In a number of recent beer reviews I’ve commented on roast coffee flavours, explaining that roasting the barley after malting imbues a darker flavour, and indeed colour, to a beer; much as the roasting of the coffee beans affect the flavour of the resulting coffee brew. It’s not the only influence, but it’s a significant part of the flavour.
This got me thinking back to my previous spate of beer geekdom in the early nineties and a beer we discovered that the Germans call ‘Rauchbier‘ or ‘smoke beer‘. These come from the town of Bamberg in Franconia, northern Bavaria.
Bamberg is a city of around 70,000 people, and is built (like the cities of Rome, San Francisco and Sheffield) on seven hills, the soil around Bamberg is noticably peaty, and this plays an important part in the brewing process. Bamberg proudly traces its craft brewing heritage back to 1122, when bishop ‘Otto the Saint’ granted brewing rights to the Steward of Gestungshausen. The city fathers proudly observe that brewing on an ‘industrial’ scale only started in the early 20th century, the growth of larger breweries sadly forcing the closure of many smaller breweries. No surprises there then.
The barley used in Bamberg’s most famous brews is roasted in fires fueled by beech wood, gown in the peaty soil, giving a smoky flavour that Michael Jackson compared to the finest single malt whiskies.
By far the best known brewer of ‘smokebeer’ is the Schlenkerla (meaning ‘little staggerer’ – named for Andreas Graser, an early brewmaster who had a distinctive gait) and the brewery’s beers are known as ‘Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier’ or ‘Original Schlenkerla Smokebeer’ – much as ‘Original Pilsner’ translates to the more poetic Pilsner Urquell in its native Czech.
The Schlenkera brewery traces its roots back to 1678, but there are records that suggest brewing on the site as far back as 1405; Johann Heller bought the brewery in the mid 18th century and used nearby rock cellars for lagering the brews. Over time the brewery was relocated above these extensive cellars, but the original brewpub is now retained in the centre of Bamberg. They brew several varieties of smoke beer – a 5.1% Marzen, a 6.5% Bock and a 5.2% Wheat Beer – a 4.3% pale lager is also produced, and while it doesn’t use the smoked malt, there is an inherent smokiness from the brewery. All the brews are bottom fermented and brewed to the German Reinheitsgebot of 1516.
By far the most widely available brew is the ‘Marzen’ (a dark, sweet, but not over-strong winter brew) and it’s this that I sourced from a great beer shop I found recently (see below). The beer pours with a full off-white head that subsides leaving a healthy lacing. The nose is, as you might expect, smoky… and it has to be said that this brew is smoke all the way. The colour is a dark amber, almost coppery, dare I say smoky?
You won’t be surprised to read that the first flavour you get is smoke; it’s a rich, woody smoke that conjures up fat European smoked sausages rather than smoked ribs. There is an underlying bitterness, but it takes half the bottle to get through the smokiness to the underlying beer flavours, rich malts and bitter hoppiness. These become more apparent if you move into a second bottle, in much the same way as you can filter out background noise on a bootleg concert recording (or so I’m told!).
I think I’m giving this 3.5 stars. Three stars for a competent brew, and the extra half for keeping this unique brewing tradition alive.
Schlenkerla Smokebeers are widely available in the United States and Australia, the brewery’s website gives a comprehensive description of the brewing process and a listing of stockists worldwide. I strongly recommend seeking out a couple of bottles, the brewery itself recognises that it will probably take a couple of bottles to fully appreciate the unique flavour of the beer.
For information, I found this, and a few other brews I was actively seeking (that’s that geekiness showing through again) at a place called ‘The Hip Hop‘ in London’s ‘Borough Market‘ near London Bridge. ‘The Hip Hop’ stock over 600 exotic beers, and is the closest I’ve seen in Britain to some of those beer temples in Brussels. They have a bar as well, with 120 brews; next time I’m in the area I’ll check it out.
Have you tried this ‘Smoke Beer’ or something similar? What did you think about it?