Ham. Sausage. Barbecue. Words that describe not just your favorite meals but your favorite beers? Absolutely.
Smoked beers are making a comeback, and yes, you read that right, a comeback. Smoked beers have been around for centuries, and as craft brewers begin experimenting with them, you’ll be more apt to find store shelves stocked with kielbasa-infused porters and hazy, smokey stouts.
At TapRm, we’ll be showcasing the most up-and-coming smoked beers created by craft brewers across the United States, bringing their charcoal-immersed goodness right to your door. Before putting on your grill-master apron and fire up the barbecue, let’s talk about what smoked beer is, its history, and how you can sample (and pair) some of the very best.
A Word About Beer Making
To fully understand and appreciate how smoked beer differs from other beer, you need to understand a bit about the beer-making process. All beer is generally created in a four-part process.
- Malting. Grains (normally barley, wheat, or rye) are dried, malted, and cracked to release their natural flavors. This process can be accomplished in several different ways, which we’ll cover in a moment.
- Mashing. The grains are then mashed with water to extract the plant flavonoids and phytochemicals that are necessary to perfect the flavor and fermentation of the beer. Water is added to the grains during the mashing process.
- Boiling. The mashed grains are then boiled so that the sugars in the grains are released. The mashed grains are then strained from the boil, leaving a sugar-water mix called the wort.
- Once the brewer has boiled the grains to achieve the desired level of sugar release, the wort is then ready for fermentation.
- Fermentation. At some point during or after the boil, yeast is added, and the fermentation process of the beer begins. Fermentation can vary depending on the type of beer being made. Ales, for instance, are top-fermented. Lagers are bottom-fermented. Sours are made through a process called wild fermentation.
It goes without saying that, depending on the beer being made, there are adjustments made to each phase of the beer-making process. To create a smoked beer, that adjustment is made during malting.
What Is a Smoked Beer?
Smoked beer can be any kind of beer that has a characteristic smoke aroma and flavor due to the use of malt that has been dried over an open flame. This means ales, lagers, and sours can all be considered smoked beers.
Centuries ago, all beer was smoked beer by default because an open flame was all that was available to properly dry and malt grain products. The malting process is what makes a smoked beer a smoked beer.
Generally speaking, there are two ways to dry grains for the malting process.
- Air Drying. To air-dry malt, a complex process of wet/dry malting is used. This involves a machine that involves hydrating the malt and air drying it repeatedly and at certain temperatures until the desired level of maltiness has been reached.
- This type of malting gives the brewer a heavy hand in the malting process, allowing them full control over how the grains are processed.
Fire Drying. Fire kilns have been around for centuries. It was discovered that grains used in making beer worked better during fermentation if they’d been dried and malted. As such, they were routinely dried over an open flame.
- Additionally, storing grains during wet months required a means of keeping the grain dry. Beer makers often stored the grain in a room adjacent to the fireplace, which naturally allowed the grain to take up the smoke from the flame.
Before 1635, it’s assumed that most beer was smoked simply because there was no other way to properly dry grain. By 1818, the invention of the drum wheel revolutionized the way brewmasters were able to control the malting and drying process. This meant the smoky aroma and taste so familiar in beer could now be altered or harnessed and changed to meet the desired end result.
This invention thoroughly changed the way beer was made and virtually eliminated the smokey flavor that once enhanced all beer. However, some brewers continued to malt their grain over an open flame to purposefully infuse the beer with the trademark smoke smell.
The History of Smoked Beer
Even though most beer created pre-1600s was smoked, the Germans held a virtual patent on it. German rauchbier, a smoked beer typically made as a medium-strength lager, is arguably the most famous style of smoked beer and is still wildly popular in some parts of Germany today.
Due to Germany’s uber-tight beer laws, only two breweries in Germany currently produce smoked beer.
Germany’s most popular smoked beer is the Bavarian brewed schlenkerla. Though this beer is often described as “sausage-like,” it has a cult following that keeps it on store shelves and on tap in many German pubs.
You’ll either love or hate schlenkerla. There’s not much room in between. Although some argue it’s an acquired taste, if you enjoy a robust beer with a unique flavor, this could be right up your alley.
The Come Back of Smoked Beer
Just as sours made a comeback through the adventurous experiments of craft brewers, smoked beer is also enjoying a moment in the sun. Pulling on traditional methods of roasting grains over an open flame, craft brewers in the U.S. have developed smoked beers that rank highly in popularity.
