By Martin Lodahl and Tim Dawson (Brewing Techniques)
Smoky flavors in beer, once a by-product of malting technology, live on in specialty products brewed using both traditional and modern methods.
Smoke billows skyward from a gas grill in your backyard. What’s cooking: steak, chicken, burgers? No, two-row Munich malt, being “smoked” for a batch of homebrew in the style of Rauchbier, a smoke-flavored beer from Bamberg, Germany.
No other beverage blends as well with the flavor of smoke as does beer, perhaps because the earthy quality of beer, or the bite of a dark malt, weds with the flavor of smoke in a harmonious marriage of taste and drinkability.
Smoked beers are usually made by brewing with grains that have been kiln-dried over open flames and embers. In the days before modern kiln-drying processes based on steam and other non–smoke-producing heat sources, many beers may have developed a smoky character in the natural course of their production. A couple of beer styles, however, are still defined by this smoke-flavored character. Scottish ales are the most popular of these beers, although the smoke character in these beers can be very subdued.
This article reviews some lesser-known smoked beers, including Rauchbier, Grätzer (a smoked wheat beer of northern Germany), and Grodzisk (a smoked wheat beer from Grodzisk, Poland). The article also discusses a trend in the United States — the art of adding smoke flavor to existing styles to form a hybrid style. Of these, smoked porter seems to be the most popular.
Commercial examples: Of the “true” smoke-flavored beers, Rauchbier is by far the most well known. Bamberg, in the Franconia region of northern Bavaria, is at the center of one of the densest areas of breweries in the world. This quaint town of 70,000 people has 9 breweries within its borders and around 100 breweries within a 30–40-mile radius. Some of these breweries make only Rauchbier.
Bamberg is also well known for its malting facilities. Two of the breweries produce their own malt, and two others produce malt commercially. The malt for Rauchbier is dried over beech-wood flames and embers.
The Christian Merz brewpub, Spezial, offers a seasonal smoky Märzen (awarded three to four stars by Michael Jackson), a Bock beer in November, and its regular Rauchbier year-round. This line-up of beers is quite common in the area. Even such styles as Pilseners and Helles brewed in this area may have a slight smoky character.
The most popular Rauchbier in Bamberg is produced by the Heller-Trum brewery. It is considered a classic Rauchbier by which all others are judged. In North America, the beer is found under the name Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen.
The most available Rauchbier in the United States is from the Kaiserdom brewery. Although Kaiserdom is located in Bamberg, its Rauchbier is made at its brewery in nearby Eltmann.
Other Rauchbier breweries in the area of Bamberg include Maisel’s Rauchbier, made in Eltmann. An unfiltered version is made at the Fischer Greuth brewery in Herscheid, south of Bamberg, and at the Heller brewery in Herzogenaurach. A lighter tasting version of Rauchbier is made by the Goller brewery in Zeil.
Anatomy of a Rauchbier: Rauchbier is similar to the Oktoberfest/Vienna-style in terms of original gravity, ranging from 1.048 to 1.060, which results in 4.5–6% alcohol by volume. Rauchbier is medium to full bodied, and generally has a medium sweet, malty flavor and aroma beneath the smoke. Its color is amber to dark brown (10–20 °SRM). Hop bitterness, flavor, and aroma are low to medium (20–30 IBUs). Hops are usually added only once, at the beginning of the boil. Intensity of the smoke should be subtle to intense. Rauchbiers should also be very low in diacetyl and dimethyl sulfide; each should be difficult to detect because of the smoke flavor. Rauchbier goes well with all sorts of meat dishes, especially smoked meats and barbecued meals.
The unfiltered, draft Rauchbier available in the Bamberg region is a lot more flavorful than the bottled version sold in the United States. The fresh Bamberg draft is rounder and more complex in flavor. The yeast flavors blend together to add smoothness, while the freshness enhances the round and sweet nature of the malt. Only in the fresh version is there any chance of tasting any residual hop flavor from the bittering hops. The aroma of smoke is also more intense in the fresh draft version.
Making Rauchbier at Home — All-Grain Recipe
This recipe contains only a few ingredients, thanks to the good old Reinheitsgebot! But with Rauchbier, as with most German styles, high quality is the result of careful attention to the process.
5 lb Dark Munich malt
5 lb Two-row Pilsener malt (5½ lb, if priming with wort)
5.5 AAUs Noble hops (Hallertauer, for example) Bavarian-style lager yeast
Smoking the malt: Beech wood may be hard to find, but you can use oak, hickory, apple, mesquite, or any other type of hardwood chips. Do not use chips made from softwoods such as pine and spruce, which produce intense pitch flavors.
