guide for English-speakers:
"row-ch-beer" (pronounce "row" like "cow" and "ch" like "x" in "Mexico" when the country's name is pronounced by a native speaker.)
Once upon a time, all beers were Rauchbiers, so to speak. The term Rauchbier simply means "smoke beer" in German, and with the ancient kilning methods of drying green brewer's malt over open fires, all grains picked up smoky flavors and passed them on to the beers made from them. Today, however, with "clean" malt being the dominant brewing grist, old-style "smoke beers" have set themselves apart as an atavistic rarity, a throwback to a time gone by. Most Rauchbiers, like most Bavarian beers, are barley-based lagers. They are darkish-amber and opaque, with an alcoholic strength ranging from 4.8 to 6.5% by volume.
Smoke Gets In Your Beer
Modern Rauchbier evolved over centuries as a local specialty in the Franconian city of Bamberg and its environs in northern Bavaria. There, a few breweries still make this old and unusual beer style. The only Rauchbier that is nowadays readily available in most parts of the United States, however, is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier made by Heller-Bräu Trum KG.
This brewery makes several smoky brews. The traditional Schlenkerla Rauchbier, considered the archetype of all Rauchbiers, is brewed and aged much like a Märzen. It has an alcohol level by volume of 5.1%. Schlenkerla Rauchweizen is a smoky Weissbier with 5.2% alcohol by volume, while Schlenkerla Lager is a smoky Helles-type blond brewed to an alcohol level of 4.8%. Schlenkerla also brews two seasonal smoky offerings, an Urbock sold in October in bottles only, with a Bockbier alcohol level of 6.5%; and a Fastenbier, a Doppelbock-like Lenten strong beer, available only in the spring as a cask-conditioned brew.
Aecht Schlenkerla is considered the gold standard for modern Rauchbiers. The word "aecht" is the Franconian mangling of the High-German "echt," which means "true" or "original." However, there are other breweries in Bamberg and environs that make excellent Rauchbiers as well. Among these, the Brauerei Spezial is perhaps the best known. Seversal Rauchbiers are made from a foundation grist of pale, "clean" Pils malt, which is then mixed with a significant, but widely varying, portion of malt that is kilned the old way, over an open fire fueled by local beechwood. Others, like most Schlenkerla Rauchbiers, are made entirely from smoked malt, without any "regular" malt addition. The Bamberg-style of drying brewer's grist is similar to the kilning of malt over peat moss for Scotch whisky. The smokiness from the beechwood imparts a bacony flavor to the beer. Most smoked malt nowadays comes from commercial malting companies. The world's best-known so-called Rauchmalz (smoked malt) comes from the Weyermann Malting Company, which happens to be located in Bamberg as well. Schlenkerla, however, is one of the last breweries in Germany that still malts its own grain. Most Rauchbiers are brewed with a bit more hops than the average Bavarian beer to counterbalance the otherwise too assertive smokiness.
The Schlenkerla brewery's legal name is now Heller-Bräu Trum KG, owned by the Trum family. The brew house and fermentation cellars are in the old-town section in the center of Bamberg. These production facilities are not open to the public. But within a short walk from the brew house is perhaps Schlenkerla's most famous address, its public beer hall at Dominikanerstrasse 6. If the Hofbräuhaus in Munich is the Mecca of all beer pilgrims, the Brauausschank Schlenkerla is clearly the Medina. This venerable drinking establishment used to be a medieval brewpub known as Zum Blauen Löwen (At The Blue Lion). It is first mentioned in a document dating from 1405. It is not certain when the current version of the Rauchbier emerged in and around Bamberg, but, because of the malting methods employed by the Schlenkerla brewery to this day, it is reasonably to assume that some form of smoked beer has been brewed by this enterprise for at least five centuries.
The name Schlenkerla is Bamberg slang for "Schlenkerer," a High-German word denoting a person who is in the habit of swinging his arms while shuffling along. The patrons of the Blue Lion affixed this nickname to a fellow named Andreas Graser, who took over this classic Bamberg watering hole in 1877. Soon the people began using the publican's epithet as a synonym for the tap room, too, in which he dispensed his smoky brew ... and this is how the unusual Schlenkerla Rauchbier got its unusual brand name.
In its long history, Schlenkerla Rauchbier has won many honors and prizes, including eight gold medals from the German Argicultural Society (DLG, left) and, annually since 1883, the Seal of Quality from the German Agricultural Marketing Board (CMA, right).