Steeped in history and tradition, yet challenging to appreciate, rauchbier (literally “smoked beer”) has, for much of the craft beer boom, resisted a revival. The style is brewed with malt or wheat that’s been smoked over beechwood or oak, resulting in a beer that’s decidedly not for everyone. But, despite its assertively smoky flavor—or perhaps because of it—rauchbier is having a moment.
The city of Bamberg, Germany, takes pride in claiming to be the birthplace of the style. One local legend tells of a cloister that caught fire and burned to the ground, sparing only the brewhouse and a reserve of malted grain which, having been exposed to smoke, subsequently gave the local beer its distinctive flavor. The tale is mostly hogwash, though; most beer made before the advent of modern malting technology likely expressed some level of smokiness from the kilning process. Nevertheless, Bamberg remains the cultural epicenter of rauchbier, though the style is gaining popularity in a number of brewing circles.
In many ways, rauchbier represents the polar opposite of the current craft beer zeitgeist, which has embraced the mass appeal of fruited slushy sours, soft and juicy New England IPAs and saccharine pastry stouts. The rising stock of rauchbier—whose flavor is divisive and anything but sweet—could be attributed, in part, to an inevitable backlash to the status quo. Paired with a certain underdog status and niche reputation, rauchbier ticks all the boxes of beer snob catnip.
“A double, triple IPA with twigs and berries in it… that’s too much,” says Chip McElroy, founder of Austin’s Live Oak Brewing Co. “But a smoked beer? They’re just good beers that you can actually drink.”
McElroy has been making smoked beers at Live Oak since 2011 and routinely has three to four offerings in his taproom at any given time, and sometimes up to half a dozen. “Our philosophy is [that] the base beer has to be right. It shouldn’t be overwhelmed with smoke.”
Today, smoked beers are more popular than ever, and there are even groups dedicated to boosting the profile of the esoteric style. For example, This Week in Rauchbier, a Facebook group with over 1,000 members, many of whom are brewers, is dedicated to spreading the gospel of smoked beer with travelogues from Bamberg, pictures of local smoked beer releases and esoteric memes about smoked malts.
Modern rauchbiers come in all varieties of colors and flavors, from delicate, straw-colored lagers to surly, pitch-black stouts and everything in between. They can be bright and crisp—the effervescent Grodziskie, native to Poland, boasts Champagne-like bubbles—or dark and brooding, like the smoked imperial stouts of Iceland’s Ölvisholt brewery. But lagers tend to be the primary domain for rauchbier; the textbook example of the category is the 5.1 percent ABV amber Märzen lager from Bamberg’s famed Aecht Schlenkerla, which tastes bold and assertive with a dry, in-your-face smokiness balanced by a touch of malty sweetness.
The smoke character itself also varies, ranging from faint wisps of smokiness to bellowing campfire flavors in the glass depending on the quantity of smoked malt used in the mash. But smokiness can also be derived from the yeast. Some yeasts “absorb” the smoke flavor from the liquid, taming even a beer brewed with 100 percent smoked malt, but if that same yeast is propagated and repitched to ferment a beer made without smoked malts, it can pass along the smokiness it’s absorbed.
The same quality that sets rauchbier apart from other beer styles is what makes it so polarizing. Most detractors describe the beers as tasting repulsive, like Band-Aids or stale ashtrays. Enthusiasts, on the other hand, fully embrace the smoldering earthiness.
To Dusan Kwiatkowski, head brewer at Live Oak, drinkers’ embrace of rauchbier is only a matter of time and exposure. “People come to our taproom and think they don’t like smoked beers,” he says, “but once their palates adjust to the flavor, they can’t get enough.”