The aroma of wood smoke is something that is particularly tied to the fall season for me. Sure, cool air, changing leaves, and pumpkins get me in the fall spirit too but it isn’t until that first whiff of campfire that I’m really there. Here where I live, in the mid-Atlantic, as September heads into October the weather takes a perfect turn for the backyard campfire. In the town where I grew up, you could almost always pick up the scent of burning hardwoods in the air during autumn months, especially if it was coming from the elaborate fire pit my parents constructed in our backyard.
Now, fall already has its fair share of seasonal flavors that like to imbue themselves upon every imaginable edible product. You’ll find caramel apple flavor in all your hot beverages, butternut squash in everything on every restaurant menu, and, of course, pumpkin spice flavors in all food and drink products sold between the months of September and December. But my treasured smoke, on the other hand, gets less attention. Honestly, that’s probably for the best; I don’t think smoked Oreos would go over that well. There is one place, however, where smoky flavors work quite well: within the flavor profile of beer.
Last fall, I made clear my feelings on the oversaturation of pumpkin spice-bombs on beer shelves around this time of year and suggested we all drink Flemish sours instead. Well this year, I’m adding smoked beers to my list of alternative fall brews. Smoke is a unique and intriguing flavor that, on top of any nostalgic seasonality it may possess, works as an excellent compliment to heavy fall meals, adding another savory layer that few other beverages can achieve. Smoked beers can also take on many forms, making them a versatile pairing for both the early fall warmth and frigid late autumnal cold. There are the intense and divisive rauchbiers of Germany, newly classic styles like the American smoked porter, and plenty of clever craft creations that incorporate smoke in inventive ways. But perhaps the most interesting thing about smoke and beer is the shaky history the two share.
See, for much of brewing history brewers were actually making great efforts to get smokiness out of their beer; quite the opposite of adding it in as a flavoring component. The reason for this is pretty simple: most beer was somewhat smoky and consumers didn’t care too much for the smoky part. The smoke flavors were imbued into the beer as a side effect of more primitive grain processing techniques used before modern technology came along (think pre-Industrial Revolution). Brewers would then make conscious efforts to mask or remove this smokiness from their products. A lack of smoke would’ve been seen by the average consumer of the time as a mark of quality.
It takes a bit of background in brewing science to fully understand why every beer ended up smoky in the first place. Before grains — barley in particular — can be used to make beer, their biochemistry has to be altered through a process called malting. To do it, the maltster (yes it’s a word) initiates the sprouting process of the grain by soaking it in water and subsequently maintaining ideal temperature and moisture levels for growth. During this part of its lifecycle the grain makes available a few key compounds that eventually give beer its flavor, mouthfeel, and alcohol content, most notably the important enzymes that convert starches within the grain to the sugars that the brewer later extracts and ferments. At this point in the malting process you’re left with a wet pile of growing grains that isn’t very useful, which is where the smoke comes in. Before more sophisticated kilns were developed, this wet grain was dried over an open fire or in a kiln with a perforated floor, allowing the natural smoke to come into contact with the grain.
The level of smokiness and the flavor characteristics of the malt would have varied widely region-to-region. Malting was mostly done in-house in the early days of brewing so whatever fuel source was regionally available was utilized. This could have meant smokeless beers in dry climates where simple air-drying could occur or heavily smoky beers in Europe where climates demanded hardwoods or other plant-products be used. As new fuel sources and brewing knowledge became available, brewers began to figure out ways to decrease the smokiness in their final products. Coke — the coal product — offered a nearly smokeless heat source that was widely adapted across Great Britain and other parts of Europe. On top of that, it was discovered that pale malts, or malts that have the least heat exposure, were most efficient at converting starches to sugars, leading to a diminished use of more heavily roasted, smoky malts. Slowly but surely, smoked malts went from being a nearly unavoidable part of the brewing process to an archaic and mostly unused ingredient.
That is, at least, everywhere outside of Bamburg, Germany. As one of the brewing capitals of the world, the Bamburg area is home to numerous breweries and, unlike anywhere else in the world, many of those breweries still produce a traditional German rauchbier, which literally translates to “smoke beer.” One Bamburg brewery in particular — best known by their Aecht Schlenkerla name — is considered the foremost brewer of smoked beers with their all-smoky lineup. Schlenkerla carry on the now nearly extinct tradition of malting their own grains, much of which they kiln the old-fashioned way over a beechwood fire. Their products are possibly the most accessible interpretation we have of what beer would have tasted like before the Industrial Revolution, as their lineup consists of to-the-tee German lager standards with varying levels of smoke, some brewed entirely with smoked malt.
These beers aren’t exactly for everyone. Tasting notes on Schlenkerla beers often sound more like barbecue descriptions than German lagers. Beech wood smoked malts can give off a somewhat bacon-esque aroma and smoked country ham flavor that some people would rather not enjoy in liquid form. These divisive characteristics make it no surprise that non-smoked malt took over once technology caught up. But, German beer is very indebted to tradition and the rauchbier style clung to life. In fact, Bamberg is reputed to be the only place in the world where smoked beers have been produced continually since their decline, making rauchbier a regional specialty of the area and an oddity elsewhere for a good portion of the 19th and 20th centuries.
