Of all the myriad forms of lager, the one I always order when I see it on a tap list is rauchbier. Why? Because, for all the reasons that beer pairs well with grilled, roasted, and smoked meats and cheeses, beer ingredients pair beautifully with smoke as a flavor in the beer itself.
Whether it’s grain, honey, nuts, toffee, raisin, or chocolate flavors from the malts, or floral and earthy notes from the hops—all these and more are perfect complements to smoke, with the potential to become something greater than the sum of their parts.
These days there is another dimension to the fun of combining these flavors: A wider range of smoke flavors is now available to work into your beer. Back in the long-ago days of 2007—when I started homebrewing—we were just starting to see decent smoked malt hit the shelves, and it was still obligatory for recipe writers and homebrew-shop staff to warn us away from peat-smoked malt and (shudder) Liquid Smoke. Nowadays, you can tune your smoke to harmonize with your beer in the same way that pitmasters adjust their wood for their chosen meats.
While it may be an acquired taste, I believe there’s a smoked beer for every drinker—from those who might like a subtle oak to those who don’t mind a burning mesquite bush in their glass. Here, we’re going to cover the many ways you can make a smoked lager to suit your own tastes, informed by advice from some of the best brewers on either side of the Atlantic.
First things first, though: Just what, exactly, is rauchbier? In short: It’s a lager whose clean fermentation profile lets that beautiful smoke character shine—in balance, ideally, with its other ingredients.
So, how do we get there?
Approaching Smoked Beer
Strictly speaking, rauchbier refers to the smoked lagers most often associated with Bamberg and its surrounding countryside in Upper Franconia, Germany. (“Rauch” is simply “smoke” in German.) This is an older flavor that has survived as a tradition; many beers probably tasted smoky to some degree before the invention of more refined technologies to dry and kiln grains.
Style descriptions (such as those from the Beer Judge Certification Program—BJCP) tend to zero in on a rauchbier that is essentially märzen, with some percentage of the base malt replaced by smoked malt. The flavor features a blend of malt and smoke flavors, which can vary from subtle to strong, with a dryish finish and maybe some light floral hop aroma. And its fermentation profile should be clean—this is a lager, after all. The best-known commercial examples are Schlenkerla Märzen and Spezial Rauchbier, both from Bamberg.
More broadly, though, you can add smoke to almost any style of beer, including a range of both ales and lagers. You should experiment sooner or later, but the classic rauchbier is a great place to start. Smoked malt fits nicely into a classic German lager, with its emphasis on malt character, classic hopping, and clean fermentation.
The most important lesson at this stage is you don’t need to take a potentially aggressive phenolic flavor—that is, smoke—and work into a riotous flavor monster of a beer.
Consider this advice from Chip McElroy, an avowed smoked-beer enthusiast and owner of Austin’s Live Oak Brewing, which has a reputation for great lagers (smoked and otherwise): “It doesn’t have to be a double-imperial-chocolate-sweet-and-sour-pineapple-upside-down-black IPA with twigs and berries to be able to ‘stand up against’ the smoke,” McElroy says. “It’s not a battle; it’s a dance. Keep it simple, keep it light.”
The Challenge of Balance
To begin at the beginning: First, make a good beer.
Don’t let the smoke, ahem, get in your eyes. You still need to make the kinds of conscious recipe choices that are key to good brewing. “I think it’s the beer underneath the smoke [that] is most important,” says McElroy. “If that’s right, then the smoke comes across as an added bonus.”
Once you have a good beer, you can start thinking about how smoke—and specific smoked malts, in particular—will contribute to it. That may lead you to further refinement of the recipe.
“Balancing the smoke against the other flavor elements of the beer is the tricky thing,” says Matthias Trum, sixth-generation owner and brewmaster at Schlenkerla—home of what in my view is the world’s finest smoked beer.
In fact, balance was a universal theme among the brewers I contacted. This quest for balance creates dueling recipe considerations:
- How do your ingredients’ flavors work in conjunction with smoke?
- What is the character of the smoked malt or malts you choose for the recipe?
Knowing your ingredients is important here, especially because not all smoked malts are created equal. (More on that later.) The goal is not only to have the smoke in balance with the other beer flavors, but also to make sure it’s compatible with those flavors. “It is so important to integrate the smoky flavor, rather than letting the beer get dominated by it,” says Oliver Wesseloh, founder and brewer of Kehrwieder Kreativbrauerei in Hamburg.
While balance is important to all kinds of beer, it’s especially critical to the drinkability of rauchbier. If not handled carefully, smoke can easily overtake a lighter-bodied, lighter-flavored beer.
The same principle works in reverse: When I brew a smoked beer, I want you to know it’s a smoked beer. For my “bigger” smoked lagers—such as my smoked Baltic porter—I’ll sometimes seek out a malt smoked with a more aggressively flavored wood. Or, consider the example of Schlenkerla’s own doppelbock, called Eiche, at 8 percent ABV. Its malt is smoked with oak instead of the brewery’s usual supply of relatively mellow, seasoned beechwood. The Eiche—eiche is German for oak—is rich yet every bit as balanced as the Märzen.
