Restaurant Beer Taste Discovery: Smoked Beer


Many years ago, pretty much all malt-roasting equipment was direct-fired, allowing smoke to infiltrate the malt container. Malters eventually learned to construct malt roasting equipment that was indirectly heated and vented the smoke away from the malt. This new equipment led to the development of the modern caramel and darker malts which are smoke-free. As the taste for the new smoke-free beers grew, most all brewers abandoned smoked beers. By the late 20th century, only a relative handful of breweries still produced them and they were very hard to find in the market.

The US importer for the tasty Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier is B. United International, Inc. The firm has gained wide distribution for the brand. The beer is available in 500 ml (16.9 oz.) bottles and 30 Liter (7.9 gallon) kegs.

Photo credit: Brauerei Heller Trum / Aecht Schlenkerla, Bamberg, Germany

Smoked beer? It may seem a bit odd to the uninitiated, but making beer with smoked malt is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. As in foods, smoking adds another layer of complexity that can create a very appealing taste sensation.

For the restaurant, smoked beers offer a perfect pairing with smoked or  fire-grilled steak, ham, salmon, chili peppers, and bacon-flavored dishes. For your customers, smoked beers can be an unexpected but welcomed culinary discovery.

In the United States, smoked beers are not particularly well-known among the fine dining public. Offering your customers a flavorful smoked beer-food pairing gives you the opportunity to introduce them to a dining experience that most will enjoy and not soon forget. It can be one of those very special moments that builds customer loyalty.

Smoked beers get their flavor from smoked malts. These malts gain their smokiness from being dried or roasted in a wood- or peat-fired heating system in which the smoke is allowed to enter the malt drying container. The wood type and and length of smoking both contribute to the characteristics of the finished malt. In Bamberg, Germany the traditional wood used is beech. In the British Isles, peat has traditionally been used for smoking due to its availability relative to wood.

Pictured is the actual firebox used in smoking the malts of Brauerei Heller Trum for its Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier. This Franconian tradition goes back hundreds of years. In German, “Rauch” means smoke; so rauchbier is simply smoked beer. Today a number of American craft brewers are also successfully producing smoked beers, most notably, Alaskan Brewing’s Smoked Porter. Smoked beers are often released as seasonals.

Fortunately today, brewers are again experimenting with smoked beers. Malters and breweries are also experimenting with a variety of woods to smoke the malt. Beech, oak, cherry, alder, and others are all being used successfully to impart subtle differences to the resulting beer.

A brewer may choose to use 100 percent smoked malts, as in the famous Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen, or may use a lower ratio of smoked malt in the grain bill to produce a beer with just a smokey hint. Smoked beer may be produced as a lager, like the Schlenkerla, or as an ale, like the Stone Smoked Porter. Either way, they are winners. While they still remain a bit rare in the market, smoked beers are here to stay.

Smoked Beer and Your Restaurant

There is a real art to brewing a good smoked beer. They are easy to get out of balance, resulting in a cloying over-smoked beer that would not be good for restaurant use. With this fact in mind, it is important to have your beverage manager and culinary team test any smoked beer you are not already familiar with. Pair them with your entrees to find the best matches.

Smoked beers are often limited production or seasonal offerings from microbreweries. This makes them great for use as special, limited-time offerings in your restaurant. Feature one of the smoked beers and suggest it with something like a mixed grill of flavor-rich foods. Yum. The bravos will quickly follow.

Smoked Beers to Look For

While a few are available year-round, they seem to pop up often as seasonal releases. Check with your distributors and local microbreweries to see when smoked beers might be available. Below is a list of smoked beers that are known to be food friendly and more widely available.

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen, Brauerei Heller-Trum. The standard-setting smoked, dark amber lager that matches up so well with roasted or wood-grilled fare including beef, game, pork, specialty hams, sausage, and winter vegetables. Has a rich, lingering taste with great balance. Luckily, this German beer is probably the most widely available smoked beer in the US. Available year round.

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Weizen. A dark wheat beer from the Heller Trum brewery. A bit lighter taste and body overall than the Märzen, its milder smoke flavor is possibly better suited to lightly smoked pork chops, turkey, quail, and to fire-grilled peaches and endive. Available year round.