The appeal of a smoked beer is in the experience. Far from a sessionable beer, a smoked beer is heavy, dense, and complex. In today’s beer culture of quadruple-hopped IPA’s, pausing for a smoked beer is a welcome change.
What To Expect From Smoked Beer
A smoked beer is an excellent choice to enjoy sans food, although it’s also a welcome accompaniment to robust foods like smoked meats, cheeses, and even some desserts. The most popular pairing, smoked seafood, works wonderfully with smoked beer.
What Can You Expect From a Smoked Beer’s Color?
Smoked beer isn’t a classification on its own. As such, any beer (ale, lager, sour, blonde, porter, etc.) may be considered. Color will range from light to deep espresso or black. Porters and stouts are frequently smoked, so darker colors will usually reign supreme.
Additionally, the clarity will vary by the style of beer that has been smoked. If the original beer style is hazy, you’ll have a hazy smoked beer. Although not as popular, IPAs are sometimes smoked, creating a beer that is as viscous in clarity as it is smoky on the nose.
What Is the Aroma of a Smoked Beer Like?
Smoke. Seriously. On the nose, the most prominent feature is smoke, often described as woody, oaky, charred, or charcoal, followed by the notes of the underlying beer style. For instance, if you are sampling a smoked stout, you’ll likely experience smoke or char, followed by coffee, chocolate, or even licorice.
What Is the Carbonation of a Smoked Beer Like?
This will vary depending on the underlying beer style. Because porters and stouts are most classically smoked, you can expect a rich, creamy mouthfeel from small, velvety bubbles of carbonation.
What Can You Expect From the Palate/Body of a Smoked Beer?
The body, too, will vary with underlying beer styles. Thick and heavy, porters and stouts will almost always render a grainy texture.
What Is the Flavor of a Smoked Beer Like?
The goal of a smoked beer is to properly balance the smoky properties of the malt with the prominent flavors of the original beer. For instance, if a brewer was using smoked malt in an IPA, the goal would be to properly balance the bitterness of the hops with the charcoal smoke of the malt to achieve a delicate sweetness.
We don’t always see a lot of smoked beers because the flavor of smoked malt is quite powerful. Overpowering malt can completely annihilate the original flavor of the beer if it isn't brewed precisely and correctly. It’s a delicate process only attempted by some brewers.
Most smoked beers will fall somewhere between 4-5% ABV. Although their density could be argued as sessionable, the flavor intensity renders them best for single experiences.
As noted above, the ABV (like body and flavor) will differ depending on the type of beer that has been smoked.
Smoked Beer Options To Try
You never know what kinds of craft beers you’ll find on the site at TapRm. Our selection is in constant rotation, with many styles only available seasonally or on a limited basis. When you see a brew you’d like to try, make sure you get it fast.
As we find more and more craft brewers experimenting with smoked brews, you’ll find them on our site. Right now, we’re loving the smoked offering from Arrowood Farms. Arrowood is known for creating authentic farmhouse ales that are fully sustainable. They even grow their own hops and expose their wort to local bees.
Arrowood’s smoked offering, Arrowood Farms Unending Curiosity, is made with the same attention to detail we’ve come to expect with all their beers. What we love about this smoked beer is that it isn’t a stout or a porter as so many smoked beers typically are. This is a farmhouse ale created with wild yeast that has the dank, underlying flavor of a sour.
The addition of the smoked malts and potent, locally sourced oyster mushrooms gives this ale a unique flavor unlike any you’ve ever experienced. Bottle-conditioned with maple syrup, this ale starts out robust and savory and finishes easy.
Pair this with smoked seafood, sushi, and even rich, dark chocolate. This is also a solid beer for sampling a charcuterie tray, as the earthy mushroom flavor will naturally enhance the flavors in certain meats and cheeses.
The TapRm Difference
It can be hard to find a smoked beer unless you’re willing to foot the bill for a trip to Germany. Even though they’re growing in popularity in the United States, finding a microbrewery that offers them is like locating the needle in the haystack.
TapRm exists to bridge the chasm between obsessive craft brewers and passionate beer drinkers. With TapRm, it doesn’t matter if you live on the east coast and crave a west coast microbrew. By making it possible for smaller breweries to get their beers into the hands of more consumers, we’re building a better beer infrastructure that supports your local brewer and supplies you with great beer.
If you’re craft beer curious, we’re your new best friend. On our site, you’ll find virtually every category and style of craft beer imaginable in an ever-changing selection that will keep you coming back for more.
Sausage-flavored beer? Don’t knock it until you try it. Trust TapRm to guide you on your smoked beer exploration.