What is smoked beer?
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The first sip of a smoked beer is bound to be perplexing. There’s the smell, reminiscent of a roaring campfire, which cold-cocks your nostrils like an Iron Mike upper cut. The taste is even more disorienting–is this beer or carbonated ham juice?

“Someone who’s had lagers most of their life, you hand them [a smoked beer] and it’s a full-on experience,” says Andy Kline, Communications Manager for Alaskan Brewing Company which has been producing its multi-award-winning Smoked Porter since 1988 making it the oldest smoked beer brewed in America since prohibition.

Where did smoked beer originate?

According to Kline, Alaskan’s Smoked Porter came out of the tradition of the rauchbiers of Germany, most notably in Bamburg. The medieval town and UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to a number of breweries including Schlenkerla and Spezial which have specialized in smoked beers for centuries.

Alaskan Smoked Porter at Total Wine

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How is smoked beer made?

The key to smoked beers lies in the malt. Though modern beers are commonly brewed with malts that have been dried using indirect heat, smoked beers take advantage of malt that is dried over an open flame.

When Alaskan co-founder and brewmaster Geoff Larson first started experimenting with smoked beers, he learned that a little smoked malt goes a long way. According to Kline, Larson used 100 percent smoked malt in the first batch of Smoked Porter. The beer went down in flames. “He couldn’t even get near it because it was just too smoky,” says Kline.

Beyond the use of smoked malt, smoked beers can vary greatly.  They cover a variety of styles from Märzens, the base beer of choice in Bamburg, to bolder, darker porters and stouts which are more commonly used in American smoked beers.

What does smoked beer taste like?

Just like with BBQ, the type of wood used during the malt smoking process plays an important role in imparting flavor. While Schlenkerla and Spezial rely on beechwood, Alaskan takes advantage of the sweeter and mellower alderwood, widely used in the region for smoking meat and fish. In fact, Alaskan borrows a salmon smoker from nearby Taku Smokeries to dry some of the malt used in its Smoked Porter. “Anyone who’s had smoked salmon, especially in the Pacific Northwest where alderwood is used, there is such an associative smell with it,” says Kline. He quickly adds, “Of course, we don’t use any salmon or any fish products in our beer.”

Schlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen at Total Wine

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Perhaps the most prominent food association with smoked beers is bacon. Though old school options such as Schlenkerla have long been associated with the taste of crisp, salt-cured pork, a new wave of smoked beer offerings such as Funky Buddha’s Maple Bacon Porter and Odd Side’s Rye Hipster Brunch Stout (which, unlike most “bacon” beers, is actually brewed with swine) are in high demand thanks in large part to the recent bacon boom.

Should you age smoked beer?

Though the new smoked beers on the block are certainly worth pursuing, the classics, particularly older vintages, are straight fire. “Smoke acts as an antioxidant so it prevents the beer from getting stale and it allows it to age kind of like a red wine,” says Kline. When it comes to Alaskan’s Smoked Porter, after only a couple of years, the smoke fades as notes of stone fruit, molasses, and currant begin to shine. According to Kline, the beer really transforms starting around the five-year mark and peaks over the ensuing five years. “2008, 2009, and 2010 are the peak ones, right now,” he says. So, if you’re fortunate enough to come across a stash of bottles, pick up a couple extra and store them in the cellar for the full smoked beer experience.

Related Reading: Check out The Best Beer Clubs and Subscriptions, and The Best American Beer Fests.

Related Video: The Difference Between Ale and Lager

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David is a food and culture writer based in Los Angeles by way of New York City. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, CBS Local, Mashable, and Gawker.
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