Drinking in a smoke-filled beer: Michael Jackson travels from Alaska to Sainsbury's to toast a strange brew that gets its flavour from smoking over a log fire
Saturday 22 January 1994
I could never have imagined that the making of smoked beer would reach Alaska, or any part of the United States, but there is certainly no brew better suited to the classic New York breakfast: the salmon is smoked, and so is the beer. An Easterner preferring pancakes for breakfast might opt for the maple-smoked beer which is occasionally made at the Vermont Pub and brewery in Burlington.
The arrival of smoked beer at my local Sainsbury's was, I suppose, marginally less exciting. But it has sold well enough these past months to have become a permanent fixture. I resist the temptation to have it with the breakfast kippers, but take a more relaxed view concerning a glass with smoked cheese at lunch, or before an open fire on a winter's night. The aroma of the beechwood in the beer and the logs on the fire conjure entertainingly Gothic dreams.
Perhaps Sainsbury's customers have discovered these delights. Otherwise, on what occasions would they drink such a strange brew? Or do they buy it once and never again? When I have shared it with friends, some have said it tastes of liquid kippers, while others have compared it to tar. You could say that it is the beer world's counterpart to a single malt Scotch from Islay, such as Laphroaig or Lagavulin.
I suppose all beers were once smoky. The barley has, in the malting process, to be dried in a kiln, as it once was over an open fire. Few maltings these days have open fires, but the technique has been retained to some extent in Scotland, in the peat-kilning for whisky.
Some brewers buy whisky malt from Scotland to give a similar tang to their beer. Adelscott, a lightly smoky French Biere au Malt a Whisky, is occasionally sighted in Britain and is available in the Channel ports. I recently sampled a butterscotch-tasting Belgian brew, just as cheekily dubbed McGregor, among 70-odd draughts at Bear Street (the name is in English), a bar opposite the Stock Exchange in Brussels.
A similar beer, called Nessie, is made by the local brewery at Eggenberg, between Salzburg and Linz in Austria. Yet another emanates from a pub-brewery run by Baron Bachhofen von Echt, at Nussdorf, on the edge of the Vienna Woods. In the town of Grodzisk, near Poznan in Poland, the local speciality beer is made from malt smoked over oak, but this brew is hard to find.
The heartland of smoked beer is the beautiful, baroque town of Bamberg, in Franconia. Brewing vessels dating from 800BC have been found in this part of Bavaria, and the region is deeply conservative in its beer-making techniques. The area is dense with beech forests, and these provide the fuel that gives such a distinctive taste to the local smoked beer, usually identified on the label as Rauchbier.
Bamberg, north of Nuremberg and between Bayreuth and Wurzburg, was established in 1015 by Benedictines. Their former abbey had its own brewery, which is now a museum of beer-making. The town has nine or 10 breweries, three of which produce smoked beer, and there are several others nearby making the style.
One of the producers in Bamberg, the Brauerei Spezial of the family Christian Merz, is also a small and basic inn, with seven bedrooms. Another, the Greifenklau (Griffin's Claw ) Brewery, makes a light smoked beer and offers rooms in a modern adjoining hotel, the Altenburgblick.
The most famous producer is the Heller brewery, serving its beer along with smoked meats and other hearty local foods at the vaulted Schlenkerla tavern in Dominikaner Strasse. The brewery itself sits above lagering cellars cut into a nearby hillside.
In a barn in the brewery yard are neat ricks of beechwood. Below ground, in a cramped corridor, a set of gauges and controls, and a cast-iron hatch in the wall, reveal the beechwood fire. It looks like the firebox of a small locomotive or of a mad inventor's steam-powered submarine.
Above, a small whitewashed building resembling a chapel turns out to be the smokehouse. The grains sit on a mesh and the smoke rises through, swirling like a mist and smelling like a bonfire.
On ground level, the brewhouse has copper vessels, brass rails, white tiled walls and quarry-tiled floors. The place shines with the pride of its owners, the fifth generation of their family to have brewed Aecht ('genuine') Schlenkerla Rauchbier.
This is the smoked beer that has found its way to Sainsbury's. It is made to the malty density of a Marzen (March) beer, but emerges with the unexceptional alcohol content of 4.8 per cent. It has an intensely smoky aroma, palate and finish, with a malty middle, only a light hop character, and the smoothness imparted by a lager yeast.
Locals in Bamberg say that at least three litres, perhaps even four or five, must be consumed before the taste can be acquired. They are either being needlessly pessimistic or artfully boosting sales.
Gasthof Brauerei Spezial, Obere Konig Str 10, Bamberg 8600 (010 49 951 24304). Hotel Altenburgblick, Panzer Leite 59, Bamberg 8600 (010 49 951 54023).
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