Smoked Beers have their origins in Germany in the 1500s. According to legend a brewery burned down during the drying process, the barley was rescued and used which resulted in a beer with smoky, bacon like flavor. In reality smoked beers came about when malted barley was dried over an open flame as an alternative to sunlight. As the process of kiln drying gained popularity with the advancement of the industrial age the open flame method died out. Although smoked beers have waned in popularity there are two brewries located in the town of Bamberg, Germany that carry on the ancient tradition of using beechwood to produce smoked beer or Rauchbier.
Located in the area of Franconia in Northern Bavaria, Bamberg is one of the few German towns not destroyed in World War II. The area is home to nine brewries and to the Schlenkerla Tavern. Perhaps the most famous brewpub in the world noted for its architecture as well as its beer the Schlenkerla Tavern was most likely given its name from the German word schlenkern meaning dangling. The former owner and brew master Andreas Graser had a limp, or dangling leg and today images of the limping brewer can be seen in the sign hanging over the entrance to the pub and on the label of Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier. The brew is now produced by Heller-Bräu Trum KG and is considered to be the arch-type of smoked beers. Characterized by an intense smoked meat taste and smell, dark amber color with 5.40% alcohol by volume, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier is the only rauchbier available in the United States.
The second brewery, Braureri Spezial, is located in the heart of Bamberg and was founded in 1536 making it Europe’s oldest rauchbier brewery. Braureri Spezial smokes its own malted barley in house and uses 70% of the grain to brew Märzen Rauchbier, which is characterized as being smooth, easy to drink with a subtle sweetness. As of this writing, Braureri Spezial products are only available in Germany.
Rauchbier is an acquired taste and is starting to regain its popularly with several brewries outside of Bamberg producing beers with a smoked flavor. In the United States look for products from the Sully Brewing Company, Alaskan Brewing Company and O’Fallon Brewery and other similar microbreweries to explore smoked beers until you can make the journey to Bamberg, Germany to experience a one of kind beer first hand.