Smoked beer may sound like some newfangled trend, but it’s actually a centuries-old tradition that has been making a comeback. Before the motors, heaters and fans were invented, maltsters would dry grains over the smoke from an open flame, infusing the beer with a robust barbecue aroma. As techniques for drying grains became modernized, smoked beers became less and less prevalent.
In Bamberg, Germany, the rauchbier (smoked beer) tradition is still going strong with a handful of breweries that produce different types of smoked beers, such as the Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen or the seasonal Rauchbier Urbock.
When it comes to smoking beers, porters and stouts have been the traditional favorites for many American microbreweries, but a growing number of brewers are starting to experiment by adding smoked malts to a variety of beer styles.
At Chili Line Brewing Company in Santa Fe, New Mexico, it’s all smoked beer, all the time. According to owner and head brewer Alexander Pertusini, Chili Line is the only brewery currently in the United States to offer exclusively smoked beers.
All seven of Pertusini’s flagship brews are smoked to degrees ranging from one to 50 percent using various types of wood, and are made with an eye toward the latest trends in the craft beer industry.
In an attempt to stand out in an increasingly crowded market, Pertusini embarked on a mission to find something new and exciting to bring to New Mexico’s craft beer scene.
After a spontaneous post-college graduation trip to Bamberg, Pertusini happened upon the Schlenkerla brewery, one of the oldest Rauchbier breweries in the world, where he sipped his very first smoked hefeweizen. Blown away by the beer’s balanced, smoked banana bread flavor, Pertusini knew that he had found his niche.
Today, in keeping with tradition, Pertusini sources Chili Line’s smoked grains from Bamberg’s famous Weyermann malt house and makes his very own smoked hefeweizen, known as the El Jefe, modeled after that first beer he tasted at Schlenkerla.
Even his two smokiest beers, La Bamba, a dark German beechwood smoked lager, and Stara Baba, a Polish oak-smoked wheat beer attract a wide range of drinkers.
Photo courtesy of Photos by Alexander Pertusini
Smoked beer reveals a fascinating complexity, described by Pertusini as a “meal in a glass,” and reveals a nuanced flavor that varies according to the type of wood used during the smoking and the style of beer.
While Chili Line might be the only U.S. brewery to deal solely in smoked beers, there are a growing number of breweries producing smoked beers (beyond just porters and stouts).
HammerHeart Brewing Company in Lino Lakes, Minnesota, offers a consistent selection of smoked beers, from an oak-smoked wheat hefeweizen and a bourbon barrel-aged mesquite smoked Old Ale, to a smoked Irish stout.
At Austin, Texas’ Live Oak Brewing, which refers to itself as the “Bamberg on the Colorado [River],” there are six different styles of smoked beers on rotation. And in the northeast, Great North Aleworks in Manchester, New Hampshire makes a special release known as the Smokin’ Rauchbier.
If you are looking to try the historic style, you no longer have to book a flight to Germany to find out what you've been missing.
*This article was originally published in October 2017.