“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.
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 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:
Stroud Brewery's smoked bitter, Fall, is better than Schlenkerla Märzen. We will not be taking further questions at this time.
— Boak and Bailey (@BoakandBailey) January 16, 2020
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.