Smoky Beer (Rauchbier) – What Does It Taste Like & How To Make It!

Though it was once the dominant style of beer-making, smoked beers are now more of a novelty. What are they, what do they taste like, and how would a homebrewer make one?

Smoky beer tastes like meat off the grill, toasted nuts or bread, or a campfire. Beer like this is made by smoking malt, which was traditionally done as a way to dry the malt before brewing. Just about any style of beer can be made using smoked malt but lagers are the most popular. 

Continue reading for more on what kind of beers are like this, the history behind the style, and recommendations on which smoky beers to try for yourself.

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Bottling homebrew with an auto siphon

What does smoked beer taste like?

Rauchbier is a traditional style of beer hailing from Germany. Prior to innovations in brewing brought on by the Industrial Revolution, malt was dried using wood fires. These fires lent plenty of smoky, roasted flavors to the end result. 

Smoked beer tastes like grilled meat, toast, roasted nuts, and/or bacon. Depending on other adjuncts, smoked beer can lean into sweet malt qualities with flavors of burnt marshmallow and caramel.

There is no hiding the smoky qualities of a smoked beer – you’ll know it when you taste it!

Smoked beer can be made in a few different ways, with each method imparting secondary flavors outside of campfire or grill notes. Some of these beers are fairly subtle whereas others lean heavily into the smoky flavors.

The history of smoked beers in Germany

Breweries such as Schlenkerla claim smoked beer has been around for at least 5,000 years, as the only way to dry out malt was with wood-fired open flames. In essence, they assert that smoked beers have been around for as long as beer-making itself and that at one time all beer was smoked!

As new kilns were developed that funneled smoke away from malt in the 19th century, smoked beer made way for cleaner, crisper styles. 

Of course, breweries worldwide make smoked beer as well. The German diaspora to South American countries brought the technique, and neighboring European countries adopted smoking as a practical way to dry out the malt.

American craft brewers largely enjoy experimenting with different styles and paying homage to traditions. Today, just a handful of breweries make smoked beer, with even fewer keeping a smoked beer part of their year-round repertoire. 

Not every smoked beer is considered a Rauchbier, which is a designation of those smoked beers made in the traditional German fashion. All Rauchbier, however, is smoked. 

What kind of beers have a smoky flavor?

In theory, any style of beer can be smoked and take on smoky flavors.

In practice, most breweries stick to adding the smoky flavor to just a handful of styles:

  • Porters
  • Märzens
  • Lagers
  • Scotch ales

Scherlenka also makes a smoked hefeweizen and a Bavarian helles lager along with their most traditional Rauchbier (detailed below). 

Brewers can choose to use soft or hard woods, hay, or peat to smoke their malt, depending on what flavors they’re aiming for. This is a great avenue for creativity (as long as you like smoky characteristics in beer!).

How do you make a smoky beer?

If you’re interested in making your own Rauchbier or smoky beer, there are several ways you can achieve this flavor.

To make a smoky beer at home, you can:

  • Purchase a commercially available smoked malt
  • Smoke your own malt
  • Use Liquid Smoke

Commercially available smoked malt

Producers like Weyermann carry smoked malts available for purchase.

You can choose from all sorts of smoking materials, such as beechwood, cherry wood, hickory, sweet hay, or peat to obtain desired results. Smoked malt is used in the exact same way as any other malt you may purchase.

You can use any percentage of this smoked malt that you’d like to make up your grain bill – even 100%. 

Smoke your own malt

For you DIYers, smoking your own malt can be a simple and satisfying start to the brewing process.

You’ll need a grill or smoker, smoking agents (wood, hay, etc), and a reliable thermometer.

Check out this video for information on cold smoking to prevent burning your malt.

As noted in the video, be sure to spritz your grains periodically with water to keep them from scorching. You can smoke your grains for as little as half an hour and up to three hours. 

Many people will recommend allowing your home-smoked malt to rest for a few days to allow the flavor to mellow a bit before beginning your mash or steep. 

Liquid Smoke

This is a controversial option on homebrewing message boards and forums.

While there is no official recipe, there are a couple of guidelines that homebrewers have stuck to when attempting to add smoky flavor with Liquid Smoke:

  • Avoid vinegar or oil-based Liquid Smoke recipes and only use Liquid Smoke that simply contains water and smoke extract.
  • Use a small amount when brewing. The general consensus is 1 teaspoon or less per 5 gallons of beer. 
  • Some users have reported success with laying down some bottles for a month or so to allow the smoke flavor to calm down.

The best smoky beers to try

While not as prevalent as they once were, smoked beers still hold a place in the market today.

In most cases, a brewery will experiment with a batch of smoked beer every once in a while. Other breweries, such as Fullsteam in North Carolina and Schlenkerla in Germany, keep a smoked beer on tap all year long.

1. Samuel Adams Smoked Lager

  • Style: Rauchbier
  • Brand: Samuel Adams Boston Brewing
  • From: Boston, Massachusetts
  • ABV: 5%
  • Taste: Roasty-toasty and pleasant smoke notes with a little malty sweetness. It’s medium-bodied and smooth. 
  • Where you can find it: Bottle shops, liquor stores, and bars. 

2. Hogwash

  • Style: Porter
  • Brand: Fullsteam Brewery
  • From: Durham, North Carolina
  • ABV: 6.5%
  • Taste: Reminiscent smoked polish sausage, it has some light herbal and barbecue notes. Hints of coffee, chocolate, and hickory smoke with a light finish.
  • Where you can find it: Available year-round from the brewery; bottle shops, bars, and restaurants. 

3. Stone Smoked Porter

  • Style: Porter 
  • Brand: Stone Brewing Company
  • From: Escondido, California
  • ABV: 5.9%
  • Taste: Made with peat-smoked malt, this smoked porter is similar to peated scotches and sports cocoa, bacon, and coffee flavors. Stone will produce variations on the original that highlight vanilla or citrus.
  • Where you can find it: Totalwine.com, liquor stores, bottle shops, and bars.

4. Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier

  • Style: Märzen
  • Brand: Brauerei Heller-Trum (Schlenkerla) 
  • From: Bamberg, Germany
  • ABV: 5.4%
  • Taste: Touting itself as the original smoked beer, the Aecht Schlenkerla has charred meat character with hints of cigar, caramel, and toast. 
  • Where you can find it: Totalwine.com, liquor stores, bottle shops, restaurants, and bars.