Learn How to Smoke Your Beers

Rauch On!

Beer geeks love arguing over what makes “real beer.” Is it “all beer?” Or just “beer-flavored beer” made according to some old half legend of a taxation system? What if it’s a hazy IPA? Something with gummy bears and sour cherry cheesecake? And then there’s the question of smoke.

Even among the die hard “drink all the IPAs! Belgian funk! Barleywine is life!” types, smoke is a line many won’t cross. For many, smoke belongs on BBQ or from a fine cigar, but never in beer. For the ones with the palates that are sufficiently sophisticated or terrifically tweaked, the rich redolent sweetness of a well-crafted smoked beer is unparalleled. Denny falls into the former (substitute the cigar with something fitting his image) while Drew is firmly in the latter camp. 

We’ll leave all the stories of the smoky rauchbiers of Bamberg, Germany,  to other articles and for those willing to cut a clear line through the haze of marketing and self-promotion. But suffice it to say, the story telling about smoke in beers is as rich as any piece of beer history.

Smoke in Beer, Historically Speaking

One of the challenges in making a beer begins well before the brew kettle is fired up — the malting process requires that we moisten our grains in a controlled manner and when optimal growth/conversion of the malt is achieved by the newly germinated seed, we ruthlessly cut it off by drying the grain with hot air.

As the story goes, before we invented “indirect heating,” most malt would have been smoky and thus all beer would have been as well. Objecting to overly smoky flavors is not a modern invention and we know there were historical strategies and mechanisms to avoid smoky malt. There was plenty of incentive to make finer quality, sweeter malts, so not all beer would have been smoky. (Evidence #421974 in the argument that our ancestors were not as backwards as we’d like
to think.)

Naturally, this means that despite Bamberg’s dominance in the discussion of smoked beers, there are a number of traditions that still retain a whiff of the campfire to their beers.

Getting Smoke Into Your Beer

This might be one of the easiest things in brewing — to get smoke into your beer — use smoked malt. But how much? What do you need to think about?

The first is “what kind of smoke.” There are a few commercially made smoked malts that are available to the homebrewer. The most common are:

Rauchmalz – this is a German malt infused with smoke from beechwood (or possibly oak). It carries sweet and spicy wood tones and — depending on which specific malt you choose and how much of a smokehead you are — can be used as 100% of the grist (though we recommend starting smaller like 10–50% to learn your personal preference).

Peat smoked malt – what it says on the bag, malt infused with the smoke from a peat fire. For the love of Hephaestus, don’t use this stuff in beer. It’s meant for Scotch and no we don’t mean Scottish ales. We mean whisky. It’s potent and overwhelming with harsh smoky flavors from peat phenols. If you absolutely insist on using it, keep it to ~2 oz. (56 g) or less per 5-gallon (19-L) batch. 

There are other varieties of smoked malts that are infused with smoke from alder, hickory, oak, mesquite, and cherrywood to name a few. Drew’s used cherrywood to good effect in a mild ale of all things.

There’s one other wibbly bit about using smoked malts. How do you know how smoky they actually are? A fresh bag of smoked malt can deliver a walloping blow to the palate and is best used under 20% of the mash, but as the malt ages, the smoke begins to fade, requiring more to deliver the same punch. Our suggestion: Give the malt a taste when you’re buying or before you brew to help estimate what you’re getting into. Adjust as needed and you’ll learn how to dial in your palate. As almost always, less is more.

Smoke ‘Em If You’ve Got ‘Em

Unshockingly, there’s a heavy contingent of brewers who’ve also discovered the fine art of smoking foods. Whether it’s long overnight cooks of brisket spent fretting over the inevitable stall or Denny’s current obsession — smoked cheese, it’s another fine example of spending hours doing a minute’s work. 

So if you’re into the world of smoking and/or DIY, there’s nothing to stop you from combining the two arts together and making your own smoked malt with your own spin on the flavors and intensity. Jeff Gladish, a friend of ours from Tampa, Florida, has won many awards for beers made with malt smoked on his jury-rigged cold smoker (pictured below). Jeff’s a retired car mechanic so he’s got those professional duct tape skills!

charcoal grill with a long exhaust vent to a smoking box where malt is cold-smoked for flavor

It takes some dedication to do it, but a smoking setup can not only scratch an itch in your
brewing self, but also your foodie self.
Photo by Jeff Gladdish

His specific rig consists of a classic Weber kettle grill, 20 feet (6 m) of ducting, and a wooden box with wire shelves. The ducting is fed into the bottom of the wooden box. Grain is loaded onto the shelves and the box is sealed to prevent leaks from anywhere other than the chimney. It’s just enough backyard engineering and janky enough to fit in perfectly with a cheap ‘n easy mindset. It also has a proven track record of making fantastic beer even at the commercial scale.

This is not to say that you have to use a custom-built rig. Drew’s used metal takeout pans perforated with multiple holes, filled with grain and then tossed off to the side of a dying fire with wood smoke. If Denny liked smoked beers, he could use his new pellet smoker to make the fanciest of Dijon smoked malts. 