Wesseloh argues that “a great smoked beer is sessionable.” I take his point, but in my view it’s not a strict requirement: A beer can be both big and drinkable. When we go bigger on gravity or style for our smoked beers, we should consider the role of the smoke with those flavors and potentially increase its contribution.
Know Your Woodsmoke
A key part of that consideration is knowing what kind of flavor—quality and intensity—you’ll get from malts smoked over different woods. Schlenkerla and Spezial use beech-smoked malt, for example, but here I must bear bad tidings: Those are incredibly difficult beers to imitate because both breweries have their own in-house maltings heated by wood-fired ovens, then a decoction brewing process that works perfectly with their homemade malts. (For more details, see “Exploring the Most Brewery-Rich Region in the World,” beerand brewing.com.) So, maybe you won’t walk down exactly the same path as Schlenkerla and Spezial—but you still need to make some important choices about woods the same way you would hops and yeast.
Read up on smoked malts, consider some reviews, taste the options—good practice, really, with any malts you want to add to a grist. As homebrewer-tinkerers, we have another pretty obvious option for our research: We can brew with it and taste the finished product for ourselves.
The wood matters.
“Pitmasters in Texas will bend your ear all day [talking] about the differing qualities of barbecue smoked with post oak or pecan or mesquite, etcetera,” says McElroy at Live Oak, which is located near some of the country’s most famous barbecue joints.
“And they’re right,” he says. “The same goes for beer.”
There are plenty of choices these days. Alder, cherry, oak, beechwood, mesquite, pear, apple, hickory, plum—maltsters big and small are offering a wider range of smoked malts than ever, and each brings its own flavors to the party.
Avoid Unforced Errors
There are a few pitfalls to dodge here. They’re not unique to smoked beer, but smoked beer may be particularly vulnerable to them.
First and foremost, be diligent about the freshness of your smoked malts.
“The biggest issue I see is the availability of fresh smoked malt and, with that, repeatability,” says Florian Kuplent, cofounder and brewmaster at Urban Chestnut in St. Louis. “The smoke character diminishes over time, and it’s not always obvious how old the malt is.”
If there’s any doubt about your malt, ask. If that’s not feasible because you’re buying online, at least order from a vendor with plenty of pull-through on their stock, to minimize the risk of getting stale malt.
Multiple pro brewers also warned me to be careful about hop choices—both in the varieties and the quantities. Smoke and bitterness don’t always play nicely together (though some malty heft can help make it work). Meanwhile, New World hops that rely on citrus and tropical-fruit flavors can be jarring in conjunction with smoky phenols.
If you opt for an ale yeast, go for cleaner profiles; fermentation-driven phenols and esters can combine with smoke to create some unsavory flavors. Likewise, pay attention to your water and rid it of all chlorine and chloramine. These are always nasty in beer but can be particularly heinous in combination with smoke.
How Much Smoke?
I saved this question for last: How much is too much when it comes to smoked malt?
Many brewers advocate for a lighter hand when using smoked malts. (“No campfire for me, thanks!” says John Stemler, consultant-brewer at Chatty Monks in Reading, Pennsylvania.) Many recommend a certain percentage-of-grist threshold, from 25 to 50 percent, or they otherwise suggest starting low and building up from there until you hit your preferred level of smoke.
That is prudent advice, and I tend to give the same kind of advice for other ingredients—but not for smoked malt. Why not? Because getting a beer that tastes overly smoky is not especially correlated to having a large percentage of smoked malt in the grist. Instead, it is more directly a function of intensity and quality of the smokiness of the malt.
Many of these same brewers happily mention recipes in which they use entirely or almost entirely smoked malt. Schlenkerla, notably, uses 100 percent smoked malt in virtually all its beers. (The exception is the Helles, whose subtle smoke character comes from the yeast, re-pitched from the Märzen and including a bit of trace wort.) Yet I would defy you to say that any of their beers are “too smoky.”
Instead of going light, I recommend you taste the malt and then add enough to ensure that you can properly taste what that malt brings to a finished beer in terms of smokiness. In other words, “go heavy”—and then, if you need to, dial it back.
Going this route will give you far more information, more quickly, ensuring that you can taste the smoke character and get a handle on how it manifests in the finished beer. On the other hand, going light will rarely “save” a beer whose smoked malt is too intense for it, anyway. Instead, you may be facing multiple re-brews as you gradually increase the percentage of smoked malt, only to realize after seven iterations that you’re working with a smoked malt that’s just … kind of muted.
Owning the Niche
I love smoked lagers. I love them for their complexity of flavors yet the simplicity of their construction. (I once had a lengthy discussion with a brewer who was convinced that “smoked hops” would make for a radical new flavor. He just couldn’t accept that all he needed to make a great smoked beer was some smoked malt using his usual process.)
Better still, for us brewer-tinkerers: Once you’ve built up your fluency with smoked malts in the clean, malt-forward lager realm, you can move on to other smoked styles, such as grodziskie, lichtenhainer, smoked porters, plus any number of smoked variations on classic styles.
This impressive smoke repertoire will astonish even your craft-savvy friends, who may mistakenly believe that all smoked beers are ashy messes or bratwurst-in-a-glass. In fact, getting these right is far less complicated than mastering mixed fermentations or any number of advanced styles.
Here, it’s really just a matter of knowing your malts—and the reward is a flavor gestalt like no other.