What is a Rauchbier?
Rauchbier, or “smoke beer” is a German amber lager with a richly toasted malt profile, restrained bitterness and a low to high smoke profile. Historically, the distinctive smoke character in rauchbier was achieved through smoking malted barley over a fire from beechwood logs.
History of Rauchbier
There is much folklore surrounding the origin of rauchbier, most famously that it came about accidentally in the aftermath of a cloister fire. According to the tale, the fire had destroyed most of the cloister, but part of the brewhouse and much of malt, had been spared. The malt had been exposed to a great deal of smoke, but the cash-strapped brewer was forced to brew with it anyway. Contrary to everyone’s worst expectations, this beer tasted so good that it quickly became a sought-after beer style.
The real story is, of course, much more mundane. Prior to the advent of kilning technology, green malt had to be dried, before it could be crushed and mashed. In warmer climates, it was possible to dry grain in the sun, but in colder regions of Northern Europe, green malt was most often dried through the heat of an open fire.
Evolution of Malt Production
In 1818, Daniel Wheeler patented the drum kiln, revolutionizing the ability to dry malt without direct exposure to a flame. The kiln used a clean burning fuel and continuous circulation of hot air to dry the malt. The hot air kiln meant that maltsters could produce a uniform roast, while eliminating the undesired smoky flavours. By the mid-19th century, raunchbier had all but disappeared from the brewing world.
Schlenkerla & Spezial
For over a century, two brewpubs in Bamberg, Germany, Schlenkerla and Spezial, have continued this style of smoked beer production, by kilning malt over open flames from beechwood logs. From around 1935, these two Bamberg breweries were the only ones who remained true to the traditional way of producing smoked beer, solidifying rauchbier as a regional specialty. Both breweries are still operating in Bamberg, alongside seven newer breweries. Now famous for brewing in accordance with the old tradition, Bamberg is the celebrated home of authentic rauchbier.
Schlenkerla brewery is well-regarded for setting the gold standard of the rauchbier style – a märzen lager base with a bold, assertive smokiness balanced by a touch of malty sweetness.
While this prototypical example is intensely smoky, the smoke character in rauchbier can range from faint hints of smokiness to raging bonfire flavors. Aside from rauchbier, other examples of smoked beers are based on other German styles such as bock, weissbier, dunkel, schwarzbier, and helles. If you enjoy peated scotches, smoked meats, or that roasty toasty campfire smell, rauchbier may be just the beer for you. Even if you don’t, it’s worth a try – you may discover your new favourite brew.
(Leah is a Toronto based freelance writer as well as Head Beer Weenie and a server at C’est What)