Grilling season might be over, but its smoke still lingers: Rauchbier is having a moment. If you’ve tasted this brew before, you likely haven’t forgotten the sip — or rather, the smell. German for “smoke beer,” and brewed with grain cured over smoldering wood chips, rauchbier’s heady fumes jump from the glass. For years, the only smoked beers around were from Shlenkerla and Speziel, two breweries from Bamberg, Germany (rumor has it the pair so perfumes this tiny town, any beer made there — smoked or not — will come out with a woodsy tinge). Both use local European beech, and the smoke flavor of their beers is hammy, slicked with rich, oily ripples. They taste, most say, like bacon. Their aroma either tempting, or a turnoff, appetite depending.
You’d think craft brewers, rare to shy from brash flavors, would embrace the smoke, but in a curious move, and boon to those wary of porcine brews, as today’s hippest brewers have rediscovered rauchbier they’ve toned it down, breathing fresh air into the smoky style. These new brews are full-flavored but easy drinking, perfect for fighting fall’s chill without inducing an early hibernation. Instead of traditional beech, new brewers puff alternatives — fruity pecan, light sweet almond wood, tangy manzanita, and even aromatic substitutes like roasted coffee or wood-cured tea.
Portland, Oregon’s Gigantic smooths their Firebird with wheat and a fruity, clove-scented German yeast. In San Francisco, Fort Point augments beechwood-smoked malt with a bundle of manzanita boughs, dropped flaming into the brew. “The idea was to have two layers of smoke,” head brewer Mike Schnebeck says. “A meatier smoke from the malt and a campfire smoke from the manzanita.” Nearby, Woods Beer Company’s nano-scale system lets them play with unconventional smoked ingredients like roasted cacao beans, whisky-soaked almond wood, or earthy black tea.
True, the best places to taste these beers can be the hardest to find — little brewpubs like Woods where experimentation reigns — but smoked beers are out there, their popularity just starting to smolder and spark. So breathe deep autumn’s crisp air and follow your nose to the season’s best brews.
Fort Point Beer Co. Manzanita, 6.3% - A collaborative project with the cult hit Westfallian brewery Freigeist, this mahogany brew gets a spicy sweet, red licorice–like kick from smoldering bundles of local manzanita branches, and a crisp finish from cold, lager-style aging.
Gigantic Brewing Company Firebird, 6.1% - This “smoked hefeweizen” is a twisted hybrid, with a rauchbier’s funky fumes and a wheat’s soft body; light and slightly salty, prickly like a worn-in wool blanket.
Stillwater Artisanal Ales Folklore, 8.4% - Stillwater brews this complex Belgian ale with a dash of beechwood-smoked barley and roasted wheat and rye, grains brewers typically use raw. With a Belgian yeast’s sweet phenolics, like a multigrain fruitcake, lightly toasted.
"It’s not sahl-mon, is it?” No, I agreed — and so the Central Valley vernacular, which pronounces ‘almond’ without the el, makes some sense. But I’d trust those growers no matter how they said it — they know whereof they speak. California’s 800,000 acres of almond trees (that’s the size of Rhode Island) stock 80% of the global market with two billion pounds of nuts each year. California knows almonds. And so when the cooks at Perdition Smokehouse looked for lumber to stock their smoker — into which go hunks of local meat; out of which comes Berkeley’s best barbecue — they looked no further than the trees out back.
Smoked beer — rauchbier, in German — is the almond of Bamberg. The little Bavarian town is home to both Spezial and Shlenkerla, the two oldest and most famous rauchbier brewers in the world. Their breweries bellow so much smoke it’s said that any beer brewed in the city, using smoked grains or not, will come out with a woodsy tinge. Bambergers use European beech, because that’s what grows there. The smoke flavor is… hammy; light and kind of salty in body with rich, fatty ripples. The beer tastes barbecued.
Almond is different. Each wood has its own character: heavy oak, bright hickory, fruity pecan, and almond, light and spicy sweet. I’ve never had an almondwood-smoked beer, so I made one for Perdition. I slowly cured a pound of grain (and my kitchen) over a tray full of chips, then used it in a bight and snappy rye beer. Went light on the hops — grassy East Kent Goldings — and traditional with a dry British yeast. It emerged a caramel-hued delight, the smoke a nice sweet balance to the zesty grains; the beer a perfect compliment to a plate of ‘cue. Perdition Almond Rye — nothing ‘ellish about it.
There was only one spoon; sugar there was in plenty but it took so long for all to stir their glasses that it was settled that Marya Hendrihovna must stir the sugar for each in turn. Rostov took his glass of tea, and, adding rum to it, begged Marya Hendrihovna to stir it for him.
'But you take it without sugar?' she said, smiling, as thought whatever she said or the others said had a quite different and very amusing meaning.
'I dont care about sugar. All I want is for you to stir it with your little hand.'
Every culture has its drink, and its own rituals around it. We measure our lives in coffee spoons, saucers, samovars, beer steins. We record our passage through the centuries in buried broken bottles and water-ringed side tables. Some rituals translate. The toast is universal. Others are an island.
Russia knows its tea. At the turn of the twentieth century, great tea caravans crisscrossed the Sibirskii Trakt, axles groaning with the weight of Chinese leaves on their way to stock samovars in Moscow and Petersburg. Drinkers thought tea ferried over land was rarer and more delicate than leaves brought by stormy wind-racked passage over sea.
