from brewers malt, historic breweries in the German town of Bamberg continue to produce traditional smoke flavored beers. "People from Bamberg tell me that they are very stubborn," says B. United's Neidhart, who imports the smoky classic Aecht Schlenkerla series. "They didn't want to give up on the traditional method of kilning. The smokiness was really part of their culture and they really stuck with it, which is why you still find a ton of smoked beers in the Bamberg area." The producers of the classic Aecht Schlenkerla are also among the last in Germany to perform their own malting.
The Bamberg breweries mainly use rauch malt, which is lager malt dried over an open fire of beechwood. Many breweries look to independent malting operations, such as the Weyermann Malting Company, to provide the smoked malt for their unique beers. In 1879, Johann Baptist Weyermann founded his factory for maltcoffee in Bamberg, Germany. For over 120 years, the Weyermann Malting Company has produced malt for breweries of all sizes. While the majority of the company's business focuses on the production of pilsener malt, the company also runs a sizable specialty malt division. The company produces a famous line of rauchmalt (smoked malt) for smoked beer producers in Bamberg and beyond. The rauchmalt produces a smooth beer with the clean flavor profile found in many lager beers.
While beechwood smoking defines the beers of Bamberg, other regional brewing operations employ the unique flavors of their indigenous hardwoods. "I think if I were brewing down in Arizona, using mesquite would be a no-brainer," says Lawrence Miller of Otter Creek Brewing Company. "Alder is the typical smoking wood for fish and everything up in the Pacific Northwest. Throughout the East and down to the Appalachians, hickory makes a lot of sense."
The use of different woods to smoke malt imparts different flavors in beer. Apple wood is more mellow, while hickory can impart a sharper flavor. In Scotland, thistle and peat are used to smoke beers. Peat smoked malt, which produces a very intense, acrid flavor and aroma, is often used to produce some scotch ales and barleywines.
While some breweries get their smoked malt directly from independent operations such as Weyermanns, most small American operations smoke their own malt. Every three months at the Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington, brewers spend eight to ten hours smoking their malt in a smoker next to their building. "It's an all day job," according to owner Greg Noonan. "It's by guess and by golly. You're never sure if you're smoking it right and you're just hoping you are. After 13 years, it's still not a science for us." The brewers employ a mix of maple, hickory and apple wood chips during the smoking process. The smoked malt makes up 15 percent of the malt bill in the Vermont Smoked Porter.
American smoked beer producers are a small, tight-knit group and inevitably refer to one another in conversations about their products. When asked about the flavors imparted by different regional woods, Geoff Larson relays a story about fellow smoked beer producer Greg Noonan. "When Greg was making his (Vermont Smoked Porter) with only hickory smoked malt, people would ask him, "why does this beer taste like ham?" He was a little disturbed that people thought he had somehow gotten ham into his beer so he started using maple. And then people started asking, "why does this taste like sausage?" It's flavor association. So one thing people should be aware of when they use smoke is that people do have a really good flavor memory. That will come across in the beer. If there is a specific type of wood indigenous to your area used in barbecues, people will recognize it and will make that leap."
Lawrence Miller agrees that consumers tend to have strong associative reactions to smoked beers. "It is all about inspiring associations. Flavor is all about triggering emotions when you do it right. And that is why using the wood that is common to the region is the way to go. You're not only tapping into the flavor, but tapping into emotion."
Flavor association is not the only issue brewers need to consider when crafting a smoked beer that consumers will actually enjoy. Brewers are sensitive to smoke's power to overwhelm the palates of those who have never experienced the unique flavors of smoked beers. "What we are trying to do is to put a fairly low level of smoke in it because people respond very differently to smoke," says Lawrence Miller. "So what we want to do is produce a strong enough smoke character to balance the sweetness of the malt. The dryness of the smoked character should balance the sweetness in a very meaningful way. So that is a delicate balance."
Geoff Larson agrees. "You will find with all smoke characters that if they are over-stated, they will get to the point that they are objectionable. Just like a nice fragrance on your girlfriend, if it's overstated it can get to be a bit much. It's the same thing with smoke. It can easily be overdone. The challenge is to make the smoke evident, but not overpowering. Historically, people tried to keep the smoke character more sublime. I think that is appropriate in beer. The smoke should be an accent to the product, not the product itself."
