Man has brewed beer for more than a millennium—perhaps even since the Neolithic period—but the stuff we drink today tastes very different from the brews our ancestors drank. Before the technological advances of the early 19th century, all beer was smoked, which meant a meaty, barbecued flavor in every beer, at every festivity.
These days, smoked beers are all the heck over the place; several American brewers have released new ones over the last two decades.
We asked Pat Fahey, the youngest of the world’s seven master cicerones (think: sommelier, but for beer), to explain the difference between smoked and not-so-smoked beer:
“When you go through the malting process, the last step is a drying and roasting stage,” Fahey explained. “Because [brewers before the 19th century] were doing that with direct heat, it would impart a smoky flavor to the malt.” Brewers eventually discovered a way to roast the malt without using direct heat, using a kiln to keep the malt farther from the flames, and mainstream beer lost its smoky flavor.
Of the smoked brews currently available, Fahey digs the Smoked Porter from Stone Brewing Company, which was at the forefront of the current revival. “[Porter] is kind of chocolatey-roasted already, and [the smoke] blends nice in the flavor profile,” Fahey said.
He also likes a smoked rye doppelbock whimsically named “Charkoota Rye” from New Holland Brewing. “It’s definitely more aggressive on the smoked character, but pairs very well with charcuterie.”
In some parts of the world, smoked beer never disappeared at all. The German city of Bamberg is known for its signature rauchbier, a medium-bodied beer brewed with a beechwood-smoked malt.
Fahey favors the smoked brews from Bamberg’s Schlenkerla brewery (try saying that three times fast), which are, luckily, available stateside. If you’re still unsure about this whole smoked beer thing, he suggests trying the brewery’s very lightly smoked Aecht Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier.
“If you’re trying to dip your toes in the water and experiment with smoked beer, it’s a nice way to test out the flavors,” Fahey said, adding, “without feeling like you’re drinking liquid bacon.”
Cheers to that. Apparently you can have your barbecue and drink it, too.
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