With the advent of craft brewing in the United States, however, that all changed. Early on in American craft brewing history, reworking classic styles was standard practice and smoked malts were embraced as a way to accent dark styles like stouts and porters. Where German rauchbier delivers a massive punch of savory smoke, most craft examples use smoked malt as more of a balancing tool. Here, a bit of smoked malt works to complement and cut through rich, dark, naturally roasty flavors like chocolate, coffee, and tobacco. Instead of an in-your-face Virginia ham flavor, you get more of a lasting charcoal and campfire smoke note that’s much more approachable. What’s more, the ability to smoke malts over locally-focused ingredients is a big draw to the hyper-local, “terroir”-driven mentality of a lot of craft breweries. What better way for a brewery from the Pacific Northwest to increase the locality of a beer than make it with malt smoked over locally-sourced Alder wood?
For me, I can’t imagine a better fall scene than sitting around a backyard fire pit on a cold night taking out a growler of a locally-made smoked porter amongst friends. Just like cigar aficionados swear by peaty Scotch, there’s no better way to enhance the smoky autumn campfire air than with more smoke. I guess you could swap in a bottle of Pumking if that’s your thing, but I’d argue that smoke is the superior complement to beer’s inherent maltiness and one that’s tied deeper to beers past. Smoke is a flavor that can meld with beer and contribute to its overall balance, rather than cover up its flavor and emulate something else (pumpkin pie). Plus, it gives us insight into the nature of beer far before our time. My advice: if you find yourself someplace this fall that has the scent of burning wood in the air or are just looking to change up your seasonal drinking patterns, go out and find a smoky brew. They also go great with bacon. And if you’re like me, you’ll take any excuse you can get to eat more bacon.
These are my quintessential smoked beer recommendations. It’s worth noting that several old, German smoked sour wheat beer styles have been making a small comeback and don’t really fit this fall-time theme, so avoid the names Lichtenhainer and Gratzer if you want a cold-weather malt-forward smoked beer.
Old World Classics
The Aecht Schlenkerla line is the definitive widely available example of authentic European smoked beer out there. Anything with that unpronounceable name on it is going to be the best starting place for Rauchbier newcomers. These are my favorites from them.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen, Braurerei Heller-Trum
Bamburg, Germany. 5.4% ABV. $6 for a 500mL bottle
This all beech wood smoked malt version of a typical German Oktoberfest lager is perhaps the singularly most definitive smoked beer out there. Aromas of smoked meats are prominent and a deeply caramel-forward and bready flavor profile is surrounded by an intense and alluring savory smoke note. This beer and a smoked ham are meant for each other.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Urbock, Braurerei Heller-Trum
Bamburg, Germany. 6.6% ABV. $6 for a 500mL bottle
Schlenkerla’s Urbock is basically a stronger, maltier version of the classic Rauchbier Marzen that packs an even roastier, smokier punch. Still brewed with all beech wood smoked malt, the smokiness takes on an even more savory note when paired with the stronger bock-style beer. Imagine liquefied bacon and smoked ribs with a savory-sweet barbecue glaze and you pretty much have this beer.
Aecht Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier, Braurerei Heller-Trum
Bamburg, Germany. 4.3% ABV. $6 for a 500mL bottle
So, this one is kind-of cheating because it isn’t a true Rauchbier at all. A strange phenomenon exists in that if you ferment a Rauchbier and then re-use the yeast on an un-smoked beer, you’ll still get a good amount of smoky character in the finished product. This beer does just that and the end-result is a typically hoppy helles lager coated in a smoky, scorched hay-bale earthiness. It’s weird, delicious, and drinks far heavier than the typically refreshing pale lagers it’s based on.
Craft Beer Smoke
Rather than use smoked malts in classic lagers like the traditional breweries around Bamburg, craft brewers have applied smoked ingredients to just about every style imaginable. Here are a few big malty craft beer smoked ales that make ideal fall sippers.
Smoked Porter, Alaskan Brewing Company
Juneau, Alaska. 6.5% ABV. $10 for a 22oz bottle
Often credited with bringing the smoking technique into the craft beer realm, this pioneering brew set the benchmark for the smoked porter style. Made with Alaskan alder wood smoked malt, it hits all of the high notes of a great porter with bitter roasted chocolate, deep caramel notes, and a hint of coffee and surrounds it all in bright smoke more akin to smoked salmon or cheese than barbecue.
Lava, Olvisholt Brugghus
Olvisholt, Iceland. 9.4% ABV. $11 for a 500mL bottle
Iceland, as you may expect, only has a handful of brews that make it stateside but Lava is amongst the most regarded. A dense imperial stout by style, this pitch-black brew features seven different types of malt, some of which are smoked. It’s sweet, candied plum nose gives way to smooth milk chocolate, subtle licorice, and savory smoked beef jerky flavors. It finishes with more chocolate in a cloud of campfire smoke.
Smoking Wood- Rye Barrel Aged, The Bruery
Placentia, CA. 13% ABV. $20 for a 750mL bottle
This monster of a smoked porter is brewed with malts smoked over both beech wood and cherry wood as well as a good heaping of rye and is then tossed into rye whiskey barrels to age. Big sticky molasses and brandy aromas lead into a sweet, fireside-sipper flavor profile, with vanilla, dark chocolate, and a peppery bite from the rye. The smoke sneaks up on you in the finish and leaves a lasting burnt charcoal note.