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Smokin’ Brews: Rauchbier in Portland

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Smoking Malt - Photo by "SNOB" Ritch Marvin © The New School

Smoking Malt – Photo by “SNOB” Ritch Marvin © The New School

Rauchbier – literally, “smoke beer” in German – isn’t so much a style as a method that can be used to make a wide variety of beer styles. The primary ingredient is malt that has been kilned (dried) over a wood-fueled fire, a method that was common before indirect malt kilning was invented. The resulting malt typically has strong, smoky aromas and flavors that reflect the character of the type of wood used for fuel, and beer brewed with smoked malt will also exhibit these aromas and flavors. Brewers can choose proportions of smoked malt to blend with conventional malts, thus controlling the level of smoky character in a given beer.

The benchmark for the smokiest of lagers is the famous Schlenkerla series of lagers brewed in Bamberg, Germany, by the family-owned and -run Brauerei Heller. Schlenkerla Märzen is widely known beyond Bamberg, where the famous Schlenkera Tavern pours rauchbier pretty much as it has for centuries, by gravity direct from the barrel. It is profoundly smoky, and first-time tasters swear it has elements of ham and bacon, with an umami touch in the aroma. This is a by-product of using beechwood to kiln the malt; beechwood is also used for smoking ham and bacon after all. Schlenkerla’s line includes other beers, including a smoky Weizen that still reveals fruity and clove aromas typical of German wheat beers; Ur-Bock, a profoundly malty and smoky dark strong lager; Eiche (Oak), a version brewed with 100% oak-smoked malt; seasonal specialties like Fastenbier (brewed for Lent) and Kräusen (mature beer blended with younger “green” beer for lightness and effervescence, typically a summertime refresher); and the curious Helles, the only Schlenkerla lager brewed without any smoked malt, yet still with subtle smoky aromas and background flavors. We’ll get back to Schlenkerla Helles in a bit.

 

Smoke and Beer. Photo by "SNOB" Ritch Marvin © The New School

Smoke and Beer. Photo by “SNOB” Ritch Marvin © The New School

 

American brewers have picked up the art of brewing with smoked malt in recent years. One example that has attracted a lot of attention over the years is the Smoked Porter from Alaskan Brewing. Given its relatively isolated location in Juneau, Alaskan has to be as self-sufficient as possible, so when they decided to create their Smoked Porter, they smoked their own malt, using alder, a wood typically used for smoking salmon, so the beer carries a smokey note that is reminiscent of smoked salmon. This Smoked Porter has a fruity note too, the result of being a top-fermented ale, and has gone on to be a modern American classic rauchbier.

Oregon brewers have also gotten into the act. The award-winning Rogue Smoke Ale was part of the Rogue Ales lineup in the past. Currently, smoky brews are being featured by Breakside, Upright Brewing, The Commons Brewery, and the Green Dragon Brew Crew. Other Oregon brewers have also featured smoky beers; Caldera Brewing has released a Rauch Ur Bock in the past, and Heater Allen has released Rauch Dunkel and Smoky Bob, rauchbier versions of their Dunkel and Bobtoberfest lagers.

 

Hand smoking malt for Upright Brewing's annual smoked lager

Hand smoking malt for Upright Brewing’s annual smoked lager

 

The Upright Applewood Smoked Helles Bock is a finely balanced blend of house-smoked malts with more conventional pale malts. The resulting lager is a fine, well-balanced expression of gentle smoke aromas with malt flavors, and is yet another example that Upright is one excellent lager brewer. So far, this is on draught at the Upright taproom and at Salt and Straw, the latter offering some excellent beer-worthy food to go with this smoky brew. It’s a rich beer, fine for sipping on a fall evening.

 

Upright Apple Wood Smoked Helles Bock

Upright Apple Wood Smoked Helles Bock

 

The Commons Rauch Helles is strongly reminiscent of Schlenkerla Helles, and that’s a good thing. Smoke is subtle, not at all overwhelming, and also nicely balanced with the malts. It’s currenly on tap at the Commons taproom, and goes very well with a plate of the charcuterie and cheese from the excellent Cheese Annex kitchen. Schlenkerla Helles is an anomaly; even though it’s brewed without any smoked malt, the beer is fermented with the house lager yeast – which yields a smoky phenol in fermentation – and has to run through the brewery’s systems, with have acquired a smoky “taint” over the years. The Commons had to use a small proportion of Weyermann smoked malt to add that subtle smoky touch, and the result is quite convincing. It’s a good introduction to rauchbier.

 

Rauch Helles at the Commons

Rauch Helles at the Commons

 

Breakside’s Fall Apple Ale used to use the descriptor “Smoky” in the past, but is choosing to de-emphasize that in the name with this year’s release. It’s a multifaceted brew, hinting at autumn harvest flavors with apple fruit, adding just enough spices to suggest a mulled apple cider without tasting like “spice soup,” and brewed with just enough smoked malt to give the subtlest of smoky notes in the background, meant to be reminiscent of an autumn fire on a cool evening. It’s even more subtle than the Commons’ Rauch Helles, a good introduction to smoky beers, and a reminder that Breakside’s brewers are skilled in crafting balanced, flavorful beers.

 

Breakside Fall Apple Ale

Breakside Fall Apple Ale

The Green Dragon Brew Crew Smoked Porter is much more assertive, not unlike the famous Alaskan Smoked Porter. This is one for those who are fond of smoky flavors and aromas, which are abundant and nearly crawl out of the glass. Enjoy this with the Green Dragon’s pub food, or savor it on its own.

 

Green Dragon Brew Crew Smoked Porter

Green Dragon Brew Crew Smoked Porter

 

More smoky brews are on the horizon, as fresh hop season is waning and pumpkin beer season is peaking. A Smoked Helles makes its debut at Fat Head’s brewery dinner on October 20th, and should be on tap there afterwards. Autumn is already a season for fresh-hop ales, Oktoberfest lagers, and pumpkin beers; add smoky rauchbiers to that list. Get out there and taste them all!

 

smoking malt - Photo by "SNOB" Ritch Marvin © The New School

smoking malt – Photo by “SNOB” Ritch Marvin © The New School

Don Scheidt has been into good beer since before the dawn of craft brewing in the Pacific Northwest. He created the Northwest Brewpage, a regional guide to good beer in Oregon and Washington, back in the mid-1990s, but has since retired it. Don started writing the Washington state “Puget Soundings” column for Celebrator Beer News in 1998, and continues to do that today. Don also wrote about beer for the Seattle Weekly in 2005-2006.

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