Soak the uncracked dark Munich malt in cool water (60–70 °F [16–21 °C]) for 5 minutes. Drain off the water and arrange the grains on a wire mesh that fits inside your barbecue gas grill or smoker — the thinner the layering the better. Arrange a layer of wood chips over the flames of the grill (never use lighter fluid to start the flames) and place the wire mesh above the fire. If the flames and wood can be kept to one side and the grains to the other, that’s even better — remember, you want to smoke the grains, not heat or cook them. Try to keep the wood from burning too quickly; douse the flames with a light spray of water, if necessary. (Some heat will inevitably be transferred to the malt, and one of the reasons only 5 lb of grain is smoked is to reduce the risk of killing all the enzymes in the Pilsener malt that are necessary for starch conversion.)
After about 15 minutes’ exposure to a good quantity of smoke, the grains should achieve the right intensity. Try sampling a few kernels; the smoke flavor should be apparent. Remove the grains from the smoke and allow them to cool. Some brewers suggest storing the grains, uncracked, in a Tupperware-like container for a few weeks to let the smoke flavor soak into the kernel.
Mashing: Commercial Rauchbier is made using a two-stage decoction method, one for a protein rest and one for starch conversion. I suggest checking the modification levels of the grains before doing a protein rest. The grains now coming from Germany seem to be more modified than in the past. A protein rest with this type of grain would produce a beer with very little head retention. Instead, drop the protein rest and go right to starch conversion. Try to maintain 155 °F (68 °C) until conversion is complete, then raise the temperature to 169 °F (76 °C), hold for 5 minutes, and sparge.
The boil: Once you collect the wort from the sparge, bring it to a boil, and maintain a vigorous boil for 90 minutes. When 1 hour remains to the boil, add the hops. I use Hallertauer and usually shoot for around 25 IBUs. There are formulas for calculating IBUs that take into account the alpha percentage, wort density, and time of boil. For present purposes, a rough figure of 1¼ oz of 5% alpha hops/5 gal beer should be a good guide.
Fermentation: Once the boil has finished and the wort has cooled, add preboiled water to make 5 gal of wort. If you plan to prime with wort, add enough water to make 5 gal and 1 qt. Then remove 1 qt of wort, sterilize it, and store it, tightly sealed, in the refrigerator. Pitch the yeast into the 5 gal of wort and ferment at 43–48 °F (6–9 °C). When fermentation starts to subside, rack the beer off the sediment, lower the temperature to 35 °F, and lager for a month or two. Prime the beer and bottle or keg. Allow it to sit for another month at around 45 °F. Then enjoy!
It is possible for both all-grain brewers and extract brewers to make Rauchbier at home (see box). Although it is possible to buy grains that have been smoked in the Bamberg tradition, chances are that all-grain brewers will need to smoke some of the grains themselves to achieve a high-quality smoke flavor; extract brewers can just add “smoke extract” to their brew (available in many supermarkets).
Making Rauchbier at Home — Extract Recipe
6.6 lb (2 cans) German-made unhopped amber extract
1¼ lb Light dry malt extract
2 tsp Smoke extract
When using smoke extract, make sure it contains no additives such as vinegar, salt, spices, or preservatives. Wright’s Liquid Smoke works very well for this process.
Boil the extracts in the amount of water with which you usually work. Add the hops. Shoot for around 25 IBUs, but since extract boils tend to have a higher density than all-grain boils I recommend using 1½ oz of 5% alpha hops/5 gal beer. Maintain a rolling boil for 1 hour. Add the smoke extract at the end of the boil.
Cool the wort, add make-up water to a final volume of 5 gal, and pitch the yeast. The fermenting schedule is the same as that for the all-grain recipe. Prime with 1¼ cups of light or amber dry malt extract bottle or keg, and allow to sit for another month at around 45 °F (7 °C).
Grätzer: The only place I’ve ever found a reference to this type of smoked wheat beer is in Fred Eckhardt’s book, The Essentials of Beer Style. I have yet to come across Grätzer in “the wild.” It is described as a low-gravity (O.G. 1.030–1.034) wheat beer from northern Germany that is highly hopped (50 IBUs) with noble German hops. Two-thirds of the grain bill is highly roasted and smoked wheat malt; the other third is a pale barley malt. From this description, I’ve come up with what I think is a good recipe (see box, “Making Grätzer at Home”). If anyone who has sampled the real product tests my recipe, please let me know how close to the mark I’ve come to reproducing the style.
Grodzisk: I’ve only come across the Grodzisk style of smoked beer in Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion. It originates from the small town of Grodzisk, Poland, and is said to have been produced since 1301. Grodzisk is reportedly a very aromatic brew made with a large percentage of malted wheat that has been smoked over oak logs. It comes in very low alcohol (about 0.5% by volume) and conventional strength versions (5% by volume).
