A running joke around these parts is that maybe eight people in the DC metro area enjoy smoked beers; all of them are in beer media and are forever asking local breweries to make one.
So, if you’re like us, you love rauchbier, that smokey German lager. If not, we hope you believe in a growth mindset. Rauch means “smoke” in German and, while the style is polarizing, several local breweries have finally turned their attention to this oft-neglected style. We say five is a trend, so…
Here is the first, and hopefully not last, Rauchbier Roundup!
For the original smoked lager, head to Craft Beer Cellar and ask for a bottle of Schlenkerla Marzen beer. Beware, however; it’s very smokey. To the extent that beer can taste like ham and smell like bacon, this is the one. The brewery, changing throughout the centuries, has been making beer since medieval times.
Want to ease into the style? The brewery also makes a Helles lager that isn’t smoked, but picks up a bit of aroma and taste from their other rauch-y creations. And while you’re at Craft Beer Cellar, Bell’s To A Locomotive In Winter Smoked Porter is available, as is a smoked barleywine (really!) from Montgomery County’s Elder Pine.
In DC, you can find smoked beer offerings from Gordon Biersch Navy Yard and Bluejacket in Southeast. Further afield, Union Craft in Baltimore and Flying Dog in Frederick, Maryland also have rauch beers on tap. Alexandria’s Port City got in on the fun last fall as well, with a smoked Oktoberfest-style beer.
Gordon Biersch Navy Yard has a Rauch Helles on draught. This light, pale beer—a less-bitter cousin of Pilsner—is easy-drinking at 5.2% ABV, hopped with German Nugget for bittering and Hallertau Hersbrucker for aroma. The grist consists of 90% Weyermann® Beech Smoked Barley Malt, 4% Munich malt, 4% Carafoam, and 2% acidulated malt.
The beer was filtered finely for great clarity and the neutral, beautiful, Gordon Biersch house lager yeast puts the character somewhere between Bavarian and Bohemian. This rauchbier should change the hearts and minds of those who claim they don’t like smoke.
Bluejacket’s smoked beer, Dreaming, is a collaboration with Denver’s Bierstadt Lagerhaus. Darker and stronger than the Gordon Biersch Rauch Helles, the smoked bock lager measures 7.2% ABV and is a wonderful balance between sweet and smokey, using 73% beechwood smoked malt in the grist.
Here’s head brewer Justin Damadio’s take:
What a great pleasantly complex beer. Not over or underdone for the smoke which I’ll explain below.Justin Damadio, Head Brewer, Gordon Biersch, Navy Yard
Appearance – quite nice just the right shade of mahogany not too dark. Often when some consumers see the word “Bock” they expect a darker color than a rich Amber/Mahogany. Which always makes me wonder at what point do you assume it’s stout or porter (based on appearance)? Color was excellent. Light sand colored fluffy head.
Aroma – Clean, smooth. and soft smoky phenolic beechwood that lingered just long enough before allowing the delicate raisin, plum, and savory Munich aromas to surface.
Taste – At first a very clean medium smoke presence. Light to no bitter flavor. Once the smoke leaves the palate the sweet malt balances quickly pulling the sweeter flavors of dark dried fruit, warm bread, and the subtle touch of holiday desert spices; cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove into the senses. Which then brought me back around to a slightly smoky finish gently extinguished with just the right amount of clean light hop presence leaving the palate clean and quenched.
Not a touch of hidden warm rubber nor sweaty meat flavor. Not overly sweet. Very well balanced between the smoke beechwood flavor and the sweeter malty flavor. Alcohol presence was pleasant and not very perceivable considering the higher ABV% thus fitting the bock style correctly. The delicate lagering steps show nicely throughout the bock entirely.
Overall a really well done beer. No gimmicks. Not too overdone and very enjoyable.
Flying Dog’s Rauchbier Smoked Märzen is a 6% ABV lager. Todd Kelly, Pilot Brewery Lead, says, “Basically there’s no other reason we made this beer other than Matt [Brophy, Brewmaster & Chief Operating Officer] likes to have a Rauchbier in the fall. This is the 2nd time I’ve brewed it. It’s a pretty traditional smoked ‘bock.’ 6.6% ABV. About 60% Weyerman Beechwood smoked malt. The rest is the standard mix of German Munich malts and light German crystal malts. Perle hops for bittering and a light whirlpool addition of Hallertau Mittelfruh.”
Union’s Schmoke Rauchbier is 5.6% ABV and is a medium bodied lager with a hearty smoke aroma and substantive smokiness in the flavor. According to Union’s promotions, “We are celebrating Baltimore Beer Week UNION style with the release of the 3rd installment in our Liquid Local Legends Series – Schmoke! A German-style Rauch Lager is a smokey tribute to former Mayor Kurt Schmoke. Now the President of the University of Baltimore, Mayor Schmoke was the first African American Mayor of Baltimore and stood in opposition of the War on Drugs, worked to make schools more accessible and affordable, and created the now defunct ‘City That Reads’ benches that we grew up with.”
Port City’s Rauch Märzen was plentiful last fall, but is now harder to come by. The brewery’s website says, “Our Rauch Märzen is a traditional Bamberg-style smoked Märzen lager. This beer is brilliant copper in color, and showcases a toasty German malt character, including traditional beechwood-smoked malts…. ‘This beer style definitely surprises some of our Tasting Room visitors,’ says Tasting Room Manager, Tim Quintyn, ‘But after the initial taste, they keep coming back to try more! It’s a unique style that a lot of breweries are not making.’” There’s at least one keg still out there, but worry not, the 2020 version already has a release date: September 7th at the brewery.
The only way the locals are going to keep this up is if you, dear reader, keep drinking them, so go forth and rauch!
Jacob Berg contributed to this article.