The brewers of Germany are best-known for clean lagers and fragrant hefeweizens, but this is but a small part of their contribution to the current craft beer landscape. Today our journey through beer history takes us to Bamberg, Germany, an ancient town located near the center of Deutschland known as the world capital of rauchbier brewing.
Some translation is in order: "rauchbier" is a German word meaning “smoked beer,” a designation given to any brew imbued with the vaporous flavor of rauch malt. Unlike most malted barley, which is dried and toasted to differing degrees through the circulation of hot air, rauch malt is set above an open fire of dried wood. As the smoke rises from the lumber, it permeates the barley husks, imbuing the malt with campfire flavor.
This is a very old method of malting, but is de rigueur at the most famous of Bamberg’s breweries, Schlenkerla. In operation since 1405, when it was a pub known as Zum Blauen Löwen (“At the Blue Lion”), the brewery’s legal name is HellerBräu Trum KG, after the Trum family that’s owned and run it for six generations. It’s much better-known, locally and abroad, as Schlenkerla. More translation: "Schlenkerla" is Bamberg slang for “Schlenkerer,” a German word denoting a person who tends to swing his arms while walking. Customers of the Blue Lion gave this nickname to Andreas Graser, who owned the place in the late 1800s, and began referring to both the pub and the beers produced there by his slinky epithet. Way to lean into that nickname, Andy.
The best-selling and most emblematic of Schlenkerla’s beers is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen, a hazy lager the color of dark cherries made with the brewery’s own beechwood-smoked malt. The “aecht” part of the name is derived from the German word “echt,” meaning “original” or “true.”
“True” is that this will be one of the smokiest beers you’ll ever smell, with notes of campfire fumes amidst salty beef jerky, caramelized pork and a background of cocoa powder. It's captivating, drawing you back for additional whiffs. Charred wood saturates the tongue upon a sip, delivering additional puffs of smoked malt and salty bacon paired with faint hints of cocoa and a subtle sweetness that follows through into the finish. The flavor's not quite as intense as the aroma, but considering the thorniness of that bouquet, this might be a good thing. The body — smooth and soft — has a light, pleasant finish that works well in balancing the flavor.
While the märzen is the most common of Schlenkerla’s rauchbiers, it’s far from the only one the brewery produces. Fans of liquid smoke should also seek out the Schlenkerla Urbock, Doppelbock, and hefeweizen — all of which pair intense smoke with each style’s unique flavor profiles. Perhaps most interesting is the brewery’s Helles Lagerbier, which uses no rauch malt; instead, yeast used to make the much smokier Märzen is repitched, imparting soot-like notes absorbed in the previous batch.
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