From oak to fruit woods, the flavor of smoke can add complexity and character to bacon, barbecue and even beer. Before the industrial revolution changed how beer's raw ingredients were processed, almost all beer was subtly smoky. Malted barley was dried over wood fires and inadvertently flavored by the smoke. The sweet and woody essence wasn't a defining flavor of those old brews, but it was unavoidable. Today, maltsters and brewers have much more control, sometimes developing a background note of wood smoke to a stout, or crafting a brew that's as intensely smoky as today's IPAs are hoppy.
Smoky beers are a niche flavor — but it's easy enough to find examples. And it's a realm worth exploring if you're looking for something new.
Germany is a traditional home of the smoked beer, and Bamberg is the capital of the classic rauchbier style. The rauch — German for smoke — in this case, is the clean and bright smoke of beechwood, and the malt smoked by traditional German maltsters finds its way into many of the lager styles in the German brewing tradition. Malt is smoked in-house at the Schlenkerla brewery in Bamberg and used in a line of beers from marzen to dopplebock. The squat bottles of Schlenkerla beers are readily available at beer retailers.
Test the waters with the Original Marzen, a caramely and crisp lager with an unmistakable smoky finish. The first sip might be off-putting, but the beer develops as you work towards the bottom of the glass, and by the second half, you might be surprised just how enjoyable the pint can be. Wheat beer fans can go for the Schlenkerla Weizen which marries the typical banana and spice flavors of the style with the signature beechwood smoke.
Schlenkerla also brews a light and crisp helles bier that doesn't use any smoked malt, but the pale golden brew retains the faintest suggestions of smoke lingering in the finish.
One of the first commercially available American smoked beers is this often imitated seasonal brew from Alaskan Brewing. A straightforward porter, rich in roasted malts and burnt caramel undertones, is crafted with a dose of malt specially smoked with Alaskan alder wood. The alder smoke is sweet and herbaceous like cedar, and the brewers integrate it deftly into the full flavored porter. The beer has won countless awards, and it is released from the brewery annually on Nov. 1. Look for it at Whole Foods, BevMo! and Total Wines in November.
A locally-made example of a smoked beer, Cowboy Curtis was envisioned by brewmaster Devon Randall as a tribute to Alaskan Brewing's Smoked Porter. Randall uses beechwood smoked malts because of its more neutral smoke flavor; she says fruitwoods can be too sweet and distracting. "I didn't want it to taste like a campfire," she says. Cowboy Curtis hits the sweet spot of being smoky without being eye-watering, and the brew was recently awarded a silver medal at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival. Cowboy Curtis is available on draft at the Arts District Brewing Co. brewpub while it lasts.
Another local option, Wholly Smoke mixes oak smoked wheat malt in with the more common beechwood smoked malt for a complex smoke flavor that is assertive and lingers. It's full-bodied with a firm hoppy finish from woodsy and herbaceous English hops that match the character of the smoked malts. A pint at the Long Beach brewpub offers some interesting pairing possibilities, but be careful when matching smoked beers with smoky BBQ foods: it's all too easy to overdo the smoke flavors. Try Wholly Smoke with the smothered steak fries instead.
Another local example is this light and quaffable brown ale from year-old Scholb Premium Ales in Torrance. The brew features a restrained flavor of sweet and delicate cherrywood smoked malts. Toasted bread and the light chocolate flavors of a brown ale are at the forefront with just a wisp of smoke flavor presenting at the end of a sip. The subtle smoke serves to balance the brown ale for a pint that goes down easier than you'd expect. The beer isn't currently available at the Torrance tasting room, but it might make an appearance as the weather begins to cool off.
Finding this beer might be a tall order, but if you happen to see a bottle of Rex Attitude imported from New Zealand's The Yeastie Boys brewers (and you like scotch) it's worth grabbing. The golden ale is brewed with a large proportion of peat-smoked distilling malts, and like the Islay whiskies that also use malts dried over peat fires, Rex Attitude is intensely flavored. Some say it tastes like a medicine cabinet or like Chloraseptic mouth spray while others love the lingering bite. Love it or hate it, you won't soon forget it.