Controlling the level of smokiness is a critical issue for brewers. The development of the recipe for the Vermont Smoked Porter was conducted through rigorous trial and error. A three year period of refinement was required to determine which woods provided the best flavors. It was a challenge brewer Greg Noonan relished. "I think for brewers, it's trying something different from what you are doing every day in the brewery. It's something with a twist to it. It's a very big challenge with a beer like that, to balance your flavors, to have your smoke distinctive enough to be part of the flavor profile without overwhelming it."
As for consumers, the people of Bamberg like to say it takes several bottles of smoke beer to truly appreciate its unique flavors. "It's a very eccentric beer, no doubt about it," says Matthias Neidhart of B. United International. "It's not for everybody's palate. If you've never had a smoked beer before, very rarely will you enjoy the first one you have. You have to go into a process to become acquainted with it. It's an acquired taste, you have to have one bottle, two bottles, three bottles, and after the fifth bottle you'll start enjoying it very much." Hopefully the learning process is not all in one sitting...
Smoked beer novices, however, should not worry. The experience is not like licking the scorched grate of your barbecue grill after cooking up a slab of greasy ribs. Geoff Larson counsels beginners to keep with it. "Smoke tends to saturate your palate. After tasting foods or beers with smoke, it goes from being a high-impact, primary flavor component to, after some acclimation, a secondary or background note. After a period of acclimation, even people who don't necessarily like the flavor start to understand and maybe appreciate it."
Although smoked beer may not light your sales numbers ablaze, they might find a justifiable place among your beer offerings. "It's obviously a very tiny segment," says Matthias Neidhart. "But it's a beer variety that has an incredible loyalty to it. Aecht Schlenkerla probably has the most loyal following of any of the beers in our portfolio. When somebody enjoys the Aecht Schlenkerla, he will not move back to another smoked beer."
American brewers also see a place for smoked beers among their offerings. "It's a niche product to say the least," notes Lawrence Miller of his Hickory Switch Smoked Amber Ale. "When we started out, it was our fall seasonal, and it has always done very well in Vermont. Eventually, we wound up releasing it on a very specialty level. We've been very lucky as a small brewery to have grown quite nicely through the years and to have our beers available quite widely. But Hickory Switch is not one of those beers that deserves widespread distribution. It is the core specialty beer consumer that is interested in this type of thing. It is going to be in specialty stores that want to have a wide beer selection and that are destination stores for the specialty beer aficionado."
Geoff Larson agrees that it is a product that can intrigue some beer drinkers. "Another important part of it is the consumer, people who say "I want to try it". People who appreciate the smoked character in beer, and maybe it's not their favorite style, but they think, "this is interesting. This is what they drank 200 years ago."
CLASSIC SMOKED BEER PRODUCERS
Smoked beer is not an individual style of beer, but more of a flavor component applicable to a broad and intriguing range of beer styles. What qualifies as a "smoked beer" can also depend on the birthplace of the beer you are drinking. Smoked beer in Germany is called "rauchbier" ("rauch" is German for "smoke"), and will usually be a low-alcohol maerzen-style lager with a distinctive beechwood smoke flavor and aroma. But the Germans also smoke some weiss and bock beers.
The producer of the classic Bamberg rauchbier is the Heller Brewery, which offers the line of Aecht Schlenkerla products. As is common with many German beers, the names of the classic products boast their heritage. Aecht means "genuine" in German and Schlenkerla means "to not walk straight", a nickname allegedly given to the brewery due to the odd walk of a former brewer. The brewery's production is small, at about 5000 barrels a year. Ninety-five percent of the brewery's production is consumed within walking distance of the facility and its tavern.
The brewery does offer three styles for import to the United States. The maerzen is the classic rauchbier, with a dark amber color, strong maltiness, firm bitterness and a distinct beechwood smoke flavor and aroma. The Ur-bock is an intensified version of the maerzen, with more smokiness and a bigger malt profile. "It's beautifully balanced," says Matthias Neidhart. "With some smoked beers, all you have is a charcoal taste and it's not really enjoyable. This beer has a totally different body to it."
