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.
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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.