Up in Smoke

In 1993 I moved to Bamberg, Germany to drink rauchbier.

Okay . . . the official reason for my move was to study comparative literature as part of my Master’s degree program at the University of South Carolina. U of SC has had an exchange with the University of Bamberg since 1975, and in the spring of 1993 I had been chosen to participate for a year starting that fall. 

I ended up staying for ten years.

But my extended stay was not to complete my official studies. My true calling turned out not to be the hallowed halls of the university. Rather it was the green double-doors and the smooth, hand-sanded tables of the Schlenkerla tavern — just an alleyway or three away from my dorm room — that beckoned me to study what would become my “one true love” in the beer world. Eventually, I would abandon my graduate studies and my career in academia completely and take up brewing rauchbier professionally. 

“Half of Bamberg doesn’t even like rauchbier,” one of my students in the English conversation class I taught at the University of Bamberg told me early on in my stay. And she was no newcomer to the town or the beer. A “born Bamberger,” as they say, she grew up literally in the halls of the famous tavern. Both her grandfather and her father were members of the super-select, locals-only Stammtisch (regulars’ table), and she often sought them out there while walking about town after school on a regular weekday evening or on the weekends. After a lifetime of living in the city, she had never developed a taste for the stuff. 

She wasn’t alone. Rauchbier — or smoke beer — is a polarizing style in the beer world, perhaps the most polarizing. Its initial punch of smoke can baffle both the taste buds and the brain. Something seems not to register initially when you taste smoke in your drink. In short, it’s a shock. Generally, you either love it or hate it. But even if you belong to the former group, you may not have gotten there immediately. I didn’t.

When I arrived in town to begin my studies — just after making my way via bus to the riverfront youth hostel to drop off my backpack — I hopped the bus back into town and went straight to the tavern. This was a Tuesday. How do I recall such a detail? Because the tavern was closed. Tuesday was Ruhetag (roughly, “rest day”) at Schlenkerla back then. And so it was that I would then make my way to drink what I call the second-best beer in the universe, Spezial Rauchbier.

Bamberg, Germany is the birthplace of rauchbier, which still thrives in and around the city. Pictured here is Bamberg’s Old Town Hall built over the Regnitz River.

A Short History of Rauchbier

At least in Bamberg, the oldest rauchbier belongs to Brauerei Spezial, which dates to 1533. Schlenkerla lists 1678 as its founding. But the “style” likely goes back much longer. Some claim all beers used to be rauchbiers to some degree, since before modern techniques, beer was brewed (and malt was dried) using open fires. This is up for debate. What’s not up for debate is that Bamberg has clung to these (and other) traditions rather stubbornly, and that rauchbier is a bit of an anachronism, no matter how you slice/brew it. Beechwood is traditional for smoking malt for rauchbier. It imparts a gentle smokiness from its clean-burning wood. There are other woods used for smoking malts — such as oak or cherry — that impart a different character. But beech is what’s used for classic Bamberg rauchbier. (And despite there being various variations on smoke beer, classic rauchbier is what we are focusing on here.) 

The smoke character is not meant to overwhelm or even consistently dominate the flavor of rauchbier. I say that the best beer in the universe is a smoked beer. The worst beer in the universe is also a smoked beer. I once got a tension headache from trying to choke down a full bottle from a brewery (that shall remain unnamed here) that apparently believed the more smoke the better. Smoke beer is not meant to be a “stunt beer.” 

Historically it’s been a beer of daily sustenance. And the locals sustain themselves in quantity. Bamberg has (or at least has historically had) one of the highest per capita beer consumption numbers in the world, and half the town makes up those numbers by drinking rauchbier. 

The two most famous rauchbier breweries in the world are within its medieval center, and there were more rauchbier breweries in Bamberg in the past. Up until as recently as a century ago, there were some 110+ breweries operating within the small city center of approximately 70,000 people. Some continued to dabble in the style for decades; some dropped it altogether; and some have now revived it as its popularity among locals and visitors continues to grow. In addition to Spezial and Schlenkerla among in-town breweries, Greifenklau and Kaiserdom (and the Weyermann pilot brewery) make a rauchbier. Outside of Bamberg, a few dozen others produce at least one classic rauchbier. Rittmayer in Hallerndorf; Hummel in Merkendorf; Posthornla from Hönig in Tiefenellern, as well as versions from Knoblach in Schammelsdorf; Göller from Zeil am Main; Fischer in Greuth; and Kundmüller/Weiherer in Viereth-Trunstadt are some of the more famous and popular examples. Any fear that the style might not survive — and survive in its true authentic “aecht” forms — are not at all well-founded. 

The Beer(s)

Spezial Rauchbier is milder than its more famous relative, Schlenkerla. Many of my friends who would not drink Schlenkerla would drink Spezial. I felt that this was maybe due to the location in which it is served: the Spezial Keller, with its famous 7-spires view — a panoramic perspective across the pitched roofs of the entirety of the city of Bamberg and beyond. (Also known as “the best place on earth.”)

But it’s also due to the beer. Spezial’s smoke is much milder than that of Schlenkerla. Like Schlenkerla, Spezial has its own in-house maltings. Local barley is malted using the smoke from a beechwood fire (Bamberg is surrounded as much by barley fields as it is by beechwood forests.) The grain that has been dampened to start germination is dried out, not in a kiln, but by the beechwood fire — specifically, by the smoke, traditionally at a cool 120 °F (49 °C). How the two most famous smoke beer breweries achieve their desired degree of smokiness is both an open secret and a proprietary process. You can watch videos of beechwood logs being chucked into a furnace at both breweries, but you cannot obtain the resulting malt commercially. The Weyermann Malting Co. also has its own process. They, too, keep the details of their kilning more or less protected. But all three produce a very different product. Weyermann malt is widely available commercially throughout the world. Other maltsters produce a smoked malt, but Weyermann’s is the classic commercial version.

Spezial Rauchbier Lager exhibits a gentle smokiness. Almost treacle-toffee sweet, with a bit more rustic, grainy character. Their regular rauchbier is the mainstay at both the Keller and the tavern. It’s the one I drank that first day, and it was pure heaven. So good that I almost forgot about Schlenkerla. In fact, as I drank one and then another . . . and then another, I thought that there’s no way that anything could possibly be better. 

That’s the thing about rauchbier. Once you get a taste for the stuff, it’s hard to stop. Rare is the beer or beer style that tastes better the more you drink of it. With a big IPA or a fruity sour or a (pastry or regular) stout, the first sip is usually the best. But after two or three pints, the flavors can become overwhelming or even fatiguing, in my experience. Not so with rauchbier, at least not rauchbier done right, as it’s done almost everywhere in Bamberg and environs. Yes, there’s an initial punch of (sometimes powerful) smoke. But if you stick with it — and the locals say you need to drink at least three half liters in order to clear that hurdle — the “base” beer begins to emerge. In the case of Spezial Lager, the base is a smooth, super-drinkable amber lager of moderate strength. It’s almost like what U.S. brewers or drinkers would call a Vienna lager. Spezial also brews a Märzen. Some of these beers taste like what some drinkers (misguidedly) associate with a Märzen: A deeper maltiness bordering on caramel and perhaps a hint of roastiness. In German terms, Märzen is simply a strength designation. In the case of Spezial, it’s a slightly stronger version of their lager. But it’s not always (or even at all) caramelly and/or sweet. What it always is, though, is absolutely delicious. 

The famed entrance to Schlenkerla tavern in Bamberg, Germany.

