They make smoked cheese. They make smoked meats. You can smoke pretty much any food, if you put your mind to it. But there’s really only one beverage that ever seems to get the smoke treatment - beer.
Smoked beer - or rauchbier, as the Germans have called it since the 18th century - is aptly named. It tastes like smoke. Whether it’s a hint of smoke or a full-out blast of fire-burned toastiness is a matter of brewers preference, but the overall flavor hints of campfire and roasted marshmallow. It’s like camping for your mouth. Without all of the DEET.
The toastiness of a rauchbier has nothing to do with smoke infusion and everything to do with fire-dried malt. The process comes from the early days of brewing, before grains were dried using indirect heat in a kiln, when sun drying was too slow or too awkward. Therefore, the smoked flavor - which presents in the grains and is passed on to the beer itself - began as a byproduct of the process, not the goal itself.
Soon, after we’d assume fire drying was phased out and kilns littered the brewing landscape, the smokey taste of beer was no longer commonplace - relegated to its own style by older traditionalists who continued drying their malt over an open flame. Today, we’re most likely to find smokey porters and stouts, but the traditional rauchbier is something lighter - not light as in Boulevard Wheat, but light as in “not quite as dark and thick as molasses.”
It should be noted that there’s a Konami-code-style cheat to getting smoked beer, where smoke is infused with the beer. This infusion - whether by using liquid smoke or some other kind of black magic - gives a much different taste. Surly made a smoked baltic porter called (fittingly) Smoke that we learned on a tour used both smoked grains and a little bit of black magic. To me, Smoke’s smoke tasted a little too fake. Many homebrew recipes I found go one extra step, adding liquid smoke. Someone will have to fill me in on the success of faking the smoke - I’m afraid I’d end up with something that tastes like burnt toast.
Because a rauchbier’s smokiness is a definite acquired taste, it’s not easy to find a traditional rauchbier on the shelves - the closest you’ll get are with roastier schwarzbiers like Shiner Bohemian Black or Sam Adams Black Lager. This year, Schell’s Brewery is entering the fray by embracing its old German roots and taking on what feels like a rauchbier/schwarzbier hybrid as a winter replacement for their Stout. It’s called Chimney Sweep, and it’s smoketastic.
Because I tend to be an apologetic Schell’s fanboy, I approach each new Schell’s beer with a bit of trepidation. What if it’s REALLY AWFUL? What if it’s only kind of okay, but my blind love for Minnesota breweries clouds my better judgement? What if my personal taste fails me?
No worries here. While Schell’s has a tendency to go a little overboard when sweetening their German-influenced beers, it turns out, that’s exactly what Chimney Sweep needed - a punch of malt and a crank of smoke make this a more satisfying smoked beer than the offerings from Shiner and Sam Adams. It’s heavier, yes, but this is winter, friends, and we need all the heavy we can get.
The beer didn’t reach consensus in our house, though. My wife still prefers Shiner Black. I was afraid she wasn’t going to finish her Chimney Sweep. (That’s a lie. I was HOPING she wouldn’t finish it, so I could have it.)
Given the taste and the method, smoked beer brings to mind the types of dark beers we’d expect during the Renaissance. That rauchbiers and schwarzbiers aren’t lined up alongside the smoked turkey drumsticks and too-sweet mead at most modern Renaissance festivals is unfortunate - I’d think that smoked beer would go great with falconry and ill-advised pewter purchases. Then again, it’s a taste that was rightfully whisked out of the process - not for lack of success, but due to the changes in technology.
Technology changes our taste, and the smoke has left most of our beers. We can still find it if we look, though, which give us a chance to better appreciate it, I’d say.