Gimmicks sell. Sriracha, for example, is now barrel-aged; everything is now barrel-aged. It seemed a similar gimmick was afoot when a buddy handed us a dark pint and asked “Wanna bite of my ham sandwich?” We bit. It tasted like a campfire smells, plus some of the aforementioned ham, finished off with a mellow malty sweetness. This was a Rauchbier, literally a “smoked beer”, and it was one hell of a delicious oddity.
The strange flavor combination is not actually a parlor trick. Though relatively rare today, smoked beer has actually been around for about as long as beer has, some early brewers having dried their malt over an open flame and thus imparted smoky flavors. Ruddy-faced Germans kept the tradition alive even after modern technology removed the necessity of smoking malt, and the modern explosion of craft beers has breathed new life into the old flame and its pungent exhaust, too. Because their flavor profiles range from hearty to downright bacon-filled savoriness, Rauchbiers — especially smoked porters — are also the perfect winter beer, sipped alone or paired with charred meats. Crack one of these five in your living room in front of a roaring fire; if you don’t have a fireplace, it won’t be hard to imagine one.
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Aecht Schlenkerla Urbock
Need a smoked beer with some history? Over 600 years of brewing ought to do the trick. Bamberg, Germany is the birthplace of the modern Rauchbier, and Aecht Schlenkerla is one of two foundational breweries in the town. They make an urbock, a märzen and weizen; we like the urbock, the darkest of the three. On the nose the lager is acrid, like the cold embers of a just-doused campfire (they smoke their malts with beechwood logs, by the way). Its taste is full of candied sugar and caramel malts, and after several sips the smokiness blends in to create a deep profile. It’s like a highly carbonated smoked ham. Pair it with spicy foods like Chinese or Thai takeout, or just drink it by itself and know you’re drinking one of the smoked beers.
The Bruery Smoking Wood
The Bruery’s take on the smoked beer is slightly off-kilter, as is the brewery’s trademark. There are actually two versions, the Rye Barrel Aged and the Bourbon Barrel Aged, both taking the smoked beer to the next level with the help of some tasty spirits. The result is, appropriately, a hot and heavy alcohol bomb at 10-13 percent ABV. Peaty Scotch fans will love the blending of classic spirit profiles (vanilla, caramel, spice) with a light blend of smoke.
Stone Smoked Porter
Stone’s version of the Rauchbier is about as full and balanced as they come, and sits at a tame 6 percent ABV — which is odd, considering the monstrosities they’re known for creating (Oaked Arrogant Bastard, anyone?). It’s an English-style porter — bold chocolate and coffee notes, especially on the nose — that also taps into campfire flavors and spice. Expect less “smoked ham” and more dark notes in this one.
Left Hand Smoke Jumper
Belied by Smoke Jumper’s badass name is its predilection toward the brewery’s more tamely titled Milk Stout: inky blackness, creamy mouthfeel and plenty of chocolate. Its big imperial porter (8.8 percent ABV) body is only bolstered by a moderate dose of smoke. This is a good smoked beer for those on the fence — it could just as well be called a somewhat smoky porter.
Alaskan Smoked Porter
Aecht Schlenkerla smokes its malts with beech wood; Alaskan brewery does it with local alder. Alaskan’s been making this beer since 1988, making it one of the earliest American versions. Its similarities to the Schlenerkla Urbock are undeniable, but expect a bit more hoppiness and a charcoal note that lingers throughout. They recommend it with cheesecake, which sounds genius to us.