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.

What Gives a Beer Value?

A chart showing relative values we place on beers.

This is another attempt to ‘graph our relationship with beer‘. This time, it’s about capturing the various qualities that give a particular beer value in our eyes.

  • Sentiment: homesickness, happy memories, family connections.
  • Taste: how nice is it?
  • Complexity: and how deep?
  • Tradition: does it connect us with history and a particular culture? (Cask ale does this.)
  • Value: i.e. value for money.
  • Rarity: how likely are we to find this beer again any time soon?
  • Novelty: Schlenkerla’s smoked maerzen scores highly here.
  • Sessionability: we like beers we can drink a few of.
  • Refreshment: sometimes, we want beer to quench our thirst and cool us down.

For example, we know, objectively speaking, that Butcombe’s cask bitter isn’t the world’s best beer but, nonetheless, we value it more highly than almost as highly as Duvel. That sounds nuts, right? But we’re not saying it’s as great a a better beer, only that, for us, a pint of Butcombe Bitter is tied up with happy times in Somerset pubs with Bailey’s parents (sentiment); and, especially when we lived in London, it had a certain rarity value.

Even we were surprised to see that St Austell’s Black Prince Mild has the highest value of any beer on the chart, but then again, it is remarkably rare; gives us a powerful sense of engaging with brewing tradition; taps into all the sentimental associations we make with mild-loving grandparents; and is a wonderful session beer.

Schlenkerla Maerzen scores highly because, not only does smoked beer have novelty value, and a taste we happen to like, but even the merest whiff of it transports us back to Bamberg.

We could record marks for every beer we drink against this system. It might be interesting to see, after a year or two, which ends up having the most ‘value’, and whether we would also consider it our favourite beer.

Schlenkerla Helles

Last year, we met up with Ron Pattinson in Cask and spent a few hours discussing Franconia, East Germany and His Big Book. Ron spotted Schlenkerla Helles in the fridge and recommended it.

We’d not tried it before and loved it. There is no smoked malt in the beer but, being brewed in the same building and with the same equipment as their darker smoked beers, it can’t help but pick up a bit of smokiness.

We never got round to writing this up and, in the months since then, we haven’t seen it on sale in Cask. Our favourite London pub has recently, however, even further expanded it’s beer selection and the Helles has popped up again so were able to enjoy a couple of bottles this week.

In fact, if you’re a fan of Rauchbier, Cask now has several different varieties on offer, in addition to the usual suspects from Schlenkerla.

Wot no gose?

Statue of JS Bach outside the Thomaskirche, Leipzig
Statue of JS Bach outside the Thomaskirche, Leipzig

Leipzig is blessed with yet another excellent brewpub, the Brauhaus an der Thomaskirche, right in the middle of town. When we went, they were offering a pils, a Rauchbier and a “Spezial” schwarz.

The Spezial reminded us of Sam Smith’s Oatmeal stout — goopy and warming and definitely not one of those thin German schwarzbiers. The Rauchbier was outstanding — straight out of Franconia, with its balanced malt and smoke mix. So nice that we had another, instead of trying the pils.

The Brauhaus was doing a roaring trade both on premises and in their takeaway service, and it was good to see how popular the Rauchbier was. Perhaps there’s hope for diversity in German brewing after all. Now if only they would try their hand at a Gose as well…

Brauhaus an der Thomaskirche is next to the Thomaskirche (surprisingly), where JS Bach composed hundreds of works. The pub is also an Italian restaurant.

That's what Oktoberfest is about

Just surfacing after last night at Zeitgeist.  My stomach is turning somewhat thinking about beer, so this is not the time for detailed beer reviews.  Suffice to say, we had a great time, and so did our non-beer-geek friends.

Can’t really remember a lot about what I drank, but it was all good stuff.  Standouts for me were Scheubel-Sternbrau Dunkel Rauchbier and (in a bottle) Kanone Zwickl.   Go Go Go (but do line the stomach first…)

In case you’ve forgotten, all the details are here.  It’s due to run all weekend, and they may just have enough beer this time…we’d go back, but we’re Never Drinking Again.

Boak (never has my nom de plume seemed more appropriate)

A virtual tasting for beer-beginners

Versión en español

Delirium, over at “De Cervezas y otras cosas”, has set a very interesting topic for this month’s “round” (the Session for Spanish-speaking beer-bloggers). It was so thought-provoking that we thought we’d post it in English as well.

The challenge was to come up with a “virtual” tasting session aimed at people who are not beer lovers. We had to pick between five and eight beers that we would put forward, avoiding obscure microbreweries, and explain why we’d selected them.

We like to beervangelise from time to time, so it’s a question we’ve thought about a lot in the past. After much pondering, we finally came up with some definite proposals, which we put forward here. Continue reading “A virtual tasting for beer-beginners”

Rogue Smoke Ale

A bottle of Rogue Smoke Ale

Wow. What a great beer.

When we asked people to bring us bottles of beer for our 10th anniversary in February, our chum Nick presented us with a bottle of Rogue’s Smoke Ale.

We had a feeling it might be special and, as often happens, that’s stopped us drinking it.

Tonight, after a particularly successful day’s brewing, it felt like the right time to crack it open.

It smells, as expected, like bacon, but once that’s died away with the big fluffy head, there’s a lot of zesty hops and a crisp malt flavour which beats the pants off a lot of dunkels we had on our recent German jaunt. It’s top fermented and that might be why it reminded us a little of a brown ale.

So, like we said at the top, a great beer, and inspirational. We have to make something like this now!

Bailey

Bamberg revisited

You don’t need us to tell you about the pubs in Bamberg. I’m sure you’ve all “been there, done that”, and if not, you’re planning to.

That said, I don’t think you could ever “do” Bamberg. If you stuck to just “doing” the brewery taps, you’d miss out on lovely cosy pubs and idyllic beer gardens in and around the town. Then there are all the pubs with brews from nearby villages, then day trips to places like Buttenheim, Forchheim, Eggolsheim… then the hundreds of pubