What is rauchbier? The beer world’s answer to peated whisky

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Story by Mikey Lowe
Photograph by Christopher Pearce

Our go-to beer guide, Mikey Lowe finds the answer to the question: what is rauchbier?

Have you ever had an idea you thought would change the way we do things only to find that not only are you not the first, you are not the first by a vast number of people?

Beginning my beer pilgrimage, I had my lofty ideas; watershed moments to press my mark. I figured, “Well I’ve pre-smoked cocktails with just about every legal substance, why not beer as well?” Much like when I invented Google Maps several years too late, researching the use of smoking malts prior to fermentation led me to discover a 600 year old recipe from Bamberg.

So, then, what is rauchbier?

One of the most interesting lagers, rauchbier is also most opinion-dividing. (Rauch means smoke, just by the by.)

Bamberg, Germany is the brewing centre of this style where monastic breweries held sway over body and soul. Rauchbiers use malts that have been kilned over an open flame with local beechwood. The phenols carry over into the final product, imparting on it a smoky flavour: baconesque, when these beers have residual sugars or sweetness, and a dry campfire flavour when the beer is drier.

Kilning the malts retards the necessary germination process in which enzymes of the grain break down non-fermentable starch into fermentable sugars. The heat applied halts the process before the grain germinates fully, using its entire store of sugar in the process — much like it does in Scotch
whisky production.

Smoke techniques have gained favour amidst the craft boom. Whilst some taste like Lagavulin was slam-dunked into my VB, others are certainly more appealing, like rich porters and stouts which favour smokiness well.

(This is generally due to their flavour notes reflecting my love of bacon.)

Lighter styles tend towards that taste you awaken to after you’ve smoked all your Marlboros.

Truly, these are an acquired taste, and one in which I am happy to leave to the professionals, as my first attempt tasted like a wet ashtray anyways.

rauch-bier-options

Brauerei Heller-Trum Schlenkerla, Germany: Schlenkerla is old Bamberg dialect for someone who walks with a strange, stooped gait. I’ve just finished one, duly noted. Easy to source here in Australia if seeking style comparison against a classic.

Blackman’s Brewery ‘Arthur Smoked Porter‘, Victoria: Claimed to be an English style with burgeoning rich and dark flavours. A smoked porter that comes a little dry, offering tasteful access to it’s smoked malt flavours.