Judging Beers by Sam Fitz – Vol. 4: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier

Sam Fitz is a Certified Cicerone® and the Beer Director at Meridian Pint and soon to open Smoke & Barrel. Read Sam’s take on Jolly Pumpkin Artisanal Ales here.

You won’t believe it’s not bacon beer. Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier comes from the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage town of Bamberg, Germany and is a portal into the beer days of old. Beechwood-smoked malt lends the beer a bizarre aroma that can range from a mild campfire smokiness to an all-out bacon attack that will make any vegetarian cringe. There’s no meat in this one though, just the perception conjured by Old World brewing techniques.

Malt is the base of any beer and, in simplest terms, is grain that has been readied for brewing. In a process called “malting”, grains, primarily barley, are soaked in water, allowed to grow to a certain point, and then terminated with heat. Today’s brewers generally skip this step and purchase their malt from maltings, large facilities that process huge quantities of malt. Direct-fire kilns are used and little flavor, other than degrees of roastiness, is added to the malt.

Schlenkerla, which means the little one that can’t walk straight, is a brewpub in Bamberg that hasn’t changed much in its 700 years of operation. The brewers still maintain their own maltings and utilize a wood-fired kiln. This is the entirety of their secret. Smoke from the wood engulfs the malt as it dries, infusing it with flavors more expected in charcuterie than beer. Beechwood, the local fuel source in Bamberg, is known for its meaty smoke and is Schlenkerla’s wood of choice.

Everything about Schlenkerla is old school. They have been brewing out of the same facility since the Middle Ages, lager their beers in natural caves below the city, and pour their Rauchbier at the brewery from oak casks powered by gravity. Aecht Rauchbier means “the original German smoke beer,” and Schlenkerla certainly deserves that title.

Continues after the jump.

Schlenkerla makes a number of beers that range in smokiness. The Helles Lagerbier is the lightest and actually employs no smoked malt. It is a light golden color and has a pleasant noble hop character that is balanced by a subtle smokiness that the brewery attributes to the fact that this beer is made in the same copper kettles in which they form their true smoke beers. It is light in body and remarkably drinkable. More than just a beginner Rauchbier, the Helles is an everyday beer that is interesting but incredibly quaffable.

For the real experience, though, you must turn to the Marzen and the Urbock, both of which utilize smoked malt entirely. The first is the original, light brown in color, with an ample malt sweetness to compete with the smoke. The second is the heavy hitter–darker, heavier, sweeter and of course smokier than the Marzen. If you’re looking to try bacon beer, this is the one.

The nose of the Urbock brings heavily salted meat, bacon and prosciutto to mind, and there is very little else. The taste confirms the smell but has a subtle, clean hop bitterness that attempts to balance this beast. In the finish, illusions of meat fade into a warming campfire smoke presence that is interesting in its own right.

Whether you find the Rauchbiers of Bamberg interesting, offensive, or awesome, they are a glimpse of beer from another era and should be sampled at least once. Bacon, or at least its essence, isn’t just for breakfast any more.

30 Comment

  • I’m wondering if Sam gives talks — you know, a lecture with a tasting component. Sort of like what you get on a wine tour. I’d pay money for a beer education…

  • This beer is So Amazing in a chili. If you put it into veggie chili, you get the bacon flavor without the meat, and it’s really excellent.

  • So is it available at Meridian Pint errr…?

  • The Urbock is one of the greatest beers in the world. Liquid smokey bacon in a bottle.

  • Actually went to Bamberg once and had it on tap, probably just out of the brewery. Strange that it didn’t taste nearly as Slim Jim-ish as it does coming out of a bottle.

  • claire

    I had one of these before, not sure if it was the urbock or marzen, but I remember it being way too smoky for my tastes. I love bacon (no, really, I save all my bacon fat and add it to almost everything), but it was pure campfire coming off this beer. I think it would be really good to cook with (as mentioned by a previous commenter) or perhaps even in some sort of beer cocktail (mix with some whiskey and cider perhaps?), but I don’t see myself drinking it plain again . . . okay, well, let’s be fair, I’ll probably still give it a second chance.

  • It really is amazing when you think of the meticulous and painstakingly traditional steps they go through in order to make this terrible, terrible tasting beer.

    Rauchbier is the German’s “marmite”. Only bad.

  • This smoked beer is like a salami in a glass. Definitely an acquired taste. A good beginner smoked beer is Shiner Smokehaus:


  • I love beer. I love bacon. I love eating bacon while drinking beer. I love drinking beer while eating bacon. That all said, rauchbier is a nasty, unholy concoction that should be returned to the Germans and never mentioned again.

  • We will have one Schlenkerla draft at all times. Additionally, we will have one of the authentic oak Marzen casks gravity pouring on the bar opening night!

  • One of my favorite beers. I remember sitting in Brickskeller in 1999 trying to get my friends to take a second sip of the Urbock. I understand how it can be a bit too smoky for some. But those who can appreciate it get a beer like no others in both nose and smoke complexity.

    Last week they had the beloved gravity kegs of Aecht Schlenkerla Marzen and Kaeusen at Max’s for the annual German festival.

    Fantastic as always Sam.

  • andy

    this sounds like a winner for brunch. if bacon goes with eggs, so should this. right?

  • austindc

    Okay, so there’s no bacon in it. . . but. . . but it would be okay to dip my bacon in it, right?

  • Ah, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier. Back in my training days as a beer snob me and a few other friends participated in a mug list. Aecht was infamous in it deterrent flavor, and I honestly winced as I drank it. I approached it years later, with many more beers under my belt, and can now appreciate its strong flavor and actually have a craving every now and then. Definitely not a regular purchase.

    Pair it with a plate of bold cheeses (not mild, you’ll wash out the cheese flavor) and/or charcuterie.

  • ledroittiger

    Churchkey generally has a couple of rauchbiers on tap – a good place to get an intro with a 4 oz glass, rather than committing to a full pour. They probably have the Schlenkerla in bottle as well.

  • It would be useful to include a short list at the bottom of each beer post with a few places where the reader can locate these beers in DC. Presumably Meridian Pint and Smoke Barrel would be good bets, but since this is a city blog as well as a lifestyle blog, a little more location detail would be awesome. Thanks to the commenters who chimed in with suggestions about where to get it!

    • RFD always has this and I think Church Key does as well. I have picked it up a d’vines as well but I haven’t seen it there lately.

  • You can pick up a bottle for home consumption at D’vine’s. Haven’t see it anywhere else. Then again, I haven’t been to a lot of quality distributors in the area.

  • Good work Sam! Are there any American smoked beers you recommend?

  • If you can find it Alaskan Smoked Porter is pretty great. Rogue Smoke Ale is available in this market and was created by Alaskan’s old brewer.

  • Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier is a fascinating beverage… just not one I need to have again. It has, admittedly, been years since I first tried it at The Brickskeller — and while I’m glad I gave it a whirl, and I do like the occasional funky brew (e.g., Dogfish Head’s “Midas Touch”) it was just too un-beery for me to enjoy.

    Regardless, I enjoyed Sam’s post, and love the selections at Meridian. Looking forward to more!

  • For the seemingly small audience who both enjoy smoked beer and find themselves periodically in the middle distance of Falls Church, we over at Sweetwater Tavern & Brewery in Merrifield (Rt. 50 & Gallows Rd.) will be tapping our Chipotle Smoked Porter in about two weeks. It is brewed on site and features all of the above mentioned flavors plus a kick of heat from 2 lbs. of chipotle peppers. It’s a love it or hate it type of deal. It will likely also be making an appearance at the Capitol City Oktoberfest in Shirlington 10/8.

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