Americans weren’t as picky. Our tea culture was a frontier approximation of England’s. When the first shipments of tea arrived in the colonies, settlers didn’t know exactly what to do with it, but they knew it was classy, so they drank (or ate) as much as they could.
"One family boiled it in a pot and ate it like samp-porridge. Another spread tea-leaves on his bread and butter, and bragged of his having ate half a pound at a meal, to his neighbor, who was informing him how long a pound of tea lasted him."
When the British raised taxes on tea imports in the 1760s, American tea merchants turned to smuggling, cutting their leaves with dirt and ashes (they learned this trick from British coffee sellers), or looking for entirely new alternatives. This ran in a Boston newspaper:
Throw aside your Bohea and your green Hyson tea,
And all things with a new fashioned duty;
Procure a good store of the choice Labrador
For there’ll soon be enough here to suit ye.
(footnote: Hyson was first-harvest green leaves, picked in the spring. Bohea was a mix of black tea scraps, twigs, and dust, packed into bricks. The word comes from the Wuyi mountains in China. This was the most commonly drunk mix, and “bohea” became just another word for “tea.”)
Another example of Americans turning to locally grown ingredients, regardless of quality: Labrador tea is from the rhododendron family and has ledol in it, which is poisonous in large enough doses. I wouldn’t eat half a pound at a sitting.
So, what does this have to do with beer?
Labrador tea was a common flavoring and medicinal ingredient in early beers. Why not tea? And so at Woods: Cervecería, I brewed a deep, dark, bones-warming Russian stout kissed with the leathery smoke of rich black tea. The leaves, thank goodness, came by land — from our neighbors just up the block at Samovar. The tea: Tolstoy’s Sip, a Chinese black tea, tobacco-dark, molasses-sweet. It has a peculiarly high “patience,” Samovar’s Jesse Jacobs told me, which means it can stand higher heat or a longer boil without getting too tannic and bitter. Good news in a long-steeping samovar, and also in the brew kettle. Samovar uses finely tuned “brewing crucibles,” dialed in to precise temperatures. A brew kettle is less forgiving — a roiling boil of grains and hops. Boiling beer coaxes out the hard-to-get oils and bitter acids from hops and other flavorings. But a tea — even a patient one like Tolstoy — needs care, so I waited until the beer cooled to about 160°F, tossed in a handful of leaves, inhaled deeply the heady fumes of tar, leather, and earth, and waited.
The beer: Siberian Stout. Rich and smoky, cigars in a leather chair, a smoldering fire, a burbling samovar, wind rattling the weary panes — warm comfort on a dark night. Just what you’d need, hungry and tired on the snowy Trakt, or wandering the fogs of San Francisco summer.
He that would treat exactly of Cider must lay his Foundation so deep as to begin with the Soil.
So wrote rector, traveler, Hartlib Circle member, amateur book designer, and cider maker John Beale. To Beale and his seventeenth-century drinking buddies, beer had been corrupted by hops; wine by the hand of the winemaker. In his treatise on cider, John Evelyn wrote that hops, “rather a Medical, than Alimental Vegetable,” temper their gift of keeping beer fresh by inflicting its drinker “with tormenting Diseases, and a shorter life.” Cider, he hoped, will “quite vanquish Hopps, and banish all other Drogues of that nature.”
I wish our Admirers of Wines, to the prejudice of Cider, beheld but the Cheat themselves; the Sophistications, Transformations, Transmutations, Adulterations, Bastardizings, Trickings, not to say even Artificial Compassings of the God they adore, and that they had as true as Inspection into those Arcana Lucifera which the Priests of his Temples (our Vintners in their Taverns) do practice.
But we needn’t fear, ”so long as our Native Soil does supply us with such excellent Necessities” as Evelyn’s beloved redstreak cider apple. Homegrown, all-natural, hop-free cider was a balm for all that ailed Britain, from foreign influence (Dutch hops, French wine) to medical quackery. ”To sum up all,” Evelyn says, “Give me good Cider.”
These days, cider is the gluten-free option. Scared of hops? Scared of grain? Cider is now, as then, the light, sweet, healthy alternative. As they invariably told my girlfriend in England, “like beer, for girls.”
And yet… Cider can be so much more. If we’d only go back to the dirt. If we’d only, in a word, make it scary again.
True cider is special, like lambics, for what it leaves out — store-bought yeast, controlled fermentations — and for the wild unknown that seeps into those gaps, like a night wind through the shingles. Terroir, says Evelyn:
The very Dews and Rain, by various and mutable Seasons, and even the Air itself (which operates beyond vulgar perception) create almost infinite alterations.
Taste the magic. Last week I climbed a plum tree on my street and filled a shopping bag. Plum trees grow all over San Francisco, but not all of them set fruit. I’d been eying this one for a few weeks — in the sun, the plums glint pink against the brown leaves, fresh skin on a scab. When plucked they’re dark as black cherries, juicy, tart, a Sour-Warhead burst. Neighbors passed by below, oblivious. Some didn’t notice. Some had known the tree for years and never dared taste its fruit — “wash it first,” a dad advised his daughter, used to fruit that comes with stickers, not a stem.
The only one who knew the plums was the postman. He’s worked this block for 20 years. Things have changed. “That Bill Gates kid bought a house over there,” he said. Zuckerberg can buy the buildings, Google can command the streets, but the plums are still free. The night air blows through, meanwhile.
Plums bend the Trees with their Burdens, and their expedite growth makes it cheap enough.