I could think of few better ways to open up Food Republic’s 3rd annual Grilling Month beer coverage than with a selection that’s literally held to the flame. Smoked beers are of a style steeped in rich history, but their flavor, best described as an acquired taste, has rendered them nearly extinct. Thankfully, though, they have been kept alive by a small number of breweries that view smoked malt not as relic of ancient process, but an art form that should be given its due.
Smoked malt in beer can be traced back more than two centuries. The intense smoky flavor that defines the style was born not out of preference but out of necessity, as the malt had to be air-dried or smoked before it could be used for brewing. Smoking malt to prepare it for brewing was especially popular in England in traditional porters, and in Germany, where an entire style called Rauchbier (or smoked beer) was developed. Also popular in Germany was the tart and smoky Lichtenhainer weisse beer. It didn’t stop there: Poland’s Grodziskie (which is also tart and smoky) is made of 100% smoked wheat and Scotland’s Scotch Ale (or Wee Heavy as they’re traditionally called) is made with a heavy dose of peat smoked malt.
Bamberg, Germany still carries the torch for German smoked beers, and many American breweries are rallying around the style, some taking the smoked concept to extremes: see Rogue Brewery’s Voodoo Doughnut Maple Bacon Ale. The style isn’t easy to execute, so while there are some great examples, there are also plenty of duds — beers that can make you imagine what it’d be like to drink liquefied ashes from a fireplace. While the smoke can be intense, it shouldn’t deter you. Seriously, if you’re a real grilling fan and you haven’t ventured into the world of smoked beers, you owe it to yourself to check out these six winners:
1. Brauerei Heller-Trum’s Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen
Any discussion of smoked beer is practically mandated to start and end with Brauerei Heller-Trum’s Aecht Schlenkerla. As the name indicates (Aecht means “original”) this is true smoked beer right down to kilning the malt. Prepare yourself: this beer is smoky but at 5.4% it’s highly drinkable, too! This traditional Rauchbier (“smoked beer”) has a smell and taste similar to smoked meats or even salmon, but there’s a bit of malty sweetness to balance things out. This is an experience you owe yourself to have.
2. HaandBryggeriet’s Royk Uten ild (“Smoke without fire”)
HaandBryggeriet (still trying to figure out how to pronounce that) is known for its funky and dark beers. “Smoke without fire” is an excellent description for this beer, since they don’t smoke their own malt but get it from master malters in Bamberg. Royk Uten ild is more mesquite-flavored and oaky than the intense bacon/smoked meatiness of the Aecht beers. It’s also deliciously well-balanced — malty with a little wheat flavor and a touch of hops — but at 8%, it can pack a sneaky punch.
3. Stone Brewing Company’s Smoked Porter with Vanilla Beans
If heavy, intense layered smoke (the kind that makes you think you just drank carbonated bacon) isn’t for you, try something on the other end of the spectrum. The original Stone Smoked Porter is a classic in its own right. The addition of vanilla beans turns the base smoked porter into a sweet treat with a hint of chocolate and just a little smoke and bitterness on the end. At 5.9%, it makes a perfect dessert pairing without the knockout punch of higher ABV dessert beers.
4. Captain Lawrence Brewing Company’s Smoked Porter
An American porter only by geographic location, Captain Lawrence uses imported German smoked malt to add depth and flavor to the beer. It has notes of smoked wood and roasted malt rather than the meaty flavors of its European counterparts, and won’t overpower the palate. At 6.4%, the alcohol is well-hidden and it’s got an overall sweet taste with hints of dark chocolate and a little coffee bitterness, too. It would work very well to complement a meaty meal.
5. Professor Fritz Briem’s Piwo Grodziskie
We’ve recommended the grodziskie style before, and its resurgence shows that it’s far more than a novelty. This great example is brewed in collaboration between Schlossbrauerei Au and Dr. Fritz Briem, credited for the resurgence of several historical styles such as Gruet and traditional Berliner Weisse. While other grodziskie beers might have a more pronounced tart smoked quality, this all-wheat ale has a great balance of both without overwhelming the palate. At 4%, it’s also low enough to drink all day, which you’ll want to do with this refreshing historical style.
6. The Orkney Brewery’s Skull Splitter
A different beast altogether with a much higher ABV (this one clocks in at 8.5%) the Scotch Ale/Wee Heavy style originally from Scotland is made with smoked peat malt: think single-malt Scotch. Sweet dark fruit characters like cherries, raisins and figs hit you right away with a bit of citrus in the hop and alcohol in the finish. It’s got a great balance of earthy, peaty flavor from the malt blended with caramel sweetness. An excellent example of a traditional Scottish style, which is becoming increasingly popular with U.S. brewers.
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