A while ago I read about a weird little style called Rauchbier. Rauch being German for smoke, it’s a throwback to a beer reality that has since been nearly forgotten: that beer used to taste like smoke. All of it. From today’s vantage point that seems pretty unlikely. Beers taste like a lot of things, but not campfires. This, though, is only the result of a fairly recent modernization.
When you brew beer, you need a good deal of sugar to turn into alcohol. This sugar, for most of human history, has come from taking barley, letting it germinate just a little bit, and then abruptly stopping the germination process. Here’s why: During germination, the grain’s sugar production is put on overdrive, generating fuel for the upcoming growth spurt. By pulling the plug just before the grains sprout, most of that energy reserve remains stored in the grain – a perfect base for fermentation.
The thing is, to pull the plug you need heat – enough to kill the grain and maybe even roast it a little. Before 1817, this heat by and large came from direct flame. But during the process, the smoke from the flame would permeate the wet barley, imparting a distinct flavor. It wasn’t a particular style, it was a reality – for beer to be beer, there needed to be smoke. Of course, in 1817 this all changed with the invention of the roasting kiln, which used indirect (smokeless) heat. Overnight, the world of beer lost its smoke, allowing all those wonderful, complex flavors beneath to take the spotlight.
But not all beers changed. Thankfully, there are a couple stubborn breweries out there – basically all in the town of Bamberg, Germany – that refuse to let the past die. It’s from one of these breweries that I had an extremely tasty beer last week. The beer was Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen, probably the most well known of the Rauchbiers (despite it’s insurmountable name). This particular one was a Märzen (same style as Oktoberfests) that had been made using smoked barley. It was awesome. I was expecting it be aggressive and overbearing with the smoke, but it wasn’t at all. It actually tasted like sweet and savory BBQ, with the flavor of the smoke marrying with the fruity sweetness of the Märzen. It was surprisingly refreshing too – the smoke was a compliment to the crispness of the beer, not an elephant in the room. Overall, it was great.
For the most part, smokeless beer is a good thing. Try a true Rauchbier, though, and you’ll be happy a few old-school breweries see things differently.