After a brief sabbatical, Adam Cowden is back with The Man Who Invented Beer, his weekly roundup of all things craft beer, domestic and otherwise.
Did you miss me?
“You were gone?” Don’t worry, January wasn’t exactly full of extra time to buff up on beer for me, either. In fact, I managed to not touch a single drop of the stuff all month. Well, not counting the two Modelos at the fantastic Pilsen BYOB/Mexican-paradise Neuvo Leon, but those were needed to help wash down the two-and-a-half or so full plates of food that came before them.
If you’re wondering what on earth could have compelled me to remain stoically sober throughout the month that featured temperatures colder than the surface of Mars (and if you’re not, I’m about to tell you anyway), the answer is that I was busy doing something I haven’t done since at least two years ago before I finished college (on second thought, much longer than two years ago) — studying! Studying for an interview for a scholarship to study in England next year to be exact, and in a rare example of a time in which sobriety actually paid off, I got it! So come October, you can look forward to lots of (extra) pretentious reviews of the finest (and not so finest) cask ales and extra special bitters that Great Beertain has to over.
For now, though, let’s turn out attention to a warming beer all the way from Bamberg, a town in Franconia (southern-central Germany), that’s been described as “the perfect fireside companion — Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen.
What’s the story?
That name’s a mouthful, huh? Let’s pick it apart.
Aecht — German for “genuine.” As you’re probably well aware, beermakers slap this adjective on their labels often and liberally.
Schenkerla — the brewpub that brews the beer whose name traces back to the pub’s brewmaster in the late 19th century, Andreas Graser. The word Schenkerla roughly translates as “dangling” (no, this isn’t going where you think it is), and was used by the patrons to describe Graser’s slightly-crippled arm-swinging gait. They hadn’t quite developed the notion of “political correctness” by this time (thank God), and the name stuck, eventually replacing “Heller-Bräu” as the brewpub’s name. Apparently, there has been a brewpub at the site since at least 1678 and since this time has brought strangers and locals, clerics and farmworkers, and orchestra conductors and factory workers together over their tasty brown Rauchbier (if their site is to be believed). Oh, and the ceiling is painted with ox blood, too.
Rauchbier — means “Smokebeer.” According to the folks at Schenkerla, the style traces back to Roman times:
The Sumerians and Babylonians already knew of the art of brewing beer which was then later perfected by the German tribes in Roman times. The basic process in those days was similar to the one today – apart from the technical instruments. Green malt always had to be dried, “kilned” as brewers call it. In the past, besides the usage of sun rays, which was quite difficult in Middle and Northern Europe, there was only one way of kilning: Drying the grain over an open fire. Thus it was unavoidable that smoke penetrated the malt and gave it a smoky flavor.
Did you know that Germans perfected the art of brewing beer? Classic Germans.
Märzen — If you’ve read my Spaten Oktoberfest review, you might be confused; didn’t I tell you Märzen was German for “Oktoberfest beer”? It is, sort of: Märzen actually means “March,” which is when Octoberfest beer is typically brewed (remember that most German beers are lagered in cold storage for some time while they mature). I would assume that this Schenkerla Smokebeer is also brewed in March, in contrast to Schenkerla’s stronger “Urbock” offering, which is brewed in the summer and designed for consumption during the “strong-beer season,” October through December. Don’t you wish we had a “strong-beer season”?
Where can I find it?
Next time you spot one of my column entries with a name you’re sure you can’t pronounce without spitting all over your screen, you can be pretty sure it was inspired by a trip to the Bavarian Lodge in Lisle. Seriously, I love this place, and I’m convinced that it’s the best place for beer anywhere in the Chicagoland area. The servers are friendly and knowledgable, the food is incredible, the interior looks like Gaston’s hunting lodge, and the beer selection is unrivaled. Do yourself a favor and make the trip.
If you can’t manage to make it out to Lisle, you can refer to beermenus.com to find the nearest watering hole. I was surprised by the number of places serving this obscure brew.
What does it taste like?
The beer menu at the Bavarian said, “Bacon.” I say, “A campfire,” or maybe, “Twice-smoked salmon.”
If you didn’t find these comparisons altogether appetizing, well, I don’t blame you. Truth be told, I don’t fully understand why anyone would find smoke a desirable additive in beer, especially now that we have the technology to prevent it. It may have been unavoidable for those medieval monk brew masters, who had to kiln the grain over an open fire, but I have to think even they might scoff at the idea of us deliberately putting the smoke back into the recipe. Seems a bit like women who opt for anesthesia-free childbirth because it’s “more natural” – sounds nice in theory, but I imagine much less pleasant than the modern alternative.
On to the beer itself. It’s unusual that I’m turned off by a beer’s appearance; usually, it’s either “wow, that’s a beautiful beer” or “don’t care, get into my belly.” Blame it on the smoky aroma, but in this case, I couldn’t get past the sensation that I was looking at dirty water, or even worse, a bottle of brown dipping tobacco spit. Probably undeserved, but I couldn’t get past it.
The nose is all smoke. Upon sniffing, I was instantly transported back to a memory of smelling one of my sweatshirts the morning after I wore it to a bonfire. Strangely specific, but that was the overwhelming sensation. The taste, happily, is smoother and more complex than the nose suggests; the beech-log smokiness is the main feature up front, but some dunkel-like malty sweetness breaks through at the end, followed by just the tiniest hint of citrusy, fruity hops. It’s a lager, so this is really the end of the story. No fruity esters or lingering floral notes, just a crisp, clean finish with some left over smokiness. This is too bad, because I felt I could have used some extra features to round out the lingering smoke, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the beer would have fared better as an ale…
The mouthfeel is where Schenkerla Rauchbier really shines. One of the most balanced beers I’ve ever had, it’s solid but not thick, creamy but not syrupy or chewy, and gassed just perfectly so that you won’t even notice the carbonation unless you’re looking for it. Strikes that rare balance between thin and heavy, and earns the distinction – substantial, or maybe full bodied. At 5.4%, the ABV also positions it right in this virtuous mean zone; it’s not light, but not too heavy for “session drinking.”
Should I try it?
As you might have guessed, this wasn’t my favorite beer. Let me be upfront though: this was my first “Smokebeer,” and for good reason – I’ve never been enamored with the idea behind the style. This experience only confirmed my suspicion. I could definitely see the appeal for some of you outdoorsy, Ron Swanson, let’s-put-bacon-in-our-whiskey types, though, and if you’re intrigued by the idea, I’d say go for it. I actually didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would, and if you’re going to try a Rauchbier, you might as well go for the 400 year-old “aecht” original.