The brewery's final offering is truly unique - a smoked weizen. The beer is a classic Bavarian-style wheat beer with 50 percent wheat malt and 50 percent smoked barley malt. The beer combines the characteristics of the wheat beer style, with hints of banana and clove, and the pleasant smokiness of the barley malt. This unique offering was launched about five years ago due to the increased popularity of wheat beers across Germany.
AMERICAN SMOKED BEERS
The production of smoked beers is no longer limited to the historic producers of the Bamberg region. Several American brewers have taken up the historic mantle of ancient brewing practices and now produce a variety of inspired smoked beers. "It's an interesting part of the growth of our craft beer industry," says Geoff Larson. "We look to history, and we want to put a little bit of the historical magic back into a product that has been marketed into something almost commonplace, rather than something to be enjoyed." In the United States, many smoked beers are porters, but they can also cross other styles. "I think it's just a choice of what beer you want to lay your base down on," says Lawrence Miller, who uses an amber ale as the base for his hickory smoked beer. "For me, the way to go about coming to a beer is, I get the finished flavor, aroma, color, mouthfeel and everything in my brain and then work backwards. I think that porters are often used for smoking because they also take complimentary smoke very nicely."
When discussing American smoked beers with anyone in the beer industry, one name will immediately be recognized above all others - Geoff Larson of the Alaskan Brewing Company. Larson is widely credited with reviving the commercial production of smoked beers in America. Larson is quick to deflect such praise, often pointing to beer historians and writers, such as Michael Jackson, whose writings taught him that smoke can be a positive flavor attribute in beer. It is Larson's Alaskan Smoked Porter, one of the most highly acclaimed beers in the history of the Great American Beer Festival, that set the standard for all others to follow.
And a beer lover can not help but appreciate Larson's respect for brewing tradition and fondness for regional history. His Alaskan Smoked Porter was born from significant research about the challenges and traditions of brewing in southeastern Alaska. "With our Alaskan Smoked Porter we embrace that the small brewer at the turn of the century had to roast his own grains to make porter, and the only wood appropriate for food processing around here was alder. Our smoked porter is a reaffirmation of the old ways of Alaskan breweries. We thought, 'that's part of our heritage and let's put it in a glass.' "
The 2000 vintage of the beer has an understated smoky nose that is balanced by a slightly sweet malt underpinning and a distinct hop bitterness in the finish. There are alternating hints of vanilla and coffee, and the beer does not relinquish its qualities as a porter as many attempts do. I note the vintage because a nice side-effect of the smoking process is the preservation and development of the beer's flavor over many years. The brewery regularly conducts vertical tastings of vintages dating back to 1993.
Continuing along the West Coast, the innovative Rogue Brewing Company in Newport, Oregon, produces the well-known Rogue Smoke. Available in the 7-ounce XS-line of bottles, this multiple-award winning brew boasts an intriguing mix of alder smoked Munich malt and beech smoked Bamberg malt. The Stone Brewing Company of San Marcos, California, offers its Stone Smoked Porter, a deep brown colored brew with a chocolate and coffee flavor, balanced by hints of peat-smoked specialty malt.
On the other side of the continental United States, the Vermont Smoked Porter offers a consistent, smoky flavor. It has a pleasant, almost sweet malt bill with a big, bitter hop bite at the finish. Fellow Vermonter Otter Creek offers its Hickory Switch Smoked Amber Ale for those seeking something more mainstream. Lawrence Miller's beer was inspired when he was fortuitously stuck in Bamberg for a week. After trying the local smoked beers, he decided to replicate them back in the US. The beer has a maerzen's malt bill, with a nice balance of hickory smoke.
Modern brewing consists of one part innovation and one part tradition. In the early days of brewing, brewers fought to rid their beers of the sharp, acrid flavors of smoke. In the modern day, brewers have turned the use of smoke to their flavorful advantage. "In the US, we aren't bound by traditions, but we take inspiration from them," says Geoff Larson. Brewing may have come a long way, but it never strays far from its roots.