Too many brewers live in fear of smoked malt. They say to themselves and each other, “Rauchbiers are great! But don’t go overboard on the smoke. Who wants to drink a beer that tastes like sausage?”
First, the answer to that question is, “Um, almost everyone.” Second, and more importantly, “going overboard on smoke” doesn’t really mean what people think it does. It isn’t necessarily about how much smoked malt you use—it’s the variety you use. If you’re making a Rauchbier, jump in with both feet and ensure that you’re getting a clear and un-muddied smoky character.
Rauchbier (German for “smoke beer”) is something of a retronym. Lots of beer used to be smoked beer since a wide range of malts were kilned (dried) over wood-fueled fires. The advent in the eighteenth century of relatively smokeless kilning (thanks to coal-fired kilns and better ventilation) meant that malt could be kiln-dried without also being smoked, and that’s how we have the smoke-free beers of today. Some—particularly in Bamberg, Germany—decided they actually liked those smoke-filled beers, and thus, the Rauchbier survived. Today, it’s a fairly common craft and homebrewed beer style and is generally considered a smoked version of the Oktoberfest or Märzen styles. This is a malt-driven German lager, characterized by its distinctive smoked flavor and aroma, which can range from subtle to prominent.
We’re going to go with prominent. In for a penny, in for a pound…
Malt choice is essential here. First, if you even look at that peat-smoked malt, slap yourself. Hard. Okay, now that you’re back to your senses, get hold of 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of Briess Cherrywood Smoked malt. Everyone has her/his favorite, and this one is a bit nontraditional (Bamberg Rauchbiers typically use beechwood-smoked malt), but I find that it presents as perfectly smoky without drifting into “greasy” or ashy. The only other malts you’ll add are 4 ounces (113 g) of melanoidin malt (just to bump up the bready flavors a touch) and 2 ounces (57 g) of Black Patent malt for a bit of color and roasty dryness (since smoked malts can come across as sweet even when they aren’t). You should hit an OG of about 1.050.
Add any hops variety at 60 minutes to get 25 IBUs, and then we’re going to make another slightly unorthodox choice: aroma hopping. I add an ounce (28 g) of Hallertau Hersbrucker at flame-out, and the resulting floral aroma pairs beautifully with that bacon-on-the-campfire smokiness. You won’t find that one anywhere in the guidelines, but trust me—you, your friends and family, and the judges will love it.
And for yeast, any good German lager strain should be fine, but I prefer the Wyeast 2308 (Munich Lager) here, for no better reason than it’s what I used for early versions. It has never let me down, and since I brew this beer 2−3 times per year, I get a lot of experience with that particular strain. I don’t usually recommend jumping from yeast strain to yeast strain as a recipe-specific thing (instead, I advocate for learning just a few strains really well), but in this case, I make an exception.
There’s not much to brewing this beer: it’s a standard lager. Brew it as you would any beer, chill, and pitch your yeast. You’ll want to avoid diacetyl (again, you want this smoky but not slick!), so start cool (50°F/10°C), slowly increase by about 10°F (5°C) over 2 weeks, and give it plenty of time to ferment out. After packaging and conditioning, store it cold for about 6 weeks before drinking—this is, after all, a lager!
The jury is somewhat out on the impact of age on Rauchbiers. Let me say that you definitely can age a Rauchbier—smoky phenols are a preservative, and so long as you don’t have excessive oxidation, you should have a good deal of flavor stability, even at the very modest alcohol level we’re talking about here. The bigger question might be whether the beer gets more or less smoky over time. On the one hand, as bitterness drops out of the beer, the malt flavors come more to the fore—so age should make the beer seem even smokier. On the other hand, as beers age and oxidation takes its inevitable toll, malt flavor becomes more muted in general, so smoky flavors might be less prominent. Anecdotally, I’ve had this run both ways, but if I had to level a guess with this recipe, I’d say to count on it becoming more smoke-driven for at least the first year, given the high percentage of smoked malt in the grist. After that first year, it’s probably going to depend on the extent to which you limit cold-side oxidation and staling more generally (cold storage will preserve the flavor for longer, for example). Long story short, though: this is a beer that can handle some age!
This recipe developed over the years as I kept increasing the smoked malt percentage more and more. It’s at 97 percent in this recipe (hence its name: R-97), and while I could go to 100 percent, I like the small tweaks that the melanoidin and Black Patent create. Feel free to tinker on your own, of course! But don’t live in fear of that big percentage of smoked malt. Embrace it.