Bull testicles, whale vomit, and pureed sea urchins have all been used in large-scale beer recipes, but perhaps the most reviled beer ingredient of them all is something more intangible: smoke.
Any beer style can feature smoke as an aroma and flavor, typically derived from the use of smoked malts in the grist (fermentable grains), but when smoke is the predominant characteristic, it’s called a rauchbier. The name is a German compound word combining rauch (smoke) and bier (take a guess) that’s as on-the-nose as soot on a chimney sweep’s schnoz. Most people have never heard of it, let alone tasted it, and those who have been exposed to it mostly seem to hate the stuff. Yet there is a small community of beer drinkers who live for the smoky flavor of rauchbier.
Those in the majority group (haters) compare the flavor of these beers to, among other things:
- Licking an ashtray
- Drinking cigarette butts
- Liquid bacon, but in a bad way
Rauchbier fanatics such as myself question how anyone could hate the idea of drinkable bacon. Such beers—typically amber to brown lagers but occasionally porters or other hearty ales—are resplendent examples of, say, a toasty Märzen or bready Helles or roasty porter, augmented by a hit of smoke. It’s like camping: perfectly fun on its own, but better with a campfire.
From barbecued brisket to roasted marshmallows, smoke makes everything taste better. Why would beer be any different?
The style’s ancestral home is Bamberg, Germany, though considering malts would’ve been dried over an open fire for centuries before electric kilns were invented, it’d be fair to say smoke beer’s homeland is anywhere brewsters and monks were making beer. Located 150 miles north of the laters and wheat beers of Munich, Bamberg is so synonymous with its signature brew that even American craft breweries rely heavily on the town’s beechwood smoked barley malt to make authentic “Bamberger-style” rauchbiers.
Smoking malt over beechwood is traditional, but Polish-style grodziskies are made with oak smoked malted wheat. Alderwood is used to smoke Alaskan Brewery’s Alaskan Smoked Porter—the winningest beer in 36 years of competition at the Great American Beer Festival with 20 medals. Craft brewers have access to maple, apple, and cherry wood smoked malts, not unlike finding bacon smoked over those various woods.
The world’s most famous rauchbier, Aecht Schlenkerla, hails from Bamberg and dates back to 1405, making it number ein on my personal brewery bucket list. The Schlenkerla lineup includes Märzen, the baconiest beer in the bunch, as well as a light helles lager that gleans its smoke taint not from malt, but a yeast recycled after the microbes have absorbed the smoky phenols—aromatic compounds that lead to smoke or sometimes medicinal “Band-Aid” scents.
Ryan Schmiege from Cascade Lakes Brewing in Redmond, Oregon, shares my passion for smoked beers. When I put on a beer fest called Diff’rent Smokes, Schmiege offered up not one but two different smoke beers—yet even he acknowledges that brewing this style is akin to “asking for the beer to die on tap.”
Death would seem to be the consensus: insider Instagram account @BeerAficionado, helmed by Doug Veliky, posted a meme depicting the titular character in 1989’s Weekend at Bernie’s as “Smoked Beers,” held up by Live Oak Brewing from Austin and Dovetail Brewery from Chicago, implying these breweries are propping up the reviled beer style and trying to feign its vitality.
Dovetail launched in 2016 with just three beers, including a rauchbier. Co-founder Bill Wesselink explained that his team brews it just once per quarter, which is enough to tide them over year-round.
“We call it an account killer,” Wesselink jokes. “We won’t hear from them for another six months.” Smoke beers don’t exactly fly off the shelves.
That said, Dovetail’s been able to build up a fanbase among taproom loyalists and, since 2017, has even put on a Thank You For Smoking event, taking over its own taps with a constellation of smoky stars that have included a smoked doppelbock and a smoked sour cherry ale. I feel a pilgrimage coming on.
While most craft breweries’ websites enumerate their vast array of IPAs, Live Oak’s site has an entire page devoted to its smoke beers. It currently only lists seven, ranging from a smoked black lager to a “White Smoke” wheat ale, but it has made myriad historical styles, such as the first commercial Lichtenhainer I ever had. If you don’t see much commercial appeal in a rural German beer style that’s described as “lightly smoked and slightly sour,” you may understand why Lichtenhainer isn’t the new New England IPA. But Live Oak’s is tasty as all get-out and refreshing to a fault.
Another brewery that’s all-in on the rauch is Switchback Brewing in Burlington, Vermont. The brewery on Flynn Avenue began developing smoke beers in 2016 and its Flynn on Fire series has since expanded to a dozen offerings ranging from a traditional smoked Märzen to a smoked oyster stout (where the barley, not the real oysters included, are smoked) to a grodziskie called Katie’s Love Poem that earned gold at this year’s prestigious World Beer Cup. Co-founder Bill Cherry says Switchback aspires to always have at least four smoke beers on tap and that the epiphany occurred while reading about malt from Bamberg.
“I decided, from my standpoint, we can’t make our name in sours or IPAs anymore, so we’re gonna be the vanguard for smoke beer,” says Cherry. Switchback Ale is a red ale that’s the bestselling draft beer in the Green Mountain State, but as far as an identity, Cherry adds, “I think smoke can be our thing!”
“Smoke doesn’t have to be the only characteristic of the beer,” he says. “If I treat smoke like a chef treats a flavor, let’s work with it as flavor component. Everything in balance.”
To indicate how smoky a Switchback beer is, Cherry created the smoke-o-meter. It’s not a scientific measurement like other beer metrics such as alcohol-by-volume or International Bitterness Units, which connote how hoppy a beer is. As an example, there’s one IPA in the Flynn on Fire initiative that’s 5.9% ABV, 72 IBUs, and a 40 on the smoke-o-meter. I’m guessing the smoke factor cuts into the beer’s perceived bitterness, though.
Visitors to Switchback’s taproom can pick up a mixed four-pack of smoke beers, as can attendees at Dovetail’s Thank You For Smoking event. Variety, like smoke, is the spice of life. Even if not many people take them up on the offer.
Do Switchback’s fans love the initiative? Cherry remarks, “The oldest Mug Club member just rolls his eyes and says, ‘You’re off the rails with this one. I love you to death but [smoke] isn’t for me, and it’s not actually for anyone.’ It’s an acquired taste. Any kid will tell you broccoli tastes terrible.”
And while Cherry is only half-joking when he says nobody buys them, it seems that some customers can be convinced to give it a try.
“In our taproom when we can introduce people to them, almost everyone walks out with a bottle,” Cherry says. “We’re converting them!”
Predicts Dovetail’s Wesselink, “Smoke beer is definitely not on its last breath. It will never be a huge revolution like IPA, but within a few years—2025?—rauchbier will not be an outlier.”