In college it was a saying we had- probably rooted in a comment one of us made in all sincerity at some point. “ we'll go out and do some smokin', drinkin', you know.” Someone said it and the rest of us picked up on how stupid it sounded and from that point until now, we still say it tongue in cheek in remembrance of that statement.
And yesterday in an odd corner of Germany's Franconia region I was reminded of my college friends as I tried smoked beer for the first time. The idea of a smoked beer is such an oddity- I didn't give it much thought before we arrived at the former monastery in the story-book cute town of Bamberg. It is what one imagines a small German town would look like...with flowers spilling out of windowboxes attached to meticulously painted and maintained homes. Small shops along the street welcome tidy waves of locals and tourists and the air is crisp and clear with sunshine spilling into every alley. Before the industrial revolution harsh winters required pickling vegetables, and to this day vinegar is a prominent flavor. Cured meats are present along with sausages, brats, and schnitzels. Sadly, after world war two an “Americanization” took hold leading to more processed, cheaper, and more convenient foods. As has been the case in every other corner of the globe when this happens authentic flavors and recipes are the first casualty. Next tastes change and the standard for normal is set at a different level. This is also the case with beer.
Smoked beer is not the result of an overly- creative beermeister trying for the next great thing. It's the original way that beer was made. For centuries, beer has been made with the same recipe with slight variations in preparation methods. One of these variations is the drying of the malt. Malt is the germinated (soaked) cereal grain (wheat or barley) which is soaked so that it is activated to produce sugar and enzymes which facilitate fermentation. Once soaked, they need to be dried. Further south, beermakers would do this in the sun- but as beer making migrated northward, it became necessary to dry these grains over a fire. This is where the smoke flavor comes from. But with the industrial revolution, the more efficient gas powered hot air-driers replaced wood burning driers, effectively removing the smoked flavor of the old days.
But at Schlenkerla Tavern and brewery, the Rauchbier (smokebeer) tradition continues. The place is tough to find when you're casually walking by since it is difficult to stand out in a perfectly groomed town, but the institution does not suffer as a result. The building stands shoulder to shoulder to its neighbors on a street called Dominikanerstrasse. It is a narrow one, cursed by motorists but loved by pedestrian tourists and so Schlenkerla gets plenty of traffic: so much so that our group had to arrive early in order not to interfere with the lunch rush. But a ten-thirty beer tasting is not too far afield for our class. We were ushered into the circa 1310 arched room once used by monks for meeting, eating and drinking and were greeted with a tall dark glass of frothy smokebeer. The beginning of the owner's presentation was almost universally ignored as my fascinated classmates and I sniffed, photographed and sipped the strange brew. It was adictive to investigate- the first sniff was like a sausage! No- roasted game! Look at that color- it is clearer than a guinness I think. It doesn't have the same foam, though. The first sip elicited curled noses from some and groans of appreciation from others. It was then that we were capable of turning our attention to the presenter of this product, Mr. Matias Trum. He laughed when he saw some didn't appreciate Smoke beer on its first sip- saying that while the beer is a little rough making its the first impression, everyone likes it after they've had three. Matias is the sixth generation of his family making Smokebeer here at Schlenkerla. In fact the tavern is named after his great great grandfather who walked with a limp. Shlenkerla is a German reference to a person walking crooked- from an injury or from drink and Matias suspects his ancestor had an accident in the brewery. In the old days, beer was fermented in big wooden barrels that were very difficult to work with. According to Matias, being a brewer was a dangerous and sometimes deadly occupation. His family makes smoke beer by burning Beech wood from the surrounding forest contributing extra flavor to the smoke that penetrates the malt. The official description of the aroma includes smoked sausage and bacon- not something you'd naturally be inclined to drink. But out of reverence for the taste of the past and indignation towards the today's taste molded by the industrial drive towards ease and convenience- I vow to drink it and to like it. And I do. It is heavy- and you don't taste hops- only the smoked barley. But it isn't overwhelming because of a slight sweetness that balances it out. It does have a smoked sausage flavor, but I'm not sure if this is because smoke overwhelms the memory of sausage and that's what this beer brings to mind by simply having a smoke flavor- but that is for a neurologist specializing in senses and memory to figure out.
The brewery offers other beers- heavier and lighter. The wheat smokebeer (which we also got to taste) has more sweetness and a milder flavor. Lentbeer is available only during the Lenten season (this part of Germany is very Catholic) and is brewed under the Bavarian purity law 1516. It has more yeast and actually advertises during the season of fasting, Lentbeer has the “Brotzeit already included.” Brotzeit is german for afternoon snack. Another seasonal offering is Urbock which is a stronger beer for the winter months (with Original gravity of 17.5% and alcohol of 6.5%). Of course for the everyday drinker there is the easy to approach Schlenkerla Lager- clear golden beer with a hint of smoke because it is made in the same kettles and with the same yeast as the smoke beer.
Most of the product is sold direct to restaurants and shops around Bamberg still in the barrel. Bottles are exported as far away as Japan and North America, and of course Schlenkerla is available around Germany.
The upper limit on consuming this beer is one for me because it is very filling. The wheat beer is lighter and I could be convinced to have a second or third if I hadn't eaten much before. Regardless, I feel like a bit of an insider in the world of history being able to actually taste what beer was like for centuries before it changed in relatively recent years. It is a taste that could easily be forgotten and that is a shame. It makes me wonder at the hundreds of preparation methods that have changed and how this has changed our perception of what tastes good and what tastes bad. How many recipes are forever gone, and for that matter, how many foods and drinks have fallen out of cultivation and eventually existence? It seems that the globalized homogenization of taste is stripping away fringe products revered by localized cultures for centuries. It makes me applaud Matias, Schlenkerla, Smokebeer, and the locals who love it. A small amount is exported, so if you find it and have an opportunity to try it, do. It is a sip of history that has defied the machine of mass consumption and thinking of it now gives me the same goose-bumps I had upon the first sniff.