In the case of Schlenkerla, the Märzen strength is their (liquid) bread and butter. Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen is the most famous example of the style in the world. And with good reason. It’s the best beer in the universe. Okay, okay. Beer is not a competition. Everything has its place, etc. etc. But, in this drinker/brewer/author’s opinion, it’s still the best beer in the universe. After passing the famous, much closer-by tavern to return to Spezial for the better part of my first week in Bamberg, I finally made it through that warmly glowing portal beneath the traditional half-timbered façade just down the alley from home. And I never turned back. At first, the intensity was too much for me. It was a totally different experience from Spezial. Schlenkerla Rauchbier is, in almost every way, much more intense. Its smoke is stronger, more lingering. Its ABV is a bit higher. Its color is darker. Its slight roastiness and dry finish are deeper, and its drinkability even greater. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about rauchbier is that it’s not very drinkable. “I like it, but I could only have one,” is the refrain I’ve heard a hundred times. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once you clear the aforementioned hurdle — and during that first visit after becoming a devotee of Spezial, it took me a while to clear it — you simply can’t seem to stop. Well, I couldn’t. Haven’t. Won’t. 

With Schlenkerla Rauchbier, the emergence of the burnt toffee character reveals itself more slowly, more subtly perhaps. The dry, almost ashen finish invites you back for another sip. The smoke begins to take a backseat. The soft carbonation – Schlenkerla still serves their Märzen exclusively from traditional pitch-lined wooden barrels at the tavern – allows the beer to slide down scarily easily. How many times have I stared into my
Seidla (half-liter glass; at Schlenkerla an unbranded Willi Becher, specifically) marveling at the stuff. Surely it couldn’t be that good.

Surely it is. Every. Single. Sip. Every single time.

The Schlenkerla tavern serves their rauchbier in a half-liter Willi Becher glass served exclusively from traditional pitch-lined wooden barrels.

Starting with these two most famous examples in the most famous settings for the style is almost certainly your best bet for any introduction to rauchbier. (If you can’t make it to the taverns, you can usually find bottles of both at specialty shops pretty much across the globe. But be forewarned: As the beer ages, it can take on a meaty, umami-like character that isn’t found in the freshest stuff at the source.) 

But the journey is just beginning. The style has become more and more popular with local breweries around Bamberg over the years (as well as with U.S. and other craft breweries worldwide). When it comes to breweries around Bamberg, there are many. When I lived there, within an hour’s radius by car, there were more than 375. (Within an hour’s radius by bike, an even better way to explore, there were around 150.) Of these, a handful make rauchbier. All are worth seeking out. Rittmeyer’s, just south of Bamberg, is best consumed at the beautiful Kreuzberg Keller. It has a wonderful, mild smokiness and almost a crisp, even bright finish from the yeast. Wagner’s version is a classic example. Hönig, as with their other delicious beers, brews a rustic version that seems to slide down even more easily than most of the rest somehow. 

Brewing Your Own Rauchbier

As mentioned, classic rauchbier is always made using beechwood smoked barley malt. You can smoke your own (if you have beechwood), but your best bet for concocting a version is to obtain some fresh beechwood barley smoked malt (“Rauchmalz”) from Weyermann. Not to knock local homebrew shops, but the Rauchmalz I have found in bins at mine has been far less fresh than desired. This could be due to it being less than popular and thus sitting out for longer than most malts. Regardless the reason, if Rauchmalz is exposed to the elements for any considerable amount of time, its smokiness will almost always degrade and you will not get a very good result. So, buy bags and buy fresh if possible. Also: No cherrywood or peat-smoked malt (the latter of which should never really be used in brewing beer). We are talking classic here. 

How much Rauchmalz should you use? Go big. Or at least bigger. Some fear that anything over 25% or so will be overwhelming. I find anything under 50% to be nearly undetectable when attempting to capture the character of classic rauchbier. 

