What is Smoked Beer? A Visit to Schlenkerla in Bamberg!
I admit, I had never heard about smoked beer until a few years ago when I was out to dinner with my parents. My father was so excited to find Schlenkerla Rauchbier on the menu! He had enjoyed it years before when stationed in Bamberg, but had never seen it in the US before. This summer I took a beer tour that spent 4 days in Bamberg. First stop… Schlenkerla for a tall glass of Rauchbier. And I have to say… it’s an acquired taste. But for those who love it, there is nothing else that compares.
So… what is Smoked Beer? Do they put the beer in a smoker? Is liquid smoke added to the beer during the brewing?
Fortunately, I had the chance to meet Matthias Trum, the 7th Generation owner and operator of the Schlenkerla Brewery, where I learned all about how this famous beer is made.
What is Smoked Beer
Once upon a time, there was no smoked beer, there was just beer. The smoked flavor comes from roasting the malt over wood flames, in a way… all beer was smoked beer. What Changed? How did beer makers turn away from smoked beer?
Let’s start at the beginning.
To make beer you need 4 ingredients; Water, Hops, Barley and Yeast. (According to the Reinheitsgebot of 1516, you only need 3. They hadn’t discovered yeast as a separate ingredient yet, and were unaware that wild yeast was floating around. This is another story though). Barley has to be MALTED before it could be used for beer. Brewers or Malters make malt by soaking the barley until it germinates (starts to sprout) then they dry it out over heat to stop the germination process. The drying and roasting also adds flavor to the barley (think boiled peanuts versus roasted peanuts).
THIS is where the smoke comes in.
In early times, the malt would be dried and roasted over a log fire. The smoke from the fire would flavor the malted grain, and that smokey flavor would then infuse the beer.
Flash forward to the Industrial Revolution…. suddenly it’s cheaper and more efficient to burn coal than wood. (remember, deforestation to keep up with production is a problem too). Plus, it’s easier to regulate the temperature. Problem is when you roast malt over coal, the coal smoke makes the malt taste vile, which means it’s fairly unusable to dry and roast the barley. No one wants to drink beer that tastes like tar. This didn’t slow brewers and malters down for long. A special kiln was invented specifically to roast the germinated barley using coal… without adding undesired flavors.
Schlenkerla Rauch Beer
Which brings us back to Schlenkerla. According to Matthias, his ancestors refused to make the switch from wood burning oven to coal burning kiln. WHY? Three reasons…
2) He didn’t want to pay for it.
Which brings us to…
3) He reasoned, if it isn’t broken, don’t mess with it.
Schlenkerla Brewery is one of the few brewing operations that still produces their own Malt. This is especially unusual since Weyermann Malting company, who makes dozens of different malts and ships all over the world, is just across the river.
Drinking Smoked Beer
I’ve noticed that people either LOVE or really don’t care for the flavor of Smoked Beer. (Maybe it’s like Cilantro… ??) BUT to give it the best chance you need to follow this simple rule the first time you try it. (Ron Smith from the Beer MBA Tour assured me that this is the way to do it, and he’s the expert)
GULP it down.
Don’t sip, don’t slurp, don’t let it just linger in your mouth.
Take a big swallow… then another… then another.
Your palate will get used to the flavor … and you will get past the idea that the beer tastes smoky.
It’s also a good idea to pair the beer with a nice meal at Schlenkerla. Try the Stuffed Onion (it’s like Meatloaf stuffed into an incredibly large hollowed out onion… quite tasty).
A Visit to the Schlenkerla Brewery
As part of the Beer MBA Tour, we were allowed to see behind the scenes at the Schlenkerla Brewery. Since the brewery does not typically allow tours, you can imagine how special this was for all of us. (Especially when we were taken deep into the cool lagering cellars on a 100 degree day.)
Schlenkerla is not a huge corporate operation. Beer is brewed slowly in the old fashioned way here… with oversight over the whole operation from malt to bottle/keg.
Matthias Trum took the time to explain to us how the operation at Schlenkerla worked. The video shows the lagering cellars, explains the malting a bit… and shows a lot of happy people tasting beer.
Matthias Trum shows us the copper cook pots
The cool 8 degree Celsius lagering cellars… bliss on a hot day.
(Fun story, the caves were originally dug by Sandmen… men who dug sand and sold it door to door as a cleaning agent for scrubbing floors)
Today, the temperature is perfect for storing beer until it’s ready to bottle.
Kegs for the Restaurant
It doesn’t get much better than this…
Yes, you might find smoked beer here in the US… but you will never have it better than the smoked beer at Schlenkerla. Maybe you won’t get into the lagering cellar… but there is plenty of room at the restaurant. And these days… you can step outside with your glass into the pedestrian way that runs in front of the restaurant. Dozens of people gather there nightly to drink and socialize.
It honestly is one of those wonderful things about Bamberg, and Germany, that will bring you back again and again.
Travel to Bamberg
Does a Beer Tour Sound Good to YOU??
The Beer MBA Tour was a great experience for learning everything there was to know about Beer in Bavaria! It included a few days in Munich and days in Bamberg.
Read about my experience here–>Beer MBA Tour
More things to do and see in Bamberg