So you want to drink some smoke beers
This post is part of the Denver Tasting Lab where a few bloggers get together and taste some beer and try to learn something every now and then.
In the middle of the Franconia region of Germany you will find the home of rauchbier in the medieval town of Bamberg. And in Bamberg you will find Schlenkerla. This palace of smoke creates some of the world’s most well known smoked beers. The name Schlenkerla comes from the German word schlenkern meaning to "dangle, swing" and was the nickname for Andreas Graser who became the owner of the brewery in 1877. According to the Schlenkerla website Graser "was a little bit handicapped and moved his arms in a funny way when he walked" leading to the nickname. But an article from Draft Magazine (Jan/Feb 2010) suggest this handicap might have been from drinking a bit too much. I think it was probably all the smoke.
For this tasting we enjoyed five of their beers: a marzen, a weizen, a helles, the Urbock, and the oak smoked doppelbock. And I will say right up front: these guys are smoky! Danger ahead. If you don’t like smoke do not proceed.
How do these beers get their smoke flavor? The key to the smoked flavor found in Bramberg beers is the malting process. Before modern malting techniques there weren't many options available to brewers to prepare barley for brewing. One way to dry out the grain was to place the malt into kilns fired with beechwood. The smoke from the wood dries out the grains and adds the unique smoke flavor at the same time. There is a great detailed explanation on their website. I think it’s important to point out that this process isn’t simply adding smoke to malt but it’s actually using the heat and the smoke of the fire to create the malt. That’s pretty hardcore.
There’s a wide variety of smoke found in each of these beers. The helles is tame and uses no smoked-malt yet it picks up just a hint of smoke as it comes to life in the brewery. The slight hint of smoke and the crisp clean flavor made the helles one of my favorites of the bunch. The weizen uses a mix of the smoked malt and unsmoked wheat to give a kick of smoke without it being overwhelming. Like Billy, these were my two favorites. The Urbock is a bigger bolder version of the marzen with a bit more maltiness to cut through the smoke. The rest of the lineup is all about smoke. Like sitting around the campfire, wait no; like sitting above the campfire, wait no; like putting your head into the campfire kind of smoke. The marzen has a very distinct bacon flavor which is pleasant but potent. I would love to drink this at the tavern from one of their gravity fed oak barrels. The oak smoked doppelbock has a smoother smokiness and lots of complex richness in the malt flavors. There’s an interesting note on the Schlenkerla website on why oak is a particularly significant choice of wood:
Oak however, with a smoother and more complex smoky note, was seldom used as fire wood. Different than beech, oak is very pest- and wheather-resistant and hence was valuable timber. Apart from buildings, mainly ships used to be made out of oak wood. The acorns were important animal fodder and during times of hardship necessary for feeding humans as well. Being so precious, kilning with oak was a rare specialty and its fine and multi layered smokiness a unique treat. “Schlenkerla Oak Smoke” is being brewed following this tradition, to present smoke beer lovers that special taste experience today.
Schlenkerla is not the only smoke beer brewery you will find in Bramberg, but it is one the exports widely throughout the states. You can find their beers in many higher end liquor stores. There is a helpful guide to find their beers at their website. I like to imagine that their web server is powered by steam and a big pile of beechwood. While each of these beers probably won’t end up being your everyday beer it's a great bottle to find and share with friends.