Rauchbier is neither cool nor easy to love. But in a world of fruited slushy sours and pastry stouts, the assertive smoked beer stands apart.
Steeped in history and tradition, yet challenging to appreciate, rauchbier (literally “smoked beer”) has, for much of the craft beer boom, resisted a revival. The style is brewed with malt or wheat that’s been smoked over beechwood or oak, resulting in a beer that’s decidedly not for everyone. But, despite its assertively smoky flavor—or perhaps because of it—rauchbier is having a moment.
The city of Bamberg, Germany, takes pride in claiming to be the birthplace of the style. One local legend tells of a cloister that caught fire and burned to the ground, sparing only the brewhouse and a reserve of malted grain which, having been exposed to smoke, subsequently gave the local beer its distinctive flavor. The tale is mostly hogwash, though; most beer made before the advent of modern malting technology likely expressed some level of smokiness from the kilning process. Nevertheless, Bamberg remains the cultural epicenter of rauchbier, though the style is gaining popularity in a number of brewing circles.
In many ways, rauchbier represents the polar opposite of the current craft beer zeitgeist, which has embraced the mass appeal of fruited slushy sours, soft and juicy New England IPAs and saccharine pastry stouts. The rising stock of rauchbier—whose flavor is divisive and anything but sweet—could be attributed, in part, to an inevitable backlash to the status quo. Paired with a certain underdog status and niche reputation, rauchbier ticks all the boxes of beer snob catnip.
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