Brewing with Smoked Malt: Tips from the Pros

Beers with smoked malts aren’t for everyone. Or, possibly, not everyone has had the right style of smoked beer? As with any ingredient, the style and amount used can result in an array of flavors and as the brewer you get to dictate that to get the result you enjoy. Here’s how three pros like to use smoked malt.

Brewer: Scott Smith, East End Brewing Company in Pittsburgh, PA

Smoked beers are really fun to pour for people who haven’t had them before. And certainly very polarizing! You will definitely make an impression, one way or another. And of course, it’s a great style of beer to enjoy with food since it pairs so well with so many different kinds of food . . . even for a vegetarian like me.

The beer with smoked malt we are most known for is Smokestack Heritage Porter. The idea for it was to brew a robust porter that (smoke aspects aside) leans a bit on the malty side. The thinking here is that the smoke character will bring a lot of the high notes into the flavor profile that would usually come from hop additions. The beer still has a bit of hop character to it, but it’s definitely in the background.

Getting the smoke character right was the main thing to dial in. In fact, Smokestack was the very last beer we did a small-scale pilot batch for (these days for a new beer, we just commit to a commercial batch right out of the gate), and it was a good thing we did. The “reek” on the pilot batch was a bit too intense, even for smoke lovers like us! The primary smoke character comes from Weyermann beech smoked malt (about 50%). We also decided that we wanted a bit more depth and character than the straight up campfire and bacon notes, so we actually use a small amount of peat-smoked distiller’s malt in this beer. Yeah, I know that’s often considered a big no-no in beer brewing circles, but at no more than 5% percent of the total grist, it can really make a nice flavor contribution. But a little definitely goes a long way! The rest of the grain bill consists of pale, brown, Carapils®, chocolate, and black malts.

For yeast, it’s about attenuation levels and ester production. We ferment with a neutral English ale strain that flocculates out well. We use earthy English hop varieties for this beer (East Kent Golding and Fuggle).

The fermentation schedule is pretty typical for smoked beers as it is for their non-smoked counterparts. Though I will say, when I walk into the room when one’s in the tank, I unconsciously make note of the location of the nearest fire extinguisher, just in case something is actually on fire. A lot of that smoke aroma bubbles out of the blowoff and into the room.

We have also brewed a Captain Beefheart-inspired smoked lager called Blabber N’ Smoke. The recipe was by our Head Brewer, Brendan Benson, and used BestMalz Rauch, a bit of Munich I and II, and a little bit of Pilsner base malt. We don’t do a whole lot of lagers, but we were really pleased with it.

Overall, my best advice for homebrewers using smoked malts:

• Taste your ingredients! Smoke levels in malt can fade over time, so you may need to adjust your recipe accordingly.

• Go very easy on the peated malt, if you decide to use any at all.

• If you find yourself totally smoked out on an otherwise fantastic batch of beer, blending with an unsmoked batch can be a great move! But if you’ve really overdone it, it’s a bad move. Twice the amount of still over-smoked beer may not be what you’re looking for!

Brewer: Augie Carton, Carton Brewing Company in Atlantic Highlands, NJ

We haven’t looked to make smoked beers as much as layer in a smoky aspect to a flavor profile. We usually start light, like 5% smoked malt, and dial up or down from there. For instance our Swisher series isn’t brewed to a particular style but it has the same base bear with different fruit (grape, orange, and cherry). These beers use Weyermann oak smoked pale wheat, which we chose because it smells like burning, while other smoked malts smell more like smoked things. We play to that aspect and combine it with the simple tobacco nature of a brown malt bill, hops that smell like weed, and the fruits added to tobacco in hookah bars — the final result is the deconstruction of the flavor components of a blunt reconstructed as a beer. Like all Carton beers it should taste like a beer and evoke those flavors rather than “taste just like.” For our Swisher beers we land at around 11% of the malt bill being Weyermann oak smoked pale wheat, but homebrew efficiencies will vary from ours so that’s a guide, not a rule.

Another beer we use smoked malt in is Rub. The inspiration for Rub is the porter you drink after a full day of session drinking and barbecue smoking; a fresh summer porter washing over the lingering flavors of a big slow smoked meal. So the smoke/adjunction for it takes its cues from how I BBQ not how I brew. A lesson I learned from Joe Carroll (the owner of Fette Sau’s and author of Feeding the Fire) is to combine different woods when smoking to layer on their potentials. For this brew that turned into equal amounts of oak smoked wheat, cherrywood, beech, and mesquite smoked barley for a total of 8% of the bill.

We also just made a sour smoked milk brown ale for Swayze Day this year, so obviously we don’t feel restricted by style guidelines. What style wouldn’t benefit from smoke? If it turns you on, try it. If it works you’ve got a new recipe, if it doesn’t, walk away. What did you lose compared to what you learned? It’s a decent risk-reward.

That doesn’t mean just throw smoked malt in without a care. Smoke is a potent ingredient and a little goes a long way. It’s also a very polarizing flavor — what to some is a comforting waft of a fireplace on an autumn gust may to others be an overpowering Band Aid flavor that they can’t get around. If you enjoy the dynamic layer smoke can add to a profile, then do it the way you like. Don’t try to please anyone else, because the further you push it toward one preference the further you will move away from another.

Brewer: Jim Mills,  Caldera Brewing Co. in Ashland, OR

We make a rauchbier called Rauch Ür Bock that has an intense smoke flavor and aroma. It’s a full-bodied lager that is very similar to traditional German style rauchbiers. When I was formulating this recipe in 10-gallon (38-L) batches, I home smoked 2-row malted barley with apple, alder, mesquite, and combinations of all of these, but when we started production of larger batches I started buying Briess cherry smoked malt and Weyermann beech smoked malt for the recipe.

During recipe development there was a lot of trial and error to land on the right amount of smoked malt. I probably brewed ten 10-gallon (38-L) batches before I was happy with it. The malt bill now consists of 63% Weyermann beech smoked malt, 21% Briess cherry smoked malt, 15% Gambrinus dark munich, and 1% black malt. To go with that I chose to use German Hallertauer hops and a German lager yeast.

In addition to this beer, a long time ago I brewed a Truffle bock using hand picked Oregon truffles and 25% smoked malt. It was very interesting. If you’re new to smoked malt, my first bit of advice is if you want a really smokey beer, don’t use any 2-row base malt. Use all smoked malts as a base instead. Also, lager for at least 6 weeks after primary fermentation to allow the flavors to mellow.

Issue: December 2016