Bavaria's World-Class Smoked Beer

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Photo by MACSURAK/FlickrCC

Some beers taste like peach. Some taste like cherry. Some -- you know who you are -- taste like water. But only one beer tastes like smoked sausage.

Bavaria's Schlenkerla -- brewed in Bamberg -- is the granddaddy of the smoked beers, a rare but esteemed style that uses malt dried over an open flame (it's called rauchbier in German). The result is a dominating smoky flavor: think liquid ham. Any variety of beer can be "smoked," and Schlenkerla produces a Märzen, an Urbock, and a Wheat (it also makes an un-smoked Helles).

Malt smoking used to be a common practice, but for the past two centuries or so Schlenkerla and a few smaller cousins have been the sole keepers of the, um, flame. Smoked beer is staging something of a comeback in Germany, making the brewery an increasingly important part of the Bamberg economy. Like many traditional German breweries, Schlenkerla is as much a tavern as a brewery, so it's worth a trip if you're in southern Germany.

Despite its uniqueness, Schlenkerla is consistently ranked among the best beers in the world. I've been drinking Schlenkerla on and off for about 10 years. I like it, but only occasionally and in small doses (unfortunately, most bars that carry it in the States, like Washington, D.C.'s Brickskeller, only have it in 16.9 ounce bottles).

Smoked beer is gaining popularity in the United States, too -- among others, Harpoon, Sierra Nevada, New Glarus, Saranac, Sebago, and Goose Island have introduced smoked offerings in recent years. Two of these, Harpoon's Rauchfetzen Smokebier and Sierra Nevada's Imperial Smoked Porter, were on tap the other day at Brickskeller, so I stopped by for a taste test, pairing the two against Schlenkerla's wheat expression.

Of the three, I liked Sierra Nevada the best. It had all the creamy goodness of a porter, with a well-rounded smokiness that complemented but didn't overwhelm the rest of the beer's flavors. But while I usually love Harpoon's offerings, the Rauchfetzen was weak in all respects -- not much smokiness and not enough structure. That said, first-timers to the small world of smoked beers might prefer it for just that reason.

The Schlenkerla, on the other hand, is truly a specialist's brew. There are really two separate, dominant flavors here: first, an overwhelming smoke (more like a sausage than a ham), then a soft but structured wheat. It reminded me a bit of Rogue's Chipotle Ale, in which the smoked chili flavor hits you like a freight train, then steps into the background as the ale flavors come to the fore.

As usual, it was too much for me. And as usual, I'll be back for another glass in a few months.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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