Once upon a time, smoked beers were common. This was more a result of technology than anything else. You can dry malt just by spreading it out on the floor and letting it dry naturally, but if you're a commercial brewery trying to make a consistent product economically, you need to find a way to dry malt consistently, quickly, and in bulk. The process of kilning malt also imparts additional flavors, which is an added bonus. Initial kilns were direct fired, so the combustion gasses and smoke passed right through the malt, imparting that smoky character. However, once maltsters figured out a way to dry their product using indirect heat (looking at early 18th century here), smoke quickly disappeared from most beer. Some regional breweries have kept the process alive, notably in what was northern Bavaria (in particular, Bamburg), so we end up with things like Rauchbiers and Smoked Beers. I'm a little unclear on why these are distinct styles, but Rauchbiers seem to have a more narrow definition, basically using German lager recipes like Märzens, but with smoked malt, whereas the more general Smoked Beer can be just about anything with smoked malt.
Smoked flavors in beer can be a bit intimidating, but I find that after the initial shock of smoke (who put their lit cigar in my beer!?), my palate adjusts to the point where it can become enjoyable. Some smoked beers can certainly be overpowering and I don't think I've ever gotten to the point where I can taste the meaty, bacon-like flavor everyone talks about with smoked beers, but I can find an appreciation for a well crafted version or one that incorporates just a touch of smoke. As it turns out, I inadvertently went on a smoked beer kick recently, so this week, I'm going to review four beers that use smoked malt in one way or another.
We begin with the most obvious smoked beer of the lot, a tribute to a time when Norwegian farmers were required to brew their own ale (they don't say why, but I guess the lack of potable water made such practices common back then). Not being professional brewers, they generally just kilned the malt over an open fire, thus imparting that smoky character. In an added twist, those wacky Norwegians spiced their smoked beer with juniper twigs and berries. HaandBryggeriet enjoys a pretty healthy reputation here at Kaedrin HQ, and they seem to get a kick out of smoked beers, so we thought this one would be worth checking out:
HaandBryggeriet Norwegian Wood - Pours a deep, dark amber color with a finger of white head. Smells really interesting, but I'm having trouble articulating it. The most prominent feature is obviously a light smokiness, but there's a lot of other stuff going on too. Perhaps a rich malt aroma is also there, but there's something bright about the finish of the aroma too. Taste starts off sweet, some nice crystal malt character along with a very, very slight roast flavor that leads into the smokiness, followed by that brightness from the nose, maybe a kinda fruit flavor (I'm guessing this is the fault of the juniper berries). Mouthfeel, medium bodied and well carbonated, very well balanced, goes down easy. Overall, this is a very well balanced, complex beer. The smoke is extremely well integrated; it's the star of the beer and most prominent aroma/flavor, but it doesn't dominate the beer either. It's just that it's so well integrated into the rest of the beer. As smoked beers go, this may be the best straight version I've ever had. B+ (borderline A-)
Beer Nerd Details: 6.5% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a on 1/11/13. Label sez: Batch 358. Total bottles 1500.
So a pretty powerful start to smoked beer week. Next up, I strap on my Clown Shoes and Slay some Vampires. Stay tuned.