It has a very light golden color (4 °SRM) and may throw a slight haze. It has a dense, white head and is said to have a sourish, sappy, oaky aroma and a smoky, dry, crisp flavor with a very light body. With aging, this beer may develop a tart, thirst-quenching acidity. Original gravity is around 1.050. I have found no reference to hop bitterness, flavor, or aroma, so I assume it would be fairly low (around 10–20 IBUs). I leave formulation of a recipe to those adventurous enough to try it.
Making Grätzer at Home
3¾ lb Wheat malt (4⅛ lb, if priming with wort)
2 lb Two-row Pilsener malt (2⅛ lb, if priming with wort)
11.15 AAUs Noble hops (Tettnanger, for example)
Roast and smoke the wheat malt: Place half the wheat malt on a cookie sheet and insert it into an oven preheated to 400 °F (205 °C). After 15 minutes, check the color of the malt every 5 minutes. The color of the finished product should be dark brown (close to the color of chocolate malt). Next, soak all of the wheat malt (roasted and unroasted) in cool water (60–70 °F [16–21 °C]) for 2 minutes, then arrange the grains onto a wire mesh and place in the smoker (see the box “Making Rauchbier at Home” for more details on the smoking procedure). Smoke the grains for 15 minutes. Store the grains in an air-tight container for a couple weeks to absorb the new flavors.
Mashing: Use a single-step infusion with a strike temperature of 152 °F (67 °C).
The boil: Boil for 90 minutes, adding the hops in when 1 hour remains to the boil. Assuming an alpha content of 5%, use 2¼ oz hops to come close to the 50 IBU range. Near the end of the boil, add the yeast nutrients. This step may go against the Reinheitsgebot, but I’m a strong believer in yeast nutrients in wheat beers.
Fermentation: Cool the wort to standard ale fermentation temperatures. Add enough water to make 5 gal of wort. If you prime with wort, add enough water to make 5 gal of wort, then remove a ½ gal, sterilize it, and store, tightly sealed, in the refrigerator.
Pitch the yeast into the 5 gal of wort and ferment at 65 °F. After one and a half to two weeks, rack the beer off the sediment and allow it to sit for another week or two. Prime and bottle or keg. Let it sit for a few weeks — then enjoy.
It is very hard to match the Grätzer style to an extract recipe. I have never seen a wheat malt extract with a roasted quality. Dunkelweizen extract, with around a 66:33 wheat-to-barley ratio, is the closest extract match to this style.
4.8 lb Dunkelweizen extract
11.15 AAUs Noble hops (Tettnanger, for example)
1¼ tsp Smoke extract
German ale yeast
The boil: Once the water and extract starts to boil, add the hops and boil for 1 hour. Near the end of the boil, add the yeast nutrients. At the end of the boil, add the smoke extract.
Fermentation: Cool the wort and add enough water to make 5 gal of wort. Pitch the yeast into the 5 gal of wort and ferment at 65 °F (18 °C). After one and a half to two weeks, rack the beer off the sediment and allow it to sit for another week or two. Prime the beer with 1¼ cups of light or amber dry malt extract and bottle or keg. Let it sit for a few weeks — then enjoy!
A new approach to smoked beer seems to be catching on in the United States. Brewing are adding smoke flavor to classic beer styles to create beers with new flavors and characters. Porter is one type that seems to be favored among brewers inclined to add smoke to their brew. Alaskan Smoked Porter, for example, has a loyal following. The Vermont Pub and Brewery, a brewpub in Burlington, Vermont, serves an excellent smoked porter. It was this beer that introduced me to craft beers and the beer world.
Other popular styles to which brewers are adding smoke flavor are brown ales and Altbiers. The smoke flavor seems to blend better with darker beers than with golden and lighter beers. In contrast, few stouts have claimed a smoke flavor, perhaps because of the robust flavor inherent in the style. The smoke flavor would have to be very intense to be perceived over the roasted malt and other dark malt characteristics of a stout.
If you have a great beer recipe, chances are it will also work to make a great smoke-flavored beer. If you are making an all-grain beer, smoke one-quarter to two-thirds of the malt by the process described in the recipes (see boxes). You want to leave enough untampered malt to ensure proper starch conversion. Darker malts that have no diastatic powers are always the best choice for starters. Smoke a quarter of the grain bill for a light smoky character, half the grain bill for an assertive smoky character and two-thirds for a very aggressive smoky character.
For extract brewers, plan to use a liquid smoke extract to achieve your smoked flavor; 1 teaspoon in 5 gal of brew provides a light smoky character, 2 teaspoons an assertive character, and 3 teaspoons a very aggressive character.
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