Spezial Rauchbier Lager, Brauerei Spezial. Made with 40% smoked malt and 60% pale malts, this traditional Bamberger beer is considerably lighter in taste than the smoked märzens and porters. A beautiful smoky bright lager that pairs so well with lightly smoked meats and roasted vegetables, soups and salads. Available year round. US importer: Shelton Brothers.

Alaskan Smoked Porter, Alaskan Brewing Company. First produced in 1988, and still among the very best, this ale introduced many Americans to the beauty of smoke in beer. Alder smoked malts. Very dark and very rich. Ages well. Drink with smoked salmon, chipotle-flavored meats, smoked gouda, blue cheese and other hearty fare. Recommended as a flavoring ingredient in sauces. Gold medal winner at 2010 Great American Beer Festival and 2010 World Beer Cup. Produced each year in limited vintages.

Smoked Porter, Stone Brewing Company.  Deep mahogany color. Uses some peat smoked specialty malts to produce a Smooth drinking with chocolate and coffee flavors mixed with a light peat smokiness. Will complement a wide range of flavorful roasted foods, grilled portabellas, gourmet burgers and brick-oven pizza. Available year round, 22 oz bottles.

Smoked Baltic Porter, Great Divide Brewing Co., Rich but not overpowering smokey nose and taste to go with malty chocolate flavors. Brewed in the lager manner with traditional German malts and hops. The brewery recommends it with grilled veal bratwurst, BBQ shrimp, past with crispy brown leeks, and pear tart. A fall seasonal, new in 2010.

Smoke on the Water/Heavy Seas, Clipper City Brewing Co. Part of their Mutiny Fleet series, this Imperial smoked porter was designed to complement charcoal/wood grilled foods, barbecued ribs from the smoker.   A bigger (8% ABV) American porter with a moderate smokiness and medium body. Summer seasonal release in 2010.

Chipotle Ale, Rogue Ales. An amber ale style. While not a true smoked malt beer, the additional of roasted chipotle peppers produce an eye-opening chile flavor with a malty, smoky aroma and smooth, crisp flavor. Silver medalist at 2009 World Beer Championships.

Above is the copper brewhouse where the famous Schlenkerla Rauchbiers are produced in Bamberg, Germany.  Brauerei Heller Trum today, still smokes malt and brews beer in small batches in the very traditional styles of Franconia.

Photo Credit: Jared Tuk

The Heller Trum Brewery sign in Bamberg, Germany. Although established in 1678, it is not the oldest rauchbier brewery in the area. That honor belongs to the Spezial Brewery, which had its beginnings in 1536.

Today, the old style of rauchbier has been adopted by modern craft brewers in America.

The famous Smoked Porter from Alaskan Brewing Company has developed quite a following since its first release in 1988. Consistently a medal winner at beer competitions, it has also been a beer that develops well with age.

Photo Credit: Alaskan Brewing Company

Bratwurst and kraut with Spezial Rauchbier is a common but welcomed sight in the beer-centric town of Bamberg, Germany, which is located in the Franconian region of Bavaria. Spezial Brauerei lagers are highly regarded.

In the United States, Spezial Rauchbier is available in 500 ml bottles and 30 Liter kegs.

Smoked Beer and Food Pairings

Beer pairings are based on either complementing or contrasting the beer with food. The obvious complement to a nice smoky beer is smoked food: smoked seafood such as trout, salmon, mussels, scallops; smoked meats such as turkey, bacon, BBQ ribs, and ham; chipotle-flavored fare; smoked almonds; and smoked gouda.

For contrast, think of things that are not smoked but may be enhanced with smokiness. Roasted or grilled veggies (substantial ones like endive, carrots, garlic, yams, mushrooms, and asparagus), steaks, chops, winter stews, Mexican mole, cheese (think cheddar and blue), cantaloupe, and dark chocolate.

Serving temperature should be around 45° F for lager and a bit warmer for ale.  Serve in an all-purpose beer glass, beer tulip or bowl-shaped glassware.

Smoked beer at smaller breweries

Smaller breweries tend to produce smoked beers as seasonal or special releases. Some good ones have been or are being made by Highland Brewing in Asheville, NC; Dunedin Brewing in Dunedin, FL; Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, NC; Schlafly Brewing in St. Louis, MO; and Captain Lawrence in Pleasantville, NY. Ask your distributor to help you research any breweries that may offer a smoked beer.