Stop 4, Bamberg, Rauchbier, and Chuckanut Brewing
As we depart Cologne, we have crossed the official halfway point on our beer journey to Munich for Oktoberfest. We are driving about four hours Southeast from Cologne, passing through the city of Frankfurt, to arrive in the small Franconian village of Bamberg. Beer in Bamberg is what football is to the state of Texas – a religion. The people and the breweries of Bamberg cling to the past with a forceful grip, not because they are resistant to change, but rather for the fact that what is being brewed in the small German village is deeply rooted in tradition. Removing it would mean an erasure of an important part of their identity and localized culture. Bamberg is one of the last places on earth where the beers are still brewed using malts that have been dried over an open wood fire. More than 700 years later, breweries in Bamberg still employ the same processes and techniques used to make Rauchbier, a German-style lager brewed with rauch (smoked) malts.
The history of Bamberg’s beer first starts out in 1122, when Bishop Otto formally awarded brewing rights to the Benedictine monks of Kloster Michaelsberg. The monastery continued to brew beer for the next several hundred years, up until the growing middle class in the city began their own brewing operations at the turn of the nineteenth century and the rise of the industrial revolution. By the beginning of the 1800’s, there were over 70 breweries within the city limits of Bamberg; many of which opened their doors driven in large part by a new invention patented by entrepreneur Daniel Wheeler. Wheeler developed the drum kiln, which revolutionized malting grains and allowed maltsters to increase production capabilities, but also never exposed the malt directly to open fire. As a result, the maltsters abandoned the old way of roasting and malting grains, and brewers began gravitating towards pale malts with a clean, smokeless character.
However, in Bamberg, there were still many breweries who clung to the old ways of doing things; those who had embraced the smoky characteristics of the malt and specifically designed their beers around it. Pre-1818, rauch beer was commonplace, not just in Germany, but across the board. During those times, the only way to dry malt was directly over an open fire. This resulted in all beers having a varying degree of smokiness infused in every sip. Malted grain from a beechwood fire was something the breweries in Bamberg understood, and saw little reason to change. Two hundred years later, there are still nine breweries within the city of Bamberg, and to this day, two have become the keepers of the traditional rauchbier style — Bauerei Schlenkerla and Brauerei Spezial. Both produce a perfect 10/10 rauch märzen (in case you were wondering).
About the Style
For all rauchbiers, whether it is a traditional rauch märzen from Bamberg or a smoked porter from Alaska, the malt is king and determines much of these beer’s flavor, appearance, and aroma. Many factors can influence the final flavor of these malts, including the type of fuel used, how long it was exposed, and at what temperature the malt was kilned.
Historically speaking, the three main fuels used were wood (which itself can impart a multitude of flavors depending on the variety used), straw, and coal. The fuel being used depended on what area of Europe you were located. An English maltster might use coal or wood, whereas German brewers did not use much coal, and instead preferred to use only wood, (beechwood specifically). The smoke from these fires penetrated the malt, imparting cured meat, bacon, and campfire notes to the final product.
The smoke character may vary depending on the quantity of smoked malt used in the mash, ranging from slight hints of smokiness to in-your face campfire flavors. The yeast, too, can play an equally important role in determining the level of smokiness of a beer. Even when brewing a rauchbier with a malt bill consisting of 100% smoked malt, brewers may find that their desired level of smokiness is not met. The yeast absorbs a significant portion of the smoky flavor during fermentation, so if this smoke-absorbed yeast is repitched to ferment a non smoked beer, it too may show a hint of smokiness.
The traditional Bamberg style of rauchbier is the märzen. The overall presence of smoke can range from low to medium depending on the brewery, but all are incredibly well-balanced with a rich, toasted, malty backbone. The balance between being malt or smoke forward can tip in either direction, creating a wide range of possible beer drinking profiles. For these beers, the hops are not the star of the show, but are used to help compliment the beer by providing a low level of spicy, herbal, or floral notes in the background. The color is crystal clear, typically dark brown to light amber with a thick, creamy, white or tan head on the top. As with most German lagers, the carbonation is on the higher side, and the ABV comes in around the 4.5 to 6% mark.
In Bamberg, a strong smokiness is especially desirable when the beer is paired with food. Typical Franconian pairings often involved smoked meats, which are a local specialty. In general, most any hearty food, German or otherwise, tends to work well with rauchbier. Sauerbraten with braised red cabbage and potato dumplings were a personal favorite pairing of mine when visiting Bamberg last summer.
What’s Next for Rauchbier
Once the drum kiln became the de facto method for malting grains, smoke free beer became the norm all over the world. As a consequence, the original rauchbier became a rarity, or a one-off specialty seasonal. Due to the craft beer revolution over the past decade, old world beer styles have started to rise in popularity once again. Commercial malting companies have begun industrial production of specialty malts. Today, almost any craft brewery can easily find a number of industrially produced smoke-infused malts, but only in Bamberg will you find traditional fire kilns that have been preserved and still in operation. Fortunately, the fire still burns to this day in both malt houses of the Schlenkerla and Spezial breweries.
In recent years, brewers here in Washington have brewed various styles of rauchbiers. They come in all shades of colors and flavors – from delicate, straw-colored lagers, to rich, decadent stouts, seasonal rauch hefeweizens, and of course, traditional Bamberg-style rauch märzen can be found on some taplists. Two of our personal favorites of the latter come from the Chuckanut Brewery and Meatheads Smokehouse and Brew. If you ever see these on tap either at the brewery, your local bottle shop, or watering hole, they are most definitely worth ordering.
Chuckanut Rauch Märzen Lager
ABV: 5% | IBU : 27 | Malt: Weyermann smoked beechwood
Chuckanut Brewery of Burlington, WA specializes in true to style, traditional German beer. Their award winning rauch märzen is modeled after the one brewed by Spezial Brewery. It is a medium-bodied, amber colored lager. The malt bill used provides the perfect balance between malt and hops, and perfectly blankets a medium level of smokiness. For this beer, Chuckanut uses Weyermann smoked beechwood malts to keep things as close to the original as possible. Weyermann is a 140 year old malt producer and global distributor based in Bamberg.
Chuckanut shows their dedication to this beer style as they also put on a yearly event called Smoke Fest. Here they showcase three different rauchbiers. Last year’s beer line up included Grodziskie Polish Lager, Rauch Helles Lager, and of course the Rauch märzen Lager.
About the Road to Munich
Hop into your Bimmer and merge onto the Autobahn (rather your Subie and I-5 since we live in WA), and let BeerNav lead you on an educational beer journey to Oktoberfest. “The Road to Munch” is our new blog and social media series that will run monthly from May until the beginning of October. BeerNav will highlight six of the most influential, historical beer cities and beer styles across Germany, and how Washington Breweries are influenced by tradition but add their own unique twists to each beer style.