Following are the keys to doing it correctly:

  • As with most smoking projects, use hardwoods, not softwood. Jeff used to use leftover citrus wood from trees trimmed from his yard. (We did say he’s from Florida, right?) These days he uses bags of wood chips available from the local hardware store, but still prefers fruit woods over the spicier more aggressive flavors of woods like hickory or mesquite. “Classic” choices would include beechwood, oak, or alder. 
  • Give them a quick soak. Jeff’s not too fancy with this step — bucket, water, drop the bag of chips in and scoop them out as needed. He’s on the fast train, mere minutes of contact.
  • Fill your screens/pans with malt. Choose a malt that will be appropriate at 10–50% of the malt bill. Pilsner and pale malts are fine, but if you’re looking for a warm malty hug, it’s hard to go wrong with a quality Munich malt. You can spritz the malt with a tiny amount of water, but Jeff skips it to avoid mold growth. Jeff’s screens in his smoker are wooden boxes with bottoms made of aluminum window screening.
  • Get a low steady heat going and toss a handful of chips on the coals. Close your smoker and adjust your smoker to hit ~90–100 °F (32–38 °C) in the smoking chamber. This is the reason for the long piece of ducting in Jeff’s rig. You don’t need a high temperature because you’re just infusing the malt with smoke. You’re not drying it and you’re desperately doing everything in your power to avoid scorching/burning the malt.
  • Let the malt soak up the smoke for an hour or so. Jeff’s timing is driven by when he runs out of a full 2-pound (0.9-kg) bag. He renews the chips whenever the smoke starts running low and keeps a slow roll of smoky goodness wafting through the malt. 
  • Brew! Jeff uses his malt pretty immediately, an advantage to his cold technique. If you hot smoke, you’ll want to let the malt sit in a bag and mellow for a week or two. 

Brewing Time

You’ve got your smoked malt! Congratulations, embrace your very aromatic new child. Now you’re in sight of your ultimate goal — making beer. Do you need to do anything special? Shockingly, no! The cold-smoking process doesn’t damage the enzymes in the malt needed for mashing. (Hot smoking would be a different story). You can brew with the malt as normal.

As stated earlier, unless you’re a smoke fiend or your malt is weak, you’ll want to start with using 10–50% of your smoked malt in a recipe. Adjust from there, but remember the cardinal rule: “You can’t unscramble an egg.” 

Both Jeff and Drew lean toward the same basic design principles for smoked beers — focus on the malt character, not hops or yeast. That’s because we both believe that the aromatic compounds of smoke clash heavily with many hop characters or yeast notes. (Look at how few smoked IPAs make it to tap despite everything being an IPA and smoked malt being a quick catalog order away.) To these two, let the smoke shine and harmonize with the malt.

Why? Some of the compounds in smoke are potent from a sensory perspective. Diacetyl, a smelly, buttery mess of a compound has a sensory threshold of 20–60 parts per billion. (~1–3 tsp. per 65,000 gallons/2,500 hL). Smoke phenols, on the other hand, can be measured in parts per trillion. Humanity is incredibly sensitive to that sensation. Smoke is so “aromatically loud” that it will run over anything else and will clash harder than mauve polka dots on a white striped dress after Labor Day while tasting as odd as you’d look skanking to Frank Sinatra. 

You can take a cue from the Germans and make a whole bevy of smoked lagers — a smoked helles for your summer drinking or a smoked doppelbock for a long cold night in front of a roaring fire. There really is something about the warmth of the smoke and a chewy malt character that makes Drew sing. 

But you can put smoke in other malt-forward places, like Jeff’s “Not Craig’s Smoked Porter!” (recipe found below). This is a smoke-forward beer. As mentioned earlier, Drew makes a spin on a dark mild with a little cherrywood-smoked malt that adds an extra oomph to a sessionable beer.

Not Craig’s Smoked Porter!

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)

OG = 1.070  FG = 1.016 
IBU = 45  SRM = 33  ABV = 7.2%

Recipe courtesy of Jeff Gladish who is a bona fide rauchbier fanatic (see picture on page 52 for evidence of this). Feel free to cut back on the smoked malts, maybe start by only using half this amount of smoked malt and leave the other half 2-row pale malt unsmoked to see if you desire more or less smoke flavor. 

12 lbs. (5.4 kg) Rahr 2-row pale malt, home cold-smoked (or a commercially produced smoked malt)
1.25 lbs. (0.57 kg) Weyermann Munich II malt
0.75 lb. (340 g) chocolate malt 
0.66 lb. (300 g) crystal malt (60 °L)
0.25 lb. (113 g) black patent malt 
3.5 AAU Magnum hops (first wort hop) (0.25 oz./7 g at 14% alpha acids)
5 AAU Willamette hops (120 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 5% alpha acids)
3.2 AAU Styrian Golding hops (30 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 3.2% alpha acids)
4.2 AAU Amarillo® hops (10 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g at 8.5% alpha acids)
Wyeast 1968 (London ESB Ale), White Labs WLP002 (English Ale), or LalBrew London yeast
2⁄3 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
If possible, cold-smoke the malts as close to brew day as possible for freshly smoked flavors. Build a yeast starter a few days prior as well if using a liquid yeast strain. 

Crush the grains and heat strike water to 165 °F (74 °C). Rest the mash at 153 °F (67 °C) for 60 minutes. Begin lautering process by mashing out at 168 °F (76 °C). Recirculate and sparge with enough water to collect 7.5 gallons (28 L) of wort in the brew kettle. Add the first wort hops to the kettle during the sparge. Add hops at the times indicated.

After a 2-hour boil, chill to 64 °F (18 °C) and pitch yeast. Ferment at 64–68 °F (18–20 °C). After fermentation is complete, cool to 58 °F (14 °C) and let settle for one week. Bottle and prime with sugar or keg and force carbonate to 2.3 v/v.

Issue: November 2023