Brian O'Reilly, Brewmaster at Sly Fox Brewing Company in Royersford, Pennsylvania. Brian's Rauch Bier won the gold medal for Smoke-Flavored beer at the 2008 Great American Beer Festival. He originally planned to become either a teacher or lawyer, but fell under the spell of good beer during an overseas study program in Austria while attending Franciscan University in Ohio, inspiring him to begin homebrewing about 14 years ago. He worked as the Assistant Brewer at Brewers Bier Haus in New Hampshire and took over when Phil Markowski left to create Southampton Publick House. He also worked for the John Harvard's chain and helped create the short-lived New Road Brew House in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. He joined Sly Fox in March 2002.
Our Rauch Bier is a traditional German recipe, and the toughest part of making it was finding the right malt. For German beers that's the most important thing. The maltster does a lot of the work — we basically make a clean lager with smoked malt.
At Sly Fox, we buy imported, beechwood-smoked German malt from Bamberg, Germany, which makes up about 97% of the grain bill. I would say, however, that that kind of malt formulation is unique to beechwood smoked malt because you wouldn't want to use that much smoked malt with peat smoked or other types of smoked malts — the smoked flavor would be too overwhelming. In fact I've never heard of other types of smoked malts being used at 100 or even 50 percent of the grain bill. In our case there is just a small amount of German caramel malt to make up the remainder of the grains.
Besides the malt, we also use all German ingredients in our Rauch Bier, and we brew it pretty much straight to style. We brew it using a German mid-alpha hop to balance out the beer, because Rauch Bier is traditionally not a hoppy beer — the hops shouldn't get in the way.
Our Rauch Bier is pretty stable. It's not something that you would necessarily want to age, however, it's not a fast seller and we only keg it, and it's definitely good for six to ten months.
My advice to homebrewers who want to make a smoked beer is don't reinvent the wheel — there's no magic to this style, it's just using great smoked malt. Don't get in the way of that.
Andrew Brown, Head Brewer at Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver, Colorado. Andrew has been brewing professionally for 10 years and for seven he was the head brewer at Left Hand Brewing Company in Longmont, Colorado. He later worked at Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons. He took over at Wynkoop about half a year ago. He won two gold medals at the 2008 GABF.
Wynkoop's Silver Back Smoked Porter is not a traditional German style, but it's become a very popular style — there are a lot of smoked porters out there. Ours is fairly strong at 6.5% ABV. I try to achieve a nice bitterness between smoky and chocolate flavors.
We buy our smoked malt from Germany, which is beechwood smoked. I have smoked my own malt before at other breweries, but it is hard to make enough of it to use regularly. The best smoked flavor comes from freshly smoked malt. Time and freshness makes a difference.
If you're smoking malt, start with the base of a Munich malt. Be sure to mist it and keep it from drying out while you're smoking, which you can do on a rack or a screen. Smoking malt is not any harder than smoking food. For a porter, a good balance of smoked malt is about 1⁄4 to 1⁄3 of the grain bill — 25 to 33%. If you use too much you can get bacon beer — and that's one that
no one likes.
For yeasts and hops, usually the yeast character is subdued. For instance, I've never had a smoked Belgian beer. The hops we use are the subded English noble types, and like the Belgian, I've never had a smoked IPA or anything. Smoked beers are more about the malt.
Smoked beers can be aged, and actually we just had a 1994 Alaskan Smoked Porter at the 2008 GABF and it stood up over 14 years eventhough it isn't a super high-alcohol beer. The bigger, more alcoholic versions can definitely age. Most smoked beers, though, are pretty good fresh — I wouldn't say they always improve with aging.
If you want to try making a smoked beer at home, I would say try going lighter on the smoked malt at first until you figure out what a good level is for your beer. Your friends will definitely tell you if it's too smoky. Also, smoked beer and food pairing also has a lot of possibilities — so think about foods when you're making the beer.
Curtis Holmes, Plant Manager at Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau, Alaska. From brewing supervisor to production manager, Curtis has held many roles during his 17 years with Alaskan Brewing. As Plant Manager, Curtis is involved in all aspects of brewery operations, including the one barrel "Rough Draft" experimental brewing program and smoking the malt used in Alaskan Smoked Porter.
When Alaskan Brewing Company's owner Geoff Larson started developing the recipe for our Alaskan Smoked Porter, originally we were looking at doing a Rauch Bier and experimenting with the style using something indigenous to Alaska. Geoff settled on smoking the malt with Alder wood, which many Alaskans use to smoke fish and is a pretty common tree around here. For him it was pretty obvious and kind of fun to use in porter to give it an Alaskan flair.
Smoking your own malt is not too bad if you have the process to do it. It's helpful if you have a smokehouse or a friend with a smokehouse, but on a home scale if you have a small home smoker that works too. The trick to smoking malt is to have some kind of control. If the malt gets too hot and starts roasting it will give you characters you don't want. Since the grains are damp you don't want the grain to convert so keep the temperature under 100 °F (38 °C). Also, try not to smoke the malt for too long — we go on and off for about two hours.
Choosing a smoked malt really depends on the type of wood you use to smoke it. The wood we use is pretty delicate. Alder doesn't have a lot of sharp, burnt characters and we shoot for using less than 10% of the smoked malt in the grain bill. On the other hand, I know people who use beechwood smoked malt for up to 90% of the grain bill in their recipes. Probably our malt might be a little more intense because we smoke it ourselves, but choosing is all a matter of experimenting.
Some smoked beers can age well and our Alaskan Smoked Porter is a fun beer to experiment with. In 1993 we started doing vintages to see how they would age. Now we use those vintages for vertical tastings of about ten years. The beer and the smoke go through a bunch of changes and it gets sherry/port wine characters and the smoke flavor stays with it too.
Probably the biggest thing in making smoked beers is to try out a lot of experimentation with the type of wood the malt is smoked with and make sure the malt is slightly wet while you're smoking it. Different malts exhibit different wood characteristics. For example, pale malts tend to pick the smoke up better. You can really overdo it with ratios and the smoke can come through way too much.