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Smokey and the Bandit: Rauchbier in the UK

“Good morning. Rauchbier is not a style.” wrote the Beer Nut on Twitter the other day and he might be right, at least in terms of the UK beer scene.

For one thing, there are really only two prominent German brewers of Rauchbier, Schlenkerla and Spezial, both in Bamberg.

What’s more, Schlenkerla’s efforts are the only ones widely and regularly available in the UK, so it’s only natural that they would end up being the reference points for British brewers’ attempts to make them, and the standard against which British drinkers judge them.

Before Christmas, one of our Patreon supporters, Paul Grace, invoked his right to ask us to try beers from particular brewery and pointed us in the direction of Round Corner of Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire:

A fully-fledged brewery with T-shirts and glasses printed before they’d made any beer, they’re now getting national exposure with a Rauchbier as part of Brewdog’s Collabfest. The beers I’ve had have been very well made, competent [and] carefully aimed at the target demographic.

We got in touch with Round Corner and arranged to buy cans of Succumb to Smoke at £2.50 each along with a west coast IPA, Hopping Spree, at £3.

We also asked Combie Cryan, co-founder of Round Corner, a few questions by email. He told us that its first beer was brewed in December 2018, the co-founders having met in 2005.

Colin Paige, the brewer, is from Belfast and studied at Heriot Watt in the 1990s. He worked at Hop Back and Fuller’s before going on to work for Lion Nathan at Mac’s in New Zealand. Combie is a businessman and a major investor in Melton Mowbray farmer’s market.

In other words, this is a serious operation with some money and experience behind it, not a bathtub-in-the-shed setup.

Mr Cryan also gave some notes on the brewery’s influences:

We take inspiration from underappreciated classics that we believe deserve wider attention such as the Rauchbiers of Spezial and Schlenkerla in Bamberg. Colin has won awards for his Rauchbier recipe in the past and it remains one of his favourites to make so, after an initial run out at the recent Brewdog Collabfest, do look for Succumb to Smoke in discerning pubs and fridges across the country in the coming months.

Succumb to smoke – can and glass.

To our delight (and let’s be honest, surprise) the beer really was very decent. Billed as a ‘Bamberg style Helles’, it’s clearly an attempt to clone Schlenkerla Helles specifically, and gets about 80% of the way there.

The smoke character is right – an open fire in a forest hut – and the beer beneath the wisps is clean and crisp. Perhaps not crisp enough – more golden ale than lager, with more fruit than feels quite right – and short on carbonation, but a beer we’ll gladly buy on draught if the opportunity ever arises.

If British breweries are going to make Rauchbier, winter is when it will happen, we suppose, which must explain why a second example fell into our laps on the line-up at The Drapers Arms just before Christmas, with an encore last week.

Stroud Fall in a pint glass at the Drapers.

Stroud Brewery’s Fall is billed as a ‘smoked bitter’ which doesn’t sound all that inviting – Doom Bar with a hint of kipper? But we generally find Stroud’s beer to be accomplished and satisfying, and we’re fans of smoked beer in general, so had no reason not to give it a go.

In short, this is a fantastic beer which easily passed the ‘same again’ test.

Stroud’s characteristic balance towards body and sweetness, which sometimes means we feel inclined to dock a pint or two for bitters and pale ales, works really well here, giving a 4.2% ale the feel of something much richer and more boozy.

The smoke is of exactly the same character as Schlenkerla, all bacon and barbecue, but with an underlying cask ale complexity that the bottled version of the Bamberg Mӓrzen tends to lack by the time it’s schlepped across continental Europe and sat on a shelf for a few months. And although not bitter by the standards of the best examples of bitter, the additional hop bite really lifts and balances the smoke.

All of that is why we felt emboldened, on the second encounter last week, to say this:

Of course we’re being provocative but, honestly, we don’t make a habit of making hyperbolic statements and, indeed, have been known to hack people off by sticking up for classic beers that cooler folk than us reckon to be passé. Yes, if we could be magically transported to the brewery tap in Bamberg and taste it there – oh, the fruitiness! – we might not make the comparison, but we’d rather drink this beer from a nearby brewery than a bottle of Schlenkerla Mӓrzen if given the option.

Unfortunately, Rauchbier is Rauchbier – the very definition of an acquired taste. Drinkers at The Drapers didn’t seem keen and the fact that the latest cask has been on sale for several days tells a story.

