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Pairing Barbecue with Smoked Beer

A famed painter on television made a career touting, “We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents.” The origin of smoked beers has been recorded as an accident, but it took several hundred years before the style, and resulting beers, made most beer drinkers happy. As smoked beer styles advanced it did not take long to realize their compatibility with other smoked goods – specifically barbecue.

Smoked beers, known originally as Rauchbier (German for “smoked beer”), started in Bamberg, Franconia, Germany in the early 15th century. Two breweries there, Schlenkerla and Spezial, were founded in 1405 and 1536, respectively. Today these two breweries still exist and produce Rauchbier in the old way: drying malt over an open fire.

Unlike the Sumerians and ancient Egyptians who lived in arid places where drying could be done via the sun, in Bamberg brewers needed to create a heat source, hence making fire. Early materials used for drying malted barley included straw, a variety of woods and even coal. As wood became scarce in 16th century Europe, burning straw became the norm, as coal was heavily taxed (and incredibly impure). Beechwood was always used and is still the preferred wood today, with both aforementioned Bamberg breweries using it exclusively for their malting process. For drying their barley, these breweries will smoke the grains for 18-22 hours until ready.

In those early days of fire-drying, and along with the problems of inconsistency of sourcing materials and unpredictability of temperature control, Daniel Wheeler came along to change the game entirely. He invented an innovative device for kilning and roasting malt, which he patented in 1818. This British engineer offered brewers a way to remove smoke from heat, as well as moisture from malted barley. Nearly anything could be used as a fuel source and the temperature could be controlled. Why would anyone want smoked beers anymore?

As illustrated by creative, modern-day brewers, it seems that smoked beers are still relevant. Add to that the ever-evolving emphasis on beer and food pairings, and it could be argued that smoked beers are a secret ingredient for powerful pairings, especially when it comes to pairing smoked beers with barbecue.


Smoked beers, known originally as Rauchbier (German for “smoked beer”), started in Bamberg, Franconia, Germany in the early 15th century. Two breweries there, Schlenkerla and Spezial, were founded in 1405 and 1536, respectively. 


To understand what smoked beers are, here are the Overall Impressions and Commercial Examples from three entries in the 2015 BJCP Guidelines:

Rauchbier

Overall Impression: An elegant, malty German amber lager with a balanced, complementary beechwood smoke character. Toasty-rich malt in aroma and flavor, restrained bitterness, low to high smoke flavor, clean fermentation profile, and an attenuated finish are characteristic.

Commercial Examples: Eisenbahn Rauchbier, Kaiserdom Rauchbier, Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen, Spezial Rauchbier Märzen Victory Scarlet Fire Rauchbier​

Classic Style Smoked Beer

Overall Impression: A smoke-enhanced beer showing good balance between the smoke and beer character, while remaining pleasant to drink. Balance in the use of smoke, hops and malt character is exhibited by the better examples.

Commercial Examples: Alaskan Smoked Porter, Schlenkerla Weizen Rauchbier and Ur-Bock Rauchbier, Spezial Lagerbier, Weissbier and Bockbier, Stone Smoked Porter

Specialty Smoked Beer

A Specialty Smoked Beer is either a smoked beer based on something other than a Classic Style, or any type of smoked beer with additional ingredients (fruits, vegetables, spices) or processes employed that transform the beer into something more unique.

Overall Impression: A smoke-enhanced beer showing good balance between the smoke, the beer character, and the added ingredients, while remaining pleasant to drink. Balance in the use of smoke, hops and malt character is exhibited by the better examples.

To understand how smoked beers might work with smoked meats, we turn to Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide from the Pairing Pros by Julia Herz and Gwen Conley. In this excellent read the authors state, “While you might get lucky searching for contrasting taste elements, it’s much easier to search for places where beer and food flavors will work together, the intersections where they complement each other.” Further along in the book the authors note, “For pairing beer and food, the goal is almost always to have the overall beer and food intensities match. You don’t want any one element to barrel over all the others.”

There are two things here that favor pairing smoked beers with smoked meat. First, it’s often easier to pair complementary flavors, not just with the smoke aromas and taste, but with attention to the maltiness present in many prominent smoked beers, especially in the traditional smoked Märzen lager, and some of the richer barbecue cuts and sauces.

Secondly, barbecue can vary in intensity, depending on the type and cut of meat, dry rub used (if any), length of time it was smoked and which woods were used (Mesquite, for example, burns hot and fast, and produces a lot of smoke and a strong flavor. Oak, on the other hand, burns slow and even and has a mild flavor).


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