The first smoked beer I ever had was Alaskan’s Smoked Porter. I remember going gaga over it, remarking several times how much it tasted like smoked salmon. I later learned that it didn’t actually taste like salmon, but the alder wood that is typically used for smoking salmon is the same wood used for smoking the malt of the porter, and my mind made an taste association. Since then, I’ve tried to buy the annual edition of that beer every year, and always try to keep a bottle or two for aging. I have several vintages in my cellar and am looking forward to the occasion when I can do a vertical tasting with friends.
The first true rauchbier I had was from Schlenkerla. I remember having a similar reaction to when I first had Alaskan’s Porter, although the flavors are quite different. Instead of salmon, I got a lot of bacon flavors. At first sip, Schlenkerla is oppressively smoky, dominating and ruining your taste buds. But about half to three quarters of the way through, your senses start to accept the flavors, rather than fight them, and somehow the beer becomes incredibly sessionable.
Back before advances in malting technology, most beers were smoky due to the practice of drying malt over direct fire. As technology evolved and we learned new ways to dry the malt without using fire, smoked beers became more of a novelty. The town of Bamburg in Germany is known for it’s smoked beers, which is also where the Schlenkerla brewery is located. The name Rauchbier literally means smoke beer. Alaskan Brewing Company is usually credited with introducing smoked beers to the United States with their classic Porter, and it’s founder, Geoff Larson, has written a book on smoked beers with Ray Daniels (founder of the Cicerone® program and author of “Designing Great Beers”).
When we were homebrewing, the only smoked beer we ever made was a 10 gallon batch of smoked porter, and we split it, spiking one 5 gallon carboy with a pound of cooked bacon while leaving the other 5 gallon carboy naked. Both came out really nice, although the residual fat from the bacon wrecked havoc on the head retention of bacon batch. I appreciated the novelty of using the bacon in the recipe, but with the detrimental effects on the head retention, I wasn’t absolutely sure that I thought it was worth it.
While I was recently at a local homebrew shop, I noticed a new form of Belgian Candi Sugar that was infused with maple and bacon. I was fixated on it and needed to learn more. After contacting the company to learn more (Cascade Beer Candi Company), I ordered a commercial sized bucket and got busy putting together a rauchbier recipe. The candi syrup actually does have bacon, maple flavoring and a bit of vanilla in it, so if you are a vegetarian…yes, it actually does have bacon in it.
A traditional Rauchbier is, at it’s core, a Märzen, that has some of it’s malt substituted out for smoked malt. You can go subtle in the percentage, or go all the way to 100% like Schlenkerla. Beechwood is the preferred wood for smoking malt to make a rauchbier, which does give off a ham like quality. For our beer, since I was unsure how much smoke and bacon would come from the candi syrup, I kept the percentage lower, at about 25%. Other than smoked malt, we used German Pilsner, Munich, Vienna and Crystal malts. For hopping, we used Hallertau in three different additions and fermented with our house Kölsch strain. If you want to get nit-picky, a true Rauchbier would be fermented with a lager strain instead of a hybrid, but for our taproom environment, we couldn’t afford to tie up the tanks for the amount of time a lager strain would require, but still wanted to have a lager like flavor profile. Our Kölsch strain fit the bill perfectly.
I get more of the maple and bacon qualities out of the nose compared to the flavor, with a maple syrup like aroma inviting you to the glass. The maple and bacon are a bit more subtle in the flavor, mixing wonderfully with the beechwood flavors from the smoked malt. If you’re new to smoked beers, this is a terrific starting point as the smoke is not too in your face that it becomes unapproachable. A malty richness completes the beer with toast and bread crust shining through. The hops are understated with an accompanying bitterness to balance out the sweet, while the Kölsch yeast leaves a clean, crisp aftertaste. By using the bacon infused Candi Syrup, the threat of poor head retention was removed, as all the fat had been rendered out. The stats are 5.9% abv, 35 IBU and 12 SRM.
For my first official try at a rauchbier, I am incredibly satisfied with how it came out. I’m looking forward to trying it with some of our BBQ food trucks in the next couple of days, and I’m sure it would also pair nicely with smoked cheeses like a Gouda or a bacon cheeseburger. It’s also delicious by itself, and pairs well with the changing colors of the leaves across the street at Sloan’s Lake. If you’re new to smoked beers or a smoky veteran, I think you’re going to enjoy our Maple Bacon Rauchbier. Hop On!