German Beer Styles: What is Rauchbier?
One of the more unusual styles of beer out there may also be one of the oldest; Rauchbier, pronounced “row-sh-beer” where row rhymes with cow. Rauchbier literally means “smoke beer” in German and lives up to its name with a smoky bacon-like flavor. Some even call it “bacon in a glass.”
Why do we think it’s one of the oldest? There’s a good likelihood that at some point, all beers were actually Rauchbiers. When making beer, barley is dried in order to stop the germination process. Back in the day, besides leaving barley out in the sun, which was quite difficult, the only way to dry malt was over an open fire. Naturally, using this method, some smoke would be absorbed by the malted barley giving the finished beer a smoky flavor. Now green malt can be dried using indirect heat, but some breweries and malters continue to practice this age-old technique.
One such brewer, and probably the most famous Rauchbier brewer is Aecht Schlenkerla in Bamberg Germany. Housed in what was originally a Medieval brewpub called The Blue Lion, this brewery has been brewing Rauchbier under one name or another for close to 500 years. They dry their malt in-house and use local beechwood. Their Rauchbiers (they make several styles including a Marzen, Weizen and Helles) have become the gold standard for what a Rauchbier should taste like, but today the smokiness can vary wildly from brewer to brewer.
A Rauchbier can be an acquired taste as most people aren’t used to their drinks being smoky but others absolutely love them. Flavor notes are going to be smoky, campfire, with some malt sweetness that can lead to bacon and smoked meat flavors. Hops character is usually non-existent to slightly mild.
Locally, Mystic Brewery recently released a Rauchbier called Auerbach’s Rauchbier, and yes it’s a tribute to Red Auerbach the legendary Celtic’s coach who was known to smoke a cigar when victory was certain. While the Schlenkerla’s are all lagers with the exception of the Weizen, Mystic’s Rauchbier is an ale and is cloudy and darker than the clear amber lagers from Bamberg. It is a fantastic Rauchbier with well balanced smoke and a sessionable ABV that makes it quite approachable. Other notable local Rauchbiers are Jack’s Abby Fire in the Ham and Sam Adams released a Winter seasonal Bonfire Rauchbier in their mixed 12 packs.