Smoked Beer: A Primer

Aecht Schlenkerla

A few years ago I worked at a garden center on Long Island, hauling mums and pumpkins around for North Fork wine tourists. I became chummy with my manager who shared my love of food and drink. One evening at her house on Shelter Island, while eating oysters we pulled from the bay, she introduced me to rauchbier: smoked beer.

Smoked beers are brewed with malted barley that has been dried over an open flame, imparting varying levels of a rich, smoky flavor to the beer. They’re traditionally brewed in Germany and the smoked beer I was first introduced to, Brauerei Heller-Trum’s Aecht Schlenkerla, has been brewed for almost two centuries. The Aecht (Original) Schlenkerla is the classic smoked beer and a great place to start if you’ve never tried one before. I’ve always had good luck finding it in well-stocked and specialty beer stores. Schlenkerla’s beers are deeply smoky, but are a little malty with an ABV of 5.1% that leaves them more drinkable than other smoked beers. I spoke with Seáneen Sullivan, of L. Mulligan Grocer (Dublin) and The Brown Paper Bag Project for her recommendations on the best food to pair with your smoked beer of choice. Her first note says to pair Schlenkerla marzen with, of course, barbecue: “Strong BBQ flavors such as brisket and pork butt work well, as the darker malts echo the maillard reaction in cooking and the sweetness that lurks beneath the smoke provides a nice contrast.”

To really get into the world of smoked beer, I sat down with Mike Schilling, beer buyer of Northampton, Massachusetts’ Provisions, a fine wine, craft beer, and specialty food store that’s known for stocking the unusual and the sought after. Schilling not only knows his stuff, but he’s a damn fine home brewer as well and was quickly promoted to beer buyer at Provisions.

At the beginning of our conversation, Schilling was quick to remind me that there are smoked porters available from American breweries that are quite good. Stone Brewing Co. offers both a smoked porter and a smoked porter with vanilla bean or chipotle peppers. Their malts are peat-smoked and offer a heavier smoked flavor. It packs a punch, but in the best way possible. Sullivan turns to desserts for the sweeter smoked porters recommending creme brulee with its “vanilla creaminess playing off the dark roasted malts and the char of the caramelized sugar nuzzling up against the delicate smoke [of the beer].”

If you’re after the more unusual, Schilling recommends checking out Brett Peat Daydream from Italy’s Birrificio de Ducato. It’s a blend of three beers: a peated barley wine, a rauch marzen aged in Scotch barrels, and Brett ale aged for six months. It has a strong peaty flavor and a funky, sour taste. Because of its complexity, Sullivan says she would tend to drink it on its own or pair it with a mild goat cheese so you’re not distracted from the beer’s unique flavors.

Finally, Professor Fritz Briem Grodziskie is one of the only 100% smoked wheat beers on the market. It’s a dry, tart beer with a medium amount of smokiness. While this beer is unusual, it’s able to handle some more interesting food pairings. Sullivan says she has paired this style of beer with “bowls of steaming cockles and mussels, funky sheep cheeses and charred corn brushed with hop butter. It was also magic with unsmoked bacon jam on wedges of toasted sourdough. ”

Smoked beers are an awesome addition to your craft beer repertoire and they’re beginning to appear more frequently at craft beer bars across the country. This summer alone, I was able to order a different smoked beer in three different bars and restaurants across Northampton alone. Generally when I’ve found smoked beers on tap, they’re the more traditional style smoked beers or Stone’s smoked porter. A well-stocked craft beer store should have a variety of American and international smoked beer options if you want to explore the more sour, funky side of smoked beers and can’t find them on tap.

Image credit: Kurt Bauschardt/Flickr