Drying malts in an open kiln or over a fire was, in pre-industrial times, the only way to prepare them for brewing, so most historic beers likely had a degree of smokiness. These days, using smoked malts is a choice, one that can impart varying flavors depending on the wood used. Here are six smoked beers that run the gamut:
Jack’s Abby Fire in the Ham
If you associate smoked beers with darker malts, allow this smoked lager to blow your mind. It pours a golden color with a white, fluffy head, already emitting sweet-and-savory notes reminiscent of maple bacon. But the mouthfeel is what makes this beer memorable: the pillowy soft bread base washes light beechwood smoke and a baked apple spice across the tongue before the flavors gently recede.
Independent Fermentations Grätzer
Only a few American breweries have revived the light-bodied, historical style known as piwo grodziskie (in Polish) or grätzer (in German). Brewed with smoked wheat, this easy-drinking version tastes just barely charred; in fact, the smoke leaves more of an impression after the swallow than it does on the tongue. Instead, citrusy wheat and just a hint of ashy bitterness define the demure sip.
HaandBryggeriet Norwegian Wood
Norwegian farmers traditionally brewed their house beers with juniper, which inspired this smoked farmhouse beer made with juniper branches and berries that grow near the brewery. The combination of smoke and botanicals intertwines flavors of herbal berry, toasted nuts and sweet pine. The smoke is quiet, almost roasty, with a bitter pine finish reminiscent of fresh hops.
Jester King Gotlandsdricka
Vikings may have eaten some questionable foods—barley porridge, anyone?—but apparently, they had decent taste in beer. They drank gotlandsdricka, a smoked, sour beer, which Jester King’s brewers reinterpreted for the modern age with a complex malt bill of beechwood- and birchwood-smoked barley, rye and oak-smoked wheat. The sip is layered with citrusy wheat, cereal grains, light oak and a prominent herbal tone from added juniper and sweet gale, a plant sometimes substituted for hops.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen
Bamberg, Germany, is synonymous with smoked beers, and Aecht Schlenkerla is one of its foremost ambassadors. The brewery smokes its own malts to produce a range of beers, but the Märzen is the textbook example: The deep, pumpernickel flavor supports a strong ashy smoke character before a snappy lager finish cleans up the substantial sip.
No, this isn’t that Abraxas. This German-brewed lichtenhainer is based on a seldom-seen style of historical wheat beer related to Berliner weisses and goses. If you’re feeling adventurous, give this slightly tart-and-smoky brew a try; you’ll find some fruit sweetness up front with lemony tartness that cuts in midsip. The smoke builds after a few swallows.