Drying malt over an open flame in a smoke kiln may impart a smoky character to the malt. This character may carry over to beers brewed with the smoked malt. Prior to the modern era, drying malted barley in direct sunlight was used in addition to drying over flames. Even though hot air kiln drying of malt, using indirect heat, did not enter into widespread usage until the industrial era, the method was known as early as the first century BC. Also, there have been various methods over the years of preparing cereal grains for brewing, including making beer from bread, so smoked beer was not universal.
Beginning in the 18th century, hot air kiln drying of malt became progressively more common and, by the mid-19th century, had become the near-universal method for drying malted grain. Since the hot air kiln method prevents any smoke from getting in touch with wet malt, a smoky flavour is not imparted to the grain, nor to the subsequent beer. As a result, smoke flavour in beer became less and less common, and eventually disappeared almost entirely from the brewing world.
Certain breweries maintained the smoked beer tradition by continuing to use malt which had been dried over open flames. The malt is dried over fires made from beechwood logs. The malt and fermenting beer are stored under the pub and brewery in a part of the catacombs of Bamberg, a maze of tunnels under the city built from the 11th century onward, which have a very stable moisture and temperature. In former times, ice was used to cool the fermenting beer tank room, the Lagerkeller. This ice was locally harvested above ground in the winter, although when the winter was too mild, ice was imported from as far away as Finland or Sweden. The beer is then filtrated to remove the opaque colour and yeast remnants, and put into oaken vats. Two brewpubs in Bamberg, Germany, Schlenkerla and Spezial, have continued this smoked beer production for more than a century. Several varieties of Rauchbier ("smoke beer" in German) are produced by these companies. Both are still in operation today, alongside seven other breweries in the same town. Since the rauchbier tradition was continuously preserved in Bamberg, the beer style is now marketed as Bamberg Rauchbier.
Due to the popularity of craft beer in recent years, industrially made, smoke-flavoured malts became available, and so the style has been attempted worldwide, including in its heartland of Franconia and Bamberg. Schlenkerla and Spezial, however, use a traditional, elaborate way of smoke malting. In 2017 Slow Food included these two Rauchbiere into their Ark of Taste.
Grodziskie or Grätzer are similar, traditional smoked beers from Poland, but made from wheat and highly carbonated, and with a perhaps older history, although they saw a period of no production in the late 1990s.
Smoked beers outside Germany and Poland
- In Australia, the Feral Brewing Company, in Western Australia, makes a smoked porter. In addition Gulf Brewery, in South Australia, make a Smoke Stack rauchbier.
- In Brazil, Eisenbahn produces a smoked beer called Eisenbahn Rauchbier, using malts imported from Bamberg.
- In Canada, Les Trois Mousquetaires makes a smoked beer, and Half Pints Brewing Company the seasonal Smoktoberfest. Also, Church-Key brewing of Campbellford, Ontario produces a peat smoked Scotch ale called Holy Smoke. Cameron's brewing in Oakville, Ontario produces Bamburg Castle smoked ale. Moosehead Breweries Small Batch label now produces a smoked lager using magnum hops.
- In Chile, Cervecería La Montaña produces Yuta, a smoked Munich dunkel (5,6% abv) with traditional German ingredients, although it doesn't follow the classic base beer styles from Bamberg's Rauchbiere.
- In Italy, Birrificio Lambrate make two smoked stout beers, the draught or bottled Ghisa (5% ABV) and the bottled Imperial Ghisa (8.5%).
- In Lithuania, Dundulis brewery produces a smoked beer called Juodvarnių.
- In the Netherlands, Emelisse produces a traditional German-style smoked beer, as well as a smoked porter and a peated Russian imperial stout. Brouwerij De Molen has several different smoked beers, such as Bloed, Zweet & Tranen and Rook & Vuur. Othmar also produces a traditional smoked beer, named Rauchbier.
- In the United Kingdom, Meantime Brewery produces Winter Time, a smoked old ale, and Kelham Island Brewery in Sheffield made Brooklyn Smoked Porter in association with Brooklyn Brewery. Adnams bottles its Smoked Ruby (4.7% ABV) using cherry wood and has brewed a similar, limited edition, 1659 Smoked Ruby Ale to commemorate the 1659 fire of Southwold. Beavertown brews a smoked porter called Smog Rocket.
- In the United States, the Alaskan Brewing Company, Great Basin Brewing Company, New Glarus Brewing Company, Revolution Brewing, Surly Brewing Company, and Samuel Adams make and distribute smoked beers influenced by the Rauchbier of Bamberg.
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