Swill is our bi-monthly column dedicated to liquor, wine, beer, and every other delicious dram that falls under the broader umbrella of booze. But it’s more than just tasting notes scribbled on a cocktail napkin — Swill is about getting outside of your comfort zone, trying new things, and exploring the big, wide world of libations. One week you might catch us halfway through a bottle of single-malt scotch, and the week after that we might be buzzing on some Ugandan moonshine made from bananas. This column is just one big boozy adventure, so grab yourself a glass and join us for another round.
Smoke and beer go together like peanut butter and jelly. Actually, scratch that. Smoke and beer go together like cucumbers and vinegar. They’re okay by themselves, individually, but when mixed together and left to sit for a time, they create something greater than the sum of their parts. Smoked beer is f*$%ing awesome.
Despite being something of a rarity these days, smoked beer has actually been around for ages — arguably for just as long as plain ol’ beer has. Early brewers sometimes dried their malt over a wood fire, inadvertently imparting the grains with a subtle smokiness that carried through to the finished product. It was an accident at first, but it was tasty, so it stuck around. Even after brewing processes became more sophisticated and eliminated the necessity of fire-drying malt, brewers (particularly German ones) kept the tradition of smoking beer alive.
The awesome part is that now, thanks to the the craft beer explosion that’s been happening over the past decade, the category of smoked beer is wider than ever. Flavor profiles range from subtle and lightly smoked to full-on liquid charcoal in a bottle, so there’s something here for everyone. Here are a few good ones to get you started:
Smoked Porter — Stone Brewing Co (CA)
Widely regarded as one of the most approachable smoked beers in the game, Stone Brewing’s Smoked Porter is a great place to start if you’re new to smoked beer. It falls on the lighter end of the smoke spectrum, and is brewed with vanilla bean to give some creaminess that balances out the bitterness of the smoke. They also make a chipotle variation of the same brew, so if you’re in more of a spicy mood, check it out.
SmokeJumper Imperial Porter — Left Hand Brewing (CO)
Here’s another one for you folks who might be on the fence about smoky beer. It’s big, bold, and impossibly dark — but packs in plenty of creamy chocolate notes and only a moderate dose of smoke. Overall it’s really well balanced and drinkable,
Smoked Porter — Alaskan Brewing Co. (AK)
Alaskan has been making this brew in limited-edition batches every fall for more than 25 years, and they’ve got it down to a science. Definitely falls on the smokier end of the spectrum, but it’s a different kind of smoke flavor. Many of the most famous German smoked beers (rauschbiers) are smoked with beechwood, but Alaskan does theirs with alder. Oh, and they recommend pairing it with a slice of cheesecake, which sounds ridiculous.
Urbock — Aecht Schlenkerla (Germany)
So here’s the deal, Aecht Schelnkerla is one of the oldest and widely recognized purveyors of smoked beer in the world. They make three smoked beers: an urbock, a märzen and weizen. All of them are amazing, and should be on your bucket list of booze to sample. The urbock (the darkest one) isn’t for the faint of heart though — it’s super smoky and thick, and should be paired with something equally robust (most people suggest spicy asian food) for the best experience.
Smoke Ale — Rogue Brewing (OR)
We’ve given Rogue some rough reviews in the past, but make no mistake — these guys are some damn fine brewers. Smoke Ale is their take on a german-style rauschbier. It’s smoked with alder, and brewed with top-fermenting yeast, resulting in a crisp, dry ale that doesn’t bury the hop flavor with smoke. Good luck finding it anywhere though.