When I walked into the Brew Shop two weeks ago I saw something I’ve never seen before.
Last week, I walked into Craft Beer Cellar and similarly saw something I’d seen only once before.
The sight? Not one but two Rötbíer, or red beers, from Germany. The Rötbier which I’d never seen before are imported products from Bavaria. Specifically they are Rötbier from Heller-Bräu Trum, better known as Schlenkerla, and Rötbier from Tucher Privatbrauerei GmbH & Co., or Tucher.
You’re likely familiar with Heller-Bräu Trum Schlenkerla beers as the smoked beer. When I first came across it at a Maryland beer festival nearly two decades ago, its Márzen was pitched as “bacon beer” and it’s still a phrase people use to describe it today. But it’s so much more than the one-dimensional description of bacon beer. It can be a Helles void of smoked malt (the house lager yeast used in fermenting the other beers gives the Helles a smoked character despite not having any smoked malt in it), or a smoked weizen. Prior to Aecht Schlenkerla’s take on hefeweizen I’d never had a smoked hefeweizen, outside of homebrew. When I first tried Schlenkerla Rauchweizen it was exactly as advertised with a wonderful fullness from the wheat and barley, but a unique twist in that the barley was beechwood smoked as is typical for Schlenkerla.
I asked Brew Shop co-owner Julie Drews about the new beer and she wrote, “people did not sleep on the new Schlenkerla cans – it’s been a while since we’ve had a smoked beer sell out in 2 days.” The Brew Shop had wanted to pre-order more, but the distributor was unable to meet their request. The Craft Beer Cellar similarly sold out, but unlike The Brew Shop, CBC received both bottles and cans. CBC’s owner, Erika Goedrich, says she still has some left but I’d be surprised if they don’t sell out soon.
This level of buying sight-unseen is typically reserved for hype hazy pale ale and stout breweries. Everyone who bought the red lager had never tried it before as Schlenkerla had never released a red lager before. I reached out to award-winning beer writer Mark Dredge. He had not tried it either but commented from England writing:
“What’s cool about Schlenkerla, or Heller-Bräu Trum (the actual brewery’s name), is that they still ferment and lager their beer in cellars dug into a great hillside in Bamberg. It’s that classic history of lager brewing, and it remains true today. They are custodians of lager brewing traditions, but it’s great that they can still find ways to introduce new beers which reflect that heritage and also feel modern.”
He went on, “cherrywood for the smoking process is really interesting to me. Beechwood smoke is so distinctive of smoked sausages––and that can be quite a shock to drinkers!––whereas cherrywood has a sweeter and fruitier flavour to match the red lager’s malt depth. I can’t wait to try it!”
Having tried it I agree with Mark’s assessment that the smokey character the beer takes from the cherrywood is both sweeter and fruitier than the beechwood smoke found in other Schlenkerla beers, save the Helles. There is a tiny whiff of hops, if you sniff and swill and set your mind hard enough, you can perceive a modest hint of Bavarian hop flavo(u)r. It’s miniscule, but it’s there. As a lover of smoked beer, the smoke character in here is fairly faint and while I wish there was more, there is an undeniable digestibility to this beer–4.6% ABV–which makes a four pack seem like it won’t last long. I have had several American craft brewed beers with cherrywood in their grits and none of them hold a candle to the Weichsel cherrywood smoked beer from Bamberg. I’ve only had one American Rotbier, and that was from a brewpub that is now closed, back in 2017.
Red lager the second: Nuremberg Rotbier as a style was “documented in 1305” and today you can find five red beers in Nuremberg. It’s been described as a style that you’ll like if you like Märzen, and I’d agree as so many American takes on Märzen are sweet.
Tucher’s Rotbier is indeed a bit on the sweet side. On the can the beer reads “Tucher Naturtrübes Rotbíer,” and it’s 5.2% alcohol by volume. It has a distinctive caramel and munich malt character, but finishes drier than many too sweet amber lagers. There’s a mild bit of chalkiness at the end, certainly nowhere near Dublin or dry Irish Stout levels, but it’s coming down on the malt end of the malt (sweet) and hops (bitter) spectrum. Overall, a very pleasant beer for people who love malt. I’d assumed this was the first time Tucher’s Rotbier had been imported, but I was wrong.
Dean Myers, of Wetten Importers, responded writing, “We at Wetten held our breath and sent up a big ol’ trial balloon last year when we quietly brought over an order of Rotbier kegs and went about getting feedback on it just to make sure we weren’t crazy before committing to the can printing minimums Ball requires in Europe. The fact we’re talking about the style right now goes to show that soft draft launch was received well!”
While Schlenkerla’s cherrywood smoked Rotbier is a hair darker than Tucher’s Rotbier, the Tucher has a pleasant looking, very mild haze to it. It’s still a fairly clear beer, but the Schlenkerla was just so bright, its clarity is undeniable. Both were a wonderful surprise to find on local shelves and I hope both breweries will continue to export these red lagers.
I’d strongly encourage you to check these beers out, especially if you’re a fan of malt and or a fan of smoked beer. A four pack of Aecht Schlenkerla Weichsel Cherry Wood Smoked beer at Craft Beer Cellar will run you $18.50. A four pack of Tucher’s Rotbier will run you $9.50 there.