We suspect it might do better in craft beer bars where people tend to be actively in search of unusual flavours, but who knows.

A final thought: is there room in the market for a specialist bar or two focused on lager and German styles? This isn’t a complaint about how ‘it’s all IPA these days’ so much as a plea for someone to seize a wide-open gap in the market.

We’d be quite happy to see a line-up of Lost & Grounded Keller Pils, Stroud Rauchbier, Otter Tarka (a Jever clone), Bath Ales Sulis, Zero Degrees Vienna lager and so on.

Which are your favourite UK takes on Rauchbier? We’ve heard Torrside are good at this though we’ve not had chance to try their beers ourselves.

10 replies on “Smokey and the Bandit: Rauchbier in the UK”

That bitter sounds fascinating! A clone of Schlenkerla Helles is an odd prospect, though: isn’t the whole deal with that beer that it isn’t brewed with smoked malt and merely picks up ambient phenols in the brewery?

The UK line in smoked beers seems to mostly focus on Porters – which am not sure if you’re including in this discussion of Rauchbiers. Only example have had from Torrside is Grubby Bastard, 6.0% keg (also do a bottled version), very much in that style – chocolatey quite lightly smoked Porter. Found it enjoyable enough though prefer more oomph of smoky impact, so of that style Beavertown’s Smog Rocket, Thornbridge’s Beadeca’s Well, Dukeries’ Gunsmoke and Leighton Buzzard’s Smokin’ Angel have particularly stood out (along with Fierce Beer’s Dirty Sanchez and Siren’s Mum’s The Word for the +Chipotle Chilli approach).

Always prepared to be different the Wild Beer Smoke ‘n’ Barrels series bucked the Porter approach, with Spring (a lager with cherry wood smoke, rosemary and sage) and Winter (Belgian Dubbel with smoked sloes) especially interesting.

In the classic beechwood type not had anything that’s topped Spezial or Schlenkerla yet but Cloudwater’s Let There Be Love and Orbit’s White Label Series 014 (had both examples on draught which may have been an advantage over bottled – sadly neither still being produced) certainly came close. More recently, Smoulder Draft – a smoky (Frazzles were first thing that came to mind) deep brown malty caramel 3.8% cask Bitter that appeared rather like the way you’ve described Stroud’s Fall – by Dorset Brewing Company was decent, though the slightly creamy mouthfeel did make it seem a bit weird as a vehicle for bacon flavours. Also Bohem’s Smoked Sparta, 5.4% keg which had in their Taproom a couple of months ago, was rather good and closer to the traditions of the style than the Dorset.

From down in Cornwall, the Treens Brewery ‘Smoulder’ is very good indeed and is also very drinkable even after 3 pints (cask) as it hits a sweet spot for smoke and drinkability. Flies out when on at the Front in Falmouth. Bamberg malt used of course

Can’t resist saying go to Bamberg and taste the real Thing! (Although I prefer the beer in Zum Speziale). It’s like trying Fuller’s or Young’s on hand pulls in the USA or anywhere where the distribution trail involves more carbonation and lengthy travelling times.

Nothing beats drinking Schlenkerla in Bamberg but German Kraft (Mercato Metropolitano, Elephant & Castle) produce an annual smoked lager around Halloween which is very close in style.

Someone mentioned Bohem and their original smoked beer, Raleigh, was quite something as well. Like a smoked Earl Grey tea beer but in a good way. Sadly doesn’t seem to be around these days.

Green Jack’s “Red Herring” used to be a bit of a banger. Could even get it in a swing top 750ml. Not seen it in a while though.

Ray’s Rauchbier from Welton’s is pretty good – and that’s from a brewery that are, for me, a bit hit’n’miss *at best* – but generally I’ve found UK takes on the style to be underwhelming and I have a hunch that on more than one occasion the smokiness has been a late addition, perhaps to mask the off-flavours of an unsuccessful brew.

From farther afield, Bayou Teche Boucanee is a really stunning smoked American Wheat. I’d rank this above Schlenkerla. Just.

You initial tweet and this post have inspired me to tinker with my own best bitter recipe to make a rauch version, and the guys are Three Notch’d are on board with making a version of it too, hopefully Rauch 42 will be in the works in the not too distant future.

Just to give my brother’s brewery a plug, Poppyland in Cromer does an occasional Smokehouse Porter which has both the hops and the malt lightly smoked in the local 165-year-old fish smokehouse, and biased though I undoubtedly am, it’s delicious.

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