In mid-December, COAST Brewing Company released an exotic and robust specialty ale in town — a porter made with cherry wood-smoked malt. Inspired by the full-flavored smokiness of the Alaskan Smoked Porter (from the Alaskan Beer Co.), brewer David Merritt fine-tuned his own recipe with the wonderfully smooth Porter, Smoked.
There are only a few smoked beers available in Charleston at the moment. The most famous and celebrated one we found is Schlenkerla, one of several specialty "rauchbier" lagers brewed in Bamberg, Germany. If Guinness is the granddaddy of the classic dry stout style, Schlenkerla is the Großvater of all smoked beers — the perfect beer to accompany cured meats, strong cheese, and hearty winter dishes.
Not all smoked specialties are alike, though. One of the harshest (and most expensive, at $10.99 for a 1.9 pint bottle) smoked beers we could find was an exotic import from Grimstad, Norway: the Nøgne-Ø Sunturnbrew. The dark and sudsy winter specialty (11 percent a.b.v.) honors the Norwegian legend that says that the sun turns on Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year. Made from a concoction of smoked barley, wheat, rye, and a small dose of hops, it has a strange, wine-y aroma. With only a hint of smoke, a rough, tawny, puckery flavor is accented more by a punch of burnt sugar flavors and a sharp molasses-on-burnt-toast finish.
Much smoother is the robust Stone Smoked Porter, brewed by the San Diego-area micro Stone Brewing Company, which made a splash in Charleston with its Arrogant Bastard ale. This one's big in flavor, but modest at a basic 5.9 percent a.b.v. Almost black in appearance, the Smoked Porter pours smoothly and retains a rich head. They use just enough peat-smoked specialty grains in the mash to enhance the roasty, chocolate notes in the aroma. A pleasant fragrance of freshly-ground coffee beans implies a variety of roasted barley. Full-bodied, but not too sweet. It finishes cleanly, making it highly-recommended for those who might be afraid to try a smoked style beer.
The Dog Schwarz Smoked Double Lager from Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Md., is another smoked beer that doesn't go overboard. Brewed in the northeastern German style of Schwarzbier ("black beer"), it's a reddish-black lager with crisp malt character. Strong (at 7.8 a.b.v.) but not excessively heavy, the bottle-conditioned sample we found (a corked 750 ml bottle) poured smoothly with a tan head. The nutty, grainy malt flavor allowed just a hint of smoke flavor. It finishes with more of an aftertaste of char-grilled raisin bread than smoke.
If the domestic micros like COAST, Stone, and Flying Dog aim for subtlety and smoothness, the brewers at Schlenkerla in Bamberg hold nothing back at all. Regarded by most Germans as a peculiar and eccentric style, the Bamberg rauchbiers is worth finding. Late beer writer Michael Jackson once noted, "Nowhere in Germany are there such individualistic beers as in and around Bamberg."
Schlenkerla has utilized beechwood from neighboring forests to smoke the malts for their lagers and wheat beers since the 17th century. Both the Schlenkerla Marzen and Schlenkerla Weizen are available in Charleston at reasonable prices ($4-$5 per half-liter bottle). The Schlenkerla Marzen is as malty and smooth as other Bavarian versions (and medium strength at 5.1 percent a.b.v.). Dark for the style, the Schlenkerla Weizen looks more like a traditional Dunkelweizen. They're both amber/copper in color and feature an intensely smoky aroma resembling the fragrance of a nearby bonfire or a smoked ham right out of the cooker.
Smoke may seem like a strange ingredient or seasoning in beer, but when used to enhance a dark variety — or as the central flavor component — it can create a tasty alternative.