I remember that Friday afternoon when a Grätzer, also known as Grodziskie, first assaulted my senses. It happened at a German-inspired brewpub that will not be named. The beer was meant to pay tribute to the style popular in 20th Century Poland, when smoked wheat was the primary ingredient in this particular low-alcohol ale. It more so paid tribute to bacon in liquid form.
It’s beers like this that give smoked beers a bad rep. “It is and I think it will remain a very polarizing style,” says Sam Cruz, co-founder of Against the Grain brewery and smokehouse in Louisville, Kentucky.
When done right, the result is more intriguing than insulting. A potent aromatic can startle the senses of even the most experienced beer drinker. On the tongue, smoke can be used to dry out a beer’s flavor or accentuate certain sweet or earthy notes. Think peaches cooked on a grill or even the more familiar charred oak that is used to age booze and beer alike. In traditional smoked beer styles such as the Grätzer and Rauchbier, these flavors are more present, but brewers are also experimenting with adding smoked components to less obvious style such as stouts and sours.
When done wrong, as Schlafly’s brewmaster Stephen Hale learned, it can lead to something that is not only undrinkable, but downright offensive.
“As a homebrewer, I bought a new screen to smoke my grains. I smoked them on the grill. I got some good wood for smoking them, but I was a little fearful I wouldn’t get the character I wanted,” Hale recalls. “So, I added liquid smoke and effectively created the worst homebrew I’ve ever produced in my life. I referred to the beer I made as bacon in a bottle, but not in a good way.”
Use it in the proper amount, so you know it’s there, but it’s not hitting you over the head like a two-by-four.”
The failed experiment, which happened well over a decade ago, did not turn Hale off of the smoked beer category. Schlafly has created four smoked beers since, starting with a smoked porter brewed to commemorate Pope John Pail II’s visit to St. Louis in 1999.
Schlafly, like many breweries brewing smoked beer are a large scale, imports smoked malt from Weyermann in Germany. The malting company has been in business since 1879. Since then, it has become one of the few, and most consistent, sources of smoked malt.
They have two varieties, a beechwood and an oak smoked. The former is applied to barley and the latter to wheat. A specific percentage of smoked malt is combined with non-smoked malt to create a beer with noticeable and natural smoke characteristics without creating the aforementioned “bacon in a bottle.”
“Adding a key flavor component to a lot of beers, in my opinion, ought to be done with restraint and respect,” Hale says. “Use it in the proper amount, so you know it’s there, but it’s not hitting you over the head like a two-by-four.”
This philosophy can be tasted in Schlafly’s latest smoked beer, Smoked Stout. The beer was the most recent release in the brewery’s Cellar Series. Its dark color gives way to a lingering smoke aroma. The smoke flavor itself does not take a starring role, but rather a supporting one to the dominant roasted malt and chocolate flavors.
If it’s less subtlety you seek, look no further than Cruz Blanca in Chicago. Oaxaca’s Mercado 20 de Noviembre inspired the cerveceria and taqueria, which was founded by Rick Bayless in 2016. The market in Mexico specializes in meats cooked-to-order on large grills. The result is a thick smoke that wafts through the market at all times.
Brewer Jacob Sembrano captured this in one of the Chicago brewery’s first beers that bears the market’s nickname, Smoke Alley, as well as its smoky essence. The dry-hopped smoked wheat beer was a light beer with an equally mild smokiness. Sembrano’s second smoked beer takes a more direct approach. Where There’s Smoke plays on the traditional Rauchbier, while also acting as a collaboration with chef de cuisine Andres Padilla.
“Rauchbier can be super hammy or they can be delicate,” Sembrano says. “I wanted to veer on the more delicate, savory side verses really powerful. The kind of smoke that [Padilla] was looking for – where you’re getting a lot of soft smoldering smoke verses acrid smoke – I felt like I could capture and represent it in the beer. It’s dark, there’s a little bit of chocolate rye and rye malt in it to contribute this peppery spice note. Just a little malty sweet to take the edge off of all these elements and make it a rounder product.”
For the smoke, Sembrano turned to Caleb Michalke of Sugar Creek Malts in Indiana. To avoid the “hammy” flavor, Michalke cold smoked the grains with soft, fruiter wood. Like any good brewer, Sembrano knows the importance of selecting the right ingredients for the right beer. Smoked grains are no exception, as you can smoke using applewood for its fruit quality, or maybe maple for sweeter notes. Each type of smoke leads to a different flavor, and Sembrano says it’s important to understand the nuances in order to create an enjoyable smoked beer.
It allowed us to get even more pointed with the flavors and produce more delicate beers.”
While Cruz Blanca’s smoked-to-order malts may seem like a luxury, Against the Grain takes the custom smoking process a step further.
The brewery and smokehouse opened in 2011, adjacent to Slugger Field in Louisville, Kentucky. It only made sense for the facility that put as much pride into smoking meat into brewing beer to combine the two. Initially, they purchased smoked grains from an outside source, but quickly created a cold smoker, which can hold over 400 pounds of grains at a time. That allowed them to become the first and only brewery able to move the smoking process in-house.
“It really upped our game by being able to do a lot of things: It allowed us to get even more pointed with the flavors and produce more delicate beers as opposed to that standard beech wood or oak smoked-style,” Cruz says.
Against the Grain has used tobacco, sage and Brazilian woods to smoke grains. Bo & Luke uses a combination of cherry and beechwood-smoked malt and then the original imperial stout was aged in Pappy Van Winkle barrels (now they are aged in Angel's Envy barrels). McFanny Baw is a barrel-aged Rauchbier made with beech wood and peat-smoked grain that is finished with alder wood-smoked salt. While My Hammy Weiss, a summertime Weiss beer, is made with classic beech wood smoked malts that do indeed give the beer bacon notes.
The brewery has used smoked grains in sour and Brett beers. “The sky is the limit with something like this.”