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.
Smoked Beer Is A Brewers And Beer Lover’s Dream
What makes smoked beers so interesting and versatile is the fact that we’re talking about malted grains and cereals here. That is, we’re talking about the foundation of, literally, every beer.
In theory, you can make any style of beer a smoked beer. Very broadly, part of what makes a saison a saison or an IPA an IPA happens after malting. It’s about adding yeasts and hops to essentially push the beer into a style. When we’re talking about the foundation of the beer from the malt, anything is still possible.
Want a smoked lager, smoked porter or stout, smoked Baltic porter, smoked IPA, smoked lambic, smoked Berliner Weisse? No problem. The world is your oyster when it comes to smoked beers since the smoke is imparted in the foundation of the brewing process. Once a smoky wort is made from the malt, the brewer can go in pretty much any direction.
And, that, is what makes smoked beers so damn enticing. There’s a whole world of flavors out there in beers that beer drinkers already love. Using smoked malt adds a depth that takes old-school favorites to new heights that feel familiar, likely because there’s a very deeply rooted familiarity from (maybe) millennia of smoky malts being used to make beer.
At the end of the day, smoked beers feel both new and very old while bringing new ideas to known commodities. That’s the perfect balance for a beer to blow up on the international stage.
Why Smoked Beer Will Last
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Tonight the @spentgraingrill_ special is a pulled chicken sandwich tossed in your choice of sweet bbq, sriracha bbq, honey mustard bbq, or buffalo sauce, served on a brioche roll and topped with pickles and American cheese. Available while supplies last. Pair it with a pint of CreepShow Smoked Porter – now on tap!
We asked our pal Joe Stange, beer expert and co-host of One More Road for the Beer podcast, why smoked beers feel so, well, right. “Smoke connects with something very primal,” Stange said. “It says warmth and comfort. It says food.”
Smoked beers have the legs to dominate in the years to come because they pair amazingly well with all sorts of food styles. This is a beer that feels right when you’re cuddled up in the winter next to a fire eating a bowl of spicy chili. Then again, it also works in the hottest of summers over a fire pit with a hog roasting over it.
It works with cold smoked or hot smoked salmon, charcuterie, all the cheese, game, salad, ice cream, breakfast, every meal, every season. The very fact that the beer can be a light lager or pale, a medium bodied porter or hefeweizen, or a hefty aged stout means it has a place all year at every table or party where that rustic, smoky flavor is a fit.
All of that is before you even get to the point that you can add massive variation in the flavor profile of the smoke dependent upon what you’re using to make that smoke. You name it, it’s possible: Cherry wood, alder, hickory, oyster shells, peat, acacia, and so on. Once people catch on the versatility of smoked beers and realize that they’re one of the best beers to pair with all the food (especially foods as divergent as winter stews and summer barbecues), there’ll be no going back.
People (and brewers) are, of course, catching on. Smoked beers are starting to find spots on tap lists across Europe and the US. You don’t have to look much further than Instagram to suss out the interest. The hashtag “Smoked Beer” has 10,521 posts as of this writing. It has a long way to go to catch up with #IPA having 4.6 million posts or even #BerlinerWeisse’s 74k. Still, smoked beer is on its way.
10 Smoked Beers To Try Right Now
Märzen — Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier
Schlenkerla’s Märzen is the perfect gateway beer to start learning about the style. This stuff is bold yet very easy to drink. You get a big blast of the smoke up front that mellows to a fatty meatiness before the slightly sweet maltiness and echoes of earthy hops come through. This is a delicious beer that gets better with every mug you down.
Weizen — Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier
A smoked Hefeweizen is an interesting prospect. Schlenkerla’s Weizen has a dark and smoky fruitiness. The weizen (wheat) part of the beer is a fascinating counterpoint to the smoky barley malts. There’s an interesting interplay of earthy spice, smoky bacon fat, and caramel malt with that dark fruit that works wonders.
Smoked Porter — Alaskan Brewing Co.
Finding a bottle of Alaskan Brewing’s Smoked Porter that’s been aged the better part of a decade is like finding delicious treasure. The beer has a fatty and salty — almost briny — smokiness to it. It’s a lot like a well-used smoker that puffs out gorgeous smelling smoke every time you fire it up. That’s backed up by a deeply roasted malt essence that imparts a dark chocolate flourish alongside darkly sweet fruitiness. This one’s a masterpiece and an American craft beer classic.
Rauchbier — New Paltz Brewing Co. (Pfälzerbräu)
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Rolling out our Gold Medal winning smoked Rauchbier Lager, available in bottles kicking off in our taproom. A distinctive smoked taste that blends well with contrasting sweet malt taste. This beer compliments well with grilled meats, pizza, fish, and Manchego cheese. The smoke is pronounced, but balanced. Prost!
Rauchbier from New York’s New Paltz Brewing Co. is an excellent example of a smoked lager. The beer has a slow-roasted smoke in a fairly light to medium body. There’s a stone fruit and baked pie sweetness underpinning the malts and lightly touched on hops. This beer goes down very easy.
Ond Smoked Porter — Bevog Brewery
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Bevor Brewery out in Austria makes one hell of a smoked porter, Ond. The beer has a mellow smoke that sits nicely with a chocolate and caramel sweetness. There are whispers of forest hop bitterness at the end that really tie this one together. Definitely one worth hunting down at the specialty shops.
Fear and Trembling — Hill Farmstead Brewing
Hand-smoked over maple wood, Hill Farmstead’s Fear and Trembling is a big beer. The beer has a strong backyard smoke-out feel to it that never overstays its welcome. Hints of fatty bacon, dark-roast coffee, cocoa, and rich maple syrup shine through. This one also has a hefty 9.3 percent ABV, so maybe share a bottle with a friend.
Smog Rocket Smoked Porter — Beavertown Brewing
Out in England, Beavertown is killing the craft beer game. Their Smog Rocket Smoked Porter is a masterclass in everything this style of beer can be. The smokiness is a subtle surprise up front that gives way to dark chocolate, peat, and fresh pipe tobacco. There’s a sweetness to the smoky malts that balances perfectly with the mild bitter hop at the end. Grab a sixer. You won’t be disappointed.
Peated Porter — Elysian Brewing
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This one is a bit more elusive. It’s generally only on draft in Seattle. But when Peated Porter is flowing, it’s phenomenal. The peated malt is cut by a nice layer of hop bitter. That’s balanced with the hint of earthy wheat and roast cocoa throughout. It’s smooth, delightful, and rare.
Smoked Porter — Stone Brewing
Stone first brewed their Smoked Porter back in 1996. Over the years, it’s popped back up again and again. Most recently, the beer came back to the market this winter. That’s a good sign for smoked beer. The brew balances peat smoke, dark chocolate, and deeply roasted coffee flavors into a cohesive and very quaffable whole.
Mother of Dragons — Brewery Ommegang
If you needed solid proof that smoked beers making a comeback, here it is. The most recent release of Ommegang’s Game of Thrones-themed beers included a smoked beer. Mother of Dragons blends a cherry kriek with a smoked porter to make one delicious brew. It’s a glorious combination of tart cherry, earthy wheat, smokey and fatty roasted meats, and subtle sweets.
It’s complex yet light. It’ll be hard to find but worth the search.