Smoked beers are a bit of an enigma. That’s what makes them the perfect beer to be the next big thing. Beer trends come and go like the rising and falling of a tide. If you looked at the U.S. beer market 30 years ago, you’d see a lot of adjunct lagers. Hell, even 20 years ago there were beer commercials on TV decrying “bitter beer.” Today, Americans plan vacations around going to places like London or Brussels just to drink bitter, sour, dry, and funk-filled beers.
How’d it all change so much? As that anti bitter beer commercial was airing across America in 1995, small-time beer alchemists were already working across the country in microbreweries re-discovering all sorts of ales — from Scotch to pale to IPA and so on. Fast forward to the late 2010s and now craft lagers and pilsners, all the IPAs, and even sour beers have made a roaring comeback. It was a long road but craft beer has come to dominate the conversation on the local and international stage. And that has brought with it a wonderful benefit — fringe and nearly extinct beers are getting much-deserved resurrections.
For instance, if you asked the average craft beer drinker what a Berliner Weisse was in 2010, you’d, at best, get a blank stare. Today, it’s literally everywhere. And Berliner Weisse is a good jumping off point for a conversation about smoked beers. One, it proves there’s an audience for every type of beer out there. Two, Berliner Weisse and smoked beers are both fairly small German niche beers that feel too small to go big, yet here we are.
With that in mind, let’s dig deep and explain why we think smoked beers are going to start to dominate as we roll towards 2020.
PART I: What Is Smoked Beer?
Smoked beers are, well, smoked. No, that doesn’t mean the beer is smoked once it’s made. It’s an essence of smoke that’s imparted into the beer’s core thanks to how the barley (or wheat, etc.) is malted. The grains or cereals need to be dried with a smoky fire that imparts a distinct smoky flavor directly into the beer. No smoke in the barley or wheat means no smoky flavor in the beer. (To be fair, you can absolutely smoke hops and even water, and we’re sure there are brewers out there doing exactly that right now. But, let’s stick to the basics for this.)
We don’t need to get into enzymes and protein breakdowns here. We’ll keep it simple. Green barley needs to be malted to become usable for making beer. The first step is a germination process jumpstarted by adding water. Next, the barley needs to be dried to stop the germination process at just the right time. Heat is added to the barley and that’s where smoked beer is born.
Very generally speaking, most barley is dried with an industrial heat source (kiln). But, back in the day, barley would’ve been dried either in the sun out back behind the barn or over a smoky fire of peat, hardwoods, or whatever was laying around. Over time, brewers found cleaner and more efficient sources of heat. Heavy smoke-producing fires slowly faded out of the brewing world. What makes smoked beer ‘smoked’ was nearly lost in the process.
Today, there are three malt houses and breweries in Bamberg, Germany — Schlenkerla, Weyermann, and Spezial — that still do the malting with fire and smoke.There are also a handful of other breweries in the area using the Bamberg smoked malts to make smoked beer. This has led the Slow Food movement to designate the Bamberg’s “Rauchbier” (literally Smokebeer) an Ark of Taste. Basically, that means it’s a rare specialty deserving of preservation.
It’s worth noting there have been specialty malt houses making smoked barley or wheat this whole time. Alaskan Brewing made their first Smoked Porter back in 1988. But it was very, very limited since most breweries don’t do the malting themselves. They simply don’t have the facilities to do so. So it’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. Smoked malts are starting to draw the attention brewers (again) with more of them seeing what they can do with a smoky product, purchased from specialty malters.