Beer that tastes like breakfast? It almost sounds too good to be true, but until relatively recently in beer-making history, it was the norm: Before the mid-1700s, barley used for brewing was dried over wood fires, and all beers tasted a little smoky as a result. Today, we may have the technology for pale, clean-tasting malt, but smoked beers are making a comeback, from Bamberg, Germany’s traditional Rauchbiers to more-creative interpretations by America’s best craft brewers.
These probably aren’t beers you’ll want to order by the pint at your local watering hole — they’re a bit intense and bizarre-tasting unless you drink them with food. The good news is, they’re the best possible accompaniment to smoky, slow-cooked meats like barbecued ribs, cheeses like cheddar or gouda, Chinese food (especially if it involves sesame oil, black bean sauce, or hoisin), Mexican food (especially carne asada or anything in a mole sauce), game meats, burgers, mushrooms… you get the picture. Discover how much better these foods are with smoked beer, and you’ll never want to be Rauchbier-less again.
If you’re the kind of person who strays from darker malts, don’t worry: Not all these beers are as heavy as they may seem. Brauerei Spezial in Bamberg makes a lightly smoky lager that’s crisp and amber-colored. It’s very dry and slightly nutty, with an unmistakable bacon note in the finish. Because it’s not so intense, this beer is the ideal partner for meats like ham, kielbasa, barbecued chicken, or pork chops.
While you’re checking out smoked beers, you shouldn’t miss the Aecht Schlenkerla classics from Brauerei Heller-Trum, also in Bamberg. Both the ruby-colored Märzen and the bigger-bodied Urbock are rich and smoky, slightly spicy and toasty. You’ll get more caramel flavor in the Märzen and more tobacco in the Urbock.
But my favorite might be the darkest (and most local) of the smoked beers I’ve had recently. Captain Lawrence Brewing Company in upstate New York makes a delicious smoked porter that smells a bit like a coffee milkshake with candied bacon in it (hey, that’s not a bad idea!). It’s creamy and understated with roasty chocolate notes that make grilled steak or lamb chops taste even richer. You could braise a bunch of short ribs in it (and serve the extra on the side), or amplify the awesomeness of your best pot of chili. Not that your cooking needs any help.