Hops are traditionally of the noble German variety for both bittering and aroma. A touch of earthy spiciness is a nice way to balance the mild phenols of classic rauchbier. So, a Tettnang or a Spalt is usually a good choice. Again, don’t be shy with your hops. Rauchbier can be hoppy. Schlenkerla Märzen comes in at 30 IBUs. Spezial and other popular versions are somewhere in the mid- to upper-20s. It’s all about balance here, and the smoke can require a healthy dose of hops to balance its (initial) intensity.

Yeast among classic brewers is almost always the Weihenstephan strain, 34/70. A clean feel and finish are desired so the star of the show can shine. As with smoked meat, “slow and low” is a good approach to fermentation. Pitch your yeast at low temperatures and let them free-rise during primary. After primary, drop the temperatures to the low 30s (around 0 °C) and lager low and long. The smoked malt lends an antioxidative aspect to the beer, so the longer the better.

Clarifying can be done using your usual methods. I’ve used gelatin, lenticular filtration, and plain old long, cold lagering to good effect. Rauchbier varies in color from gold to fiery orange to red to deep brown or even black. Rauchmalz from Weyermann, however, isn’t going to get you to those darker hues on its own. For color, use the old German trick of adding a bit of roasted malt during recirculation to get your desired hue. Adding a touch to the mash as well will of course impart a hint of roastiness, but too much is not appropriate. So go easy there. 

For a lager strength, you can shoot for a specific gravity (SG) in the range of 1.047 to 1.053. For a Märzen strength, a bit higher. For a bock strength, 1.058 to the high 1.060s. 

And with that, let’s take a look at a clone recipe for the rauchbier we brew at Bierkeller in Columbia, South Carolina.

Bierkeller Rauchbier clone

The Bierkeller Rauchbier (pictured here) pours a copper hue and features a flavor somewhere between Schlenkerla and Spezial’s famous examples of the style.

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
SG = 1.055  FG = 1.013
IBU = 28  SRM = 20  ABV = 5.4%

Knowing we at Bierkeller (Columbia, South Carolina) would never be able to replicate either Schlenkerla or Spezial without access to their brewery-smoked malts, we went for something in between with our Rauchbier recipe. We feel it captures some of the depth of smokiness and dryness (and color) of Schlenkerla’s famed rauchbier as well as some of the rusticity and sweetness of the beer brewed at Spezial (especially their Märzen).

10 lbs. (4.5 kg) Weyermann Beechwood Smoked Barley malt
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Munich II malt (10 °L)
6 oz. (170 g) Carafa® Special III (dehusked)
6 AAU German Tettnang hops (60 min.) (1.2 oz./34 g at 5% alpha acids)
2.5 AAU German Tettnang hops (15 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g at 5% alpha acids)
White Labs WLP830 (German Lager), Wyeast 2124 (Bohemian Lager), or SafLager W-34/70 yeast
¾ cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
This is a two-step infusion mash with a 30-minute rest at 144 °F (62 °C) and a 20-minute rest at 154 °F (68 °C). Mash-in at a ratio of 1.5 qts./lb. (3 L/kg) strike water to grains, withholding three ounces (85 g) of the Carafa® until you begin recirculation (vorlauf). At the end of the second saccharification rest, either raise the mash temperature to mash out at 168 °F (76 °C) or begin the vorlauf process. Sparge with enough water to collect 6.5 gallons (24.6 L) of wort in the kettle. 

Boil for 75 minutes adding the first hop addition after 15 minutes and the second with 15 minutes left in the boil. 

Once the boil is complete, chill the wort and aerate well if using a liquid yeast strain. Pitch a healthy amount of yeast (we suggest making a yeast starter if using a liquid yeast or two dry yeast sachets) at 48 °F (9 °C), allowing it to rise to 52 °F (11 °C) during the first week of fermentation, then to 58 °F (14 °C) during the second week. 

When fermentation is complete, lager/secondary at around 30 °F (-1 °C) for a minimum of nine weeks once terminal gravity is achieved. Carbonate to 2.4 volumes.

Issue: September 2021