Walking down the streets of Bamberg, you can almost feel yourself heading back in time. Its historical architecture envelops you as you stroll over waterways on bridges and narrow streets. This city is also home to a beer style that refuses to let go of the past. As Jeff Alworth said in his book The Beer Bible on this subject: “If you want to experience the taste of beer from several centuries ago, Rauchbier is a good place to start.”
“Rauch” means smoke in German. There was a time when all beer was smoky as a result of now-antiquated malting techniques. After being perfected for centuries, the smoke aroma and taste is imparted by drying malt over burning beechwood. The actual process is kept close to their chest and involves burning the right amount of wood to fill the smokehouse and has been calculated to impart the proper amount of smokiness. Two breweries in Bamberg still produce this historic beer, Schlenkerla and Spezial, and they are only a short 12-minute walk apart.
Since the development of coke as fuel used to dry malt around the mid 1700s and other improvements in malting technologies, the smoke character in finished malt has been pretty much eradicated. But not in places like Scotland, for instance, where peat smoke is an essential character of Scotch. This is also true in some old-time beverages from Sweden, Poland, Northern Germany, and elsewhere. In Bamberg, Germany, the ancient way of doing things lives on in the various Rauchbiers.
Rauchbier is more of a process, although we can specify it as a style. The most popular is essentially a Marzen, usually produced by using rauchmalt for most of the grain bill. The two Bamberg breweries produce other styles with smokiness, and they are still considered Rauchbier, but with the underlying style identified. These are mainly lager styles, namely Helles, Marzen, and Doppelbock. As soon as you get past the initial campfire nose, the delicate sweet malt and crisp lager finish shows itself. One could essentially produce any style with a smoked component, but it may not be considered a Rauchbier for some of us purists. That’s not to discourage creativity, however. There are wonderful examples of smoked beer styles, such as smoked porters, that are very pleasant.
There’s something special about the way smoke flavors mingle with food. It could be a hardwired notion in our brains to that associates it with food, especially meat, cooked over fire as we did for hundreds of thousands of years. The aroma of smoke and flavors of meats harmonize perfectly, and this is not more apparent than with good barbecue. Pork and smoke combine perfectly, and the sweet malt only adds more depth. Mexican food, especially anything made with roasted chiles, are a fine pairing. Asian dishes with caramelized flavors find affinity with the smoldery notes and the bready malt flavors. Smoked fish? Of course! It is a versatile and a food-friendly style.
Unfortunately, a locally produced Rauchbier lager is quite rare. You can support your local bottle shops, like Provisions in Orange, Bradley’s in Tustin, Hi-Time in Costa Mesa, Mr. K’s in Placentia, Windsor in Costa Mesa, and others. Check them out and search for either Schlenkerla or Spezial. Up north, Enegren Brewing in Moorpark has an award-winning Rauchbier called The Big Meat, and it should be available at some shops here in O.C. Also, be on the lookout at your local brewery or pub for any Rauchbier. Maybe if enough of us ask for it, they will produce one.
Editor’s note: Charlie Perez is an Advanced Cicerone® who covers the Orange County beer scene for the Booze Blog.