On Tap: Rauchbier Has a Hefty Flavor, Too Much for Some Tastes
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Deep in the Franconian foothills at the confluence of the rivers Regnitz and Main is an ancient German city known for beer that shocks the palates of even the most adventurous drinkers.
The city is Bamberg, a gorgeous cosmopolitan place of 70,000 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where visitors can see 11th-century cathedrals and stroll along the waterfront of “Little Venice.”
But it is the smoky beverage known as “rauchbier” for which Bamberg has become a global beer destination. And it was here that Dave Hartmann developed his taste for it.
More on that later. First, however, you need to understand the flavors we’re talking about when it comes to rauchbiers. There are plenty of domestic porters and stouts that are accented with touches of smoke, but I’ve never tasted anything with the intensity of smoked flavor as the beer from Bamberg’s most famous brewery, the 600-year-old Schlenkerla tavern.
Dark, rich and malty, Schlenkerla’s signature Marzen has a slightly acrid flavor that comes from beechwood-smoked malt produced at the world-famous Wyermann malt factory across town.
Imagine bacon in a glass. Delicious, right? Well, yes, but often overwhelming for first-timers. When I visited Bamberg more than three years ago, I found Schlenkerla’s Marzen to be startling. Not unlike my first experience with gefilte fish, I was glad to have tasted it even if I didn’t rush for seconds.
It was with this tricky balance in mind that Hartmann set out to design a rauchbier of his own.
“There are people that will tell you smoked beer is the best beer in the world,” said Hartmann, a brewer at Long Trail Brewing. “Others tell you it tastes like liquid ham. It’s a divisive topic, even over there.”
Long Trail has never been a brewery I’ve associated with experimenting at the extremes, but its new “Bavarian Smoked Brown” is about as close as the Bridgewater-based brewery has come. The second installment of its draught-only Brown Bag series, the Bavarian Smoked Brown has recently appeared on restaurant taps in the Upper Valley.
I found it at Salt hill Pub in Hanover. The pub’s co-owner, Josh Tuohy, told me that reaction among customers has been mixed, with connoisseurs really enjoying it and others pushing the beer away after just a small taste. Colatina in Bradford, Vt., also has it available, though an employee told me few diners have liked it.
I finished my pint, finding the beer comparatively approachable when measured against Schlenkerla’s Marzen, which can be like sticking your face into a campfire. Long Trail’s rauchbier is burnet in color, cleanly fermented and with a chewy smoked malt flavor that doesn’t have the acridness that smoked malt can impart.
Hartmann said he was aware of the strong reactions that rauchbier can elicit. But he wanted to try it anyway. Every new and exciting beer that comes along seemed to him to be “some sort of hopped-up IPA, or 10% Imperial something,” he said. So, he thought he’d do something a little different, though no less adventurous.
Hartmann has distant family members who live just outside of Bamberg and, as luck would have it, also operate a brewery. He spent four months working there in 2008 and gained an appreciation of the historic style for which the region is famous.
In creating his beer, Hartmann had a difficult choice to make: How far could he go with the smoke?
“We didn’t want to be wimpy about it, but we also didn’t want to turn people off,” he said.
The balance Long Trail struck is a good one. If the smoke had been any lighter, I’d be disappointed in what would have seemed like a timid approximation of a unique style. Instead, Long Trail’s Bavarian Smoked Brown holds up to the promise of its name and offers a good introduction to the style.
Not everybody is going to like it. Hartmann understands and appreciates this, saying that the mixed response has been fine by him.
If nothing else, Long Trail has given “extreme” beer fans something that isn’t solely defined by the massive amount of alcohol delivered.
With its modest 5.4 percent alcohol and medium hop bitterness, the Smoked Brown is restrained in nearly every way but for one ingredient. Hartmann has invited you to find out what that ingredient is about.
Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-272-3229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.