By Martin Lenthe
As stated in the title, you should drink smoked beer. I’ll get into some (hopefully) compelling reasons why in a bit, but first a little background.
It turns out most all beer used to be smoked beer. Before the Industrial Revolution, the way that most Europeans dried and malted their barley was with fire. The grains would be placed above an open fire, which was a good way to dry everything out and produced a smoky flavor as a byproduct.
The Industrial Revolution allowed more brewers to malt barley without an open flame underneath, which lead to greater control and consistency. Brewers adapted to the new technique, and changed with the times. Smoked beer, or rather - Rauchbier, stayed popular in Bamberg Germany, though, where breweries have been malting their barley over open fires for several hundred years. The most well known and widely distributed of these is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier.
Back to my (hopefully) compelling reasons to drink smoked beer.
The first is that it’s not trying to be too much of anything. It is a truly balanced lager with the addition of an interesting flavor. There are notes of caramel and a bit of bitterness when tasting the Schlenkerla Märzen. What really comes to the fore with my amateur palate is that everything is well balanced and no single aspect drowns out other flavors. Plus, the fact that it’s been made in essentially the same way since 1405 tells me that they’re not trying to be gimmicky. Schlenkerla is in the smoked beer game for the long haul.
Secondly, smoked beer pairs well with a lot of food, specifically grilled food. Who doesn’t love that? The easy option here would be to grill up a bratwurst, find some sauerkraut and mustard and experiment with the pairings. It’s hard to imagine anything going too wrong when it comes to grilled foods and smoked beer. Experiment away!
The third reason to drink smoked beer is that it’ll give you something interesting to talk about. As mentioned above, this isn’t a fad gimmick and no one, to my knowledge, is adding pumpkin spice to smoked beers. They have an interesting history and a unique flavor. A number of breweries in the US including Revolution and Surly have released smoked beers, and they are becoming more available even outside specialty beer stores and micro breweries.
If the pumpkin spice comment didn’t cause you to angrily close your browser and you’re still reading this, now’s probably a good time to mention that smoked beer is a bit of an acquired taste. Many people, myself included, don’t like it at first. My advice here would be to give it three or four honest attempts. When I came back to it after my first experience, I truly enjoyed the taste. The folks at Schlenkerla even print a similar warning on their coasters:
"Even if the brew tastes somewhat strange at the first swallow, do not stop, because soon you will realize that your thirst will not decrease and your pleasure will visibly increase."
If you find the taste initially off-putting, be prepared to give it a couple tries. You may well find that you like it after all!
So there you have it. Smoked beer brings something entirely different to the table… or bar. It’s not for you if you’re looking for the hoppiest double IPA, the highest gravity porter, or the brett-iest Belgian. But if you’re looking for a well balanced lager with a truly interesting flavor and history, as well as something new to discover and discuss with friends, a smoked beer checks all the boxes. I’d recommend starting with the Märzen or the Helles from Schlenkerla.
P.S. If you find the world’s hoppiest double IPA, please let me know. I’d love to try it!