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

One of the most interesting breakfasts I ever had was an early morning picnic 15 miles into an icefield in Alaska, at the invitation of a local couple with an excessive taste for the outdoors. We set up picnic tables on the ice, ate bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon, and washed them down with an alder-smoked beer made at a small brewery in Juneau, the state capital of Alaska.

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).

Suggested Topics
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Sport
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
i100
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Litigation NQ+

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE NQ to MID LEVEL - An e...

MANCHESTER - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION -

Highly Attractive Pakage: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - A highly attractive oppor...

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?