For the Love of Smoke

The idea that “all beer used to be smoky” doesn’t quite hold up, even if smoky malt must have been common in many places. Smokeheads, meanwhile, can tell you another possibility: The beer was smoky because people liked it that way.

Lars Marius Garshol May 20, 2024 - 14 min read

For the Love of Smoke Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/

Last fall, when I was in Bavaria, every time a local heard we’d been to Bamberg, they’d ask what we thought about the rauchbier.

“I think it’s a world classic,” I’d say. “One of the best beers in the world.” Every single time this stunned them. A foreigner who loves smoked beer? How?

There is something so seductively smooth and complex, so satisfying to the taste of smoke in a beer—personally, I love it. Some people call themselves hopheads. Me? I’m a smokehead.

However, when people say something like, “Historically, all malt was smoked”—even for me, that sounds like too much smoked beer. It’s nice to have variety, after all. But let’s stop and think about it a moment: What are all the possible ways to dry malt? Any method works, as long as it doesn’t get the malt so hot that it destroys the enzymes, and as long as it’s not so slow that the malt gets moldy.


Just leaving the malt out in the sun works fine, for example. (See “Brew Like the Wind,” page 62.) But there are far stranger methods that also work. In Norway, there was a tradition of drying malt in hollowed-out wooden logs; to keep the malt warm, they dropped small, fire-heated stones into it. They had to stir vigorously to avoid burning the malt, but it was effective enough that the person stirring would be enveloped in steam while working.

Neither of these methods smoke the malt—and they’re both ancient, at least as old as smoked malt.

So, the idea that originally all malt was smoked is absurd. Beer brewing began in the Middle East, and it appears to have been several millennia before it spread outside that region. Drying the malt in the sun must have been by far the most convenient method. I’ve heard it said that such a method wouldn’t work in Northern Europe. In reality, sun-drying the malt was normal in the Baltics, and even in the northernmost parts of western Norway, into the 20th century.

Yet even in those regions, there were people making smoked beers. Why?


Clearing Away the Smoke

It’s undoubtedly true that smoked malt was common historically, in both commercial and farmhouse brewing. Part of the reason is that fire dries malt faster, and you don’t have to worry about the weather. You can even use it to darken the malt.

However, just because they dried the malt with fire, does that mean it was smoky? Well, if you want to use fire to heat something without smoke, you needed a chimney—and the chimney is a surprisingly recent development. In Northern Europe, chimneys in homes seem to date from the 12th century—and even then, only mansions and castles had them. In ordinary houses in Britain, it wasn’t until the 16th century that chimneys started becoming common. In Norway, some people were living in houses without chimneys as late as the start of the 20th century.

Just like today, there was demand for unsmoked brewing malt. In England, patents for malt kilns that made unsmoked malt show up starting in the 17th century. In Norway, it was in the 19th century that farmers started adding metal chimneys to their old malt kilns to pull the smoke away. However, the move toward unsmoked malt was slow, and in commercial brewing it probably mainly happened in the 18th century.

Left: Traditional approaches to drying malt with smoke in Gotland, Sweden. Right: Stjørdal, Norway. (Photos: Lars Marius Garshol)

The Many Levels and Flavors of Smoke

Let’s make this clear: Franconian rauchbier is only one type of smoked beer. Stjørdalsøl and gotlandsdricke are two other smoked-beer styles that still live. Polish grodziskie is a revived smoked beer, and the original early 18th-century porter also was smoked beer. So was Austrian steinbier. (For much more about some of these traditions, see “The Cult of the Kiln,” “Gotlandsdricke: Sweden’s Elusive Smoked Ale,” and “Fire & Brew Stone: The Real Story of Steinbier,”


Rauchbier just happens to be the only smoked beer that Michael Jackson made famous.

Just as different styles of beer can be smoked, there are also different kinds of smoke aroma. That aroma depends, for one thing, on the malt kiln. The såinn used in Stjørdal has a distance of only about 60 to 90 cm (24 to 35 inches) from the fire to the drying malt. But the kiln used on Gotland is on the ground floor, with a chimney leading up to a såinn-like drying surface on the floor above—a distance of perhaps three meters (10 feet). The smoke drying the malt for gotlandsdricke is therefore cooler when it reaches the malt, and it seems to result in a gentler, more refined smoke aroma.

All these kilns send the smoke through the green malt, but the most common kiln in Scandinavia was the sauna. The same building that people used literally as a sauna also was used to dry malt. It had a single room; the oven was basically just a pile of stones with a hollow space at the base in which to light a fire. There was no chimney. The malt dried on shelves around the walls of the room. That way, the smoke didn’t pass through the malt at all, but it still would have gotten a light smoke aroma.

However, the kiln is not the main variable. More important is the fuel.


Intriguingly, in farmhouse malting historically, there are clear patterns to which fuels people preferred. Where they lacked trees, they tended to use peat. This is also why scotch uses peat—not many trees on the Scottish isles. Peat-smoked malt can be harsh, even astringent, and many brewers say they don’t like the flavor of it in beer at all.

Franconian rauchbier uses beech, which was also used in other parts of Germany, in Denmark, and in southern Sweden. Beech gives a smooth, strongly smoky aroma with notes many people associate with meat. It’s also practical for malting because each log burns for a long time, calmly and evenly. That means the maltster doesn’t have to check the fire so often to prevent it from going too cold or too hot.

Further north, birch has been very common, particularly in Norway. Birch-smoked malt tastes somewhat like beech, but softer and more subtle, with notes of hot wood like in a sauna. As with beech, birch is a sought-after firewood today because it burns evenly and releases a lot of heat.

The second most popular malting wood in Scandinavia was alder, which is used in stjørdalsøl. Alder is the opposite of birch and beech: It burns quickly and makes little heat—perfect for a kiln where the malt is close to the fire. The aroma is powerfully pungent and tangy, and it can easily give notes of soot and ash. Notably, Alaskan Brewing’s Smoked Porter—surely the most decorated American smoked beer—gets its character from the same local alder used to smoke salmon.


Juniper often was used to smoke malts, too, and this is surprising because in most places juniper logs of any size are hard to find. Those that could be found were valuable as a wood that was extremely durable and resistant to rot. Still, in Sweden, as much as one-third of the smoked beer was smoked with juniper. I’ve never tried that, so I can’t speak to the aroma, but juniper wood is famously aromatic even before you light it.

Wherever those fuels were common for smoking malt, they also were common for smoking other things—such as fish, cheese, and meat. Because many of these woods are either impractical or valuable for other uses, it’s clear why people used them: the flavor.

Left: Stjørdal, Norway. Right: Telemark, Norway. The Telemark photo depicts a historic sauna used for malt drying in addition to its other culinary and personal health uses. (Photos: Lars Marius Garshol)

Smoke in Your Own Beers: A Few Things to Try

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to source some of these traditional types of smoked malt today. Beech-smoked is easy enough, since Weyermann makes it, and alder- and peat-smoked malts are available. Birch-smoked malt is rare indeed, and juniper-smoked even rarer. Especially with the rise of craft maltsters in North America, you can find malts smoked with other woods—such as apple, cherry, hickory, mesquite, and oak—even if they’re not always traditional.

Of course, it’s possible to smoke malt that’s already been dried using a food smoker or a grill. The aroma isn’t the same as when drying the malt with smoke, but you can at least play with different smoke flavors.


When it comes to composing recipes, perhaps the main variable is the intensity of the smoke. It takes surprisingly little smoked malt to get a noticeable aroma. My most recent beer was a kornøl with 3 percent Stjørdal malt—and although the beer was lightly smoked, the smoke aroma was very distinct. I made two beers from the same mash: a strong beer of about 8 percent ABV and a small beer of about 2 percent. Intriguingly, the smoke aroma was much more noticeable in the small beer—strong enough to put some people off it completely. So, gravity clearly plays a role.

Smoked malt also can be used in beers that aren’t necessarily smoked beers, and they “can be used as a spice,” as the Finnish beer writer Mika Laitinen says. “For example, adding a 5 percent share of smoked malt into pilsner or weizen makes an interesting lingering aftertaste, although the beer isn’t obviously smoky.”

In Stjørdal, central Norway, Roar Sandodden says that in his experience, a beer with 100 percent Stjørdal malt did not necessarily taste any more smoked than one with only 50 percent. “There seems to be a kind of ‘ceiling’ to the smoke aroma,” he says. This may be similar to how 100 and 200 IBUs taste similarly bitter—there is a threshold.

Most modern brewers use amounts of smoked malt well below these levels. At the farmhouse-inspired Eik & Tid in Oslo, Norway, cofounder and brewer Amund Polden Arnesen says it’s a question of experience and tinkering. “Smoke is a pretty big beast of flavor,” he says.


Laitinen adds another point: “The malt producer makes a big difference in smoke-flavor intensity.” Thus, 10 percent smoked malt from one company may add a lot more smoke than the same portion from another producer. Obviously, the wood used can also affect the intensity.

Related to the point about gravity: “Sweetness is one of the best ways to balance a smoked beer,” says Torkjel Austad of Bygland Bryggeri in southern Norway. Similar to bitterness, acidity, and yeast-driven phenolics, smoke (which itself is phenolic) helps to balance sweetness—and that makes sweetness a good counterbalance.

Flavors that seem sweet without actually being sweet in themselves—malty flavors, caramel, vanilla, chocolate, or toffee—can have a similar effect. Playing with the interactions of those malt-driven flavors and the effects of the wood used for smoke has great potential.

There are other combinations. Laitinen in Finland says he likes to combine smoke “with various tree-based ingredients, such as juniper branches and spruce tips.” In Norway, Austad recommends using “fruity” kveik yeast with beech- and alder-smoked malt. In general, Noble hops seem to work better with smoke than fruit-forward New World varieties.

You can play with the process, too. One tip from Austad: “Try making a raw smoked ale,” he says. In other words: no boil. “This will create a more bready malt character than boiled smoked beers.”

Of course, if you really want to explore all the possibilities in smoked malt, the best way is to make your own. Having control over the steeping, germination, and drying opens possibilities for aromas you can’t get any other way. However, what exactly the maltsters in Stjørdal and on Gotland do to get some of the stranger flavors they produce is not something any textbook can teach you.

Those maltsters may not even know themselves—but it’s a huge world to explore, for those who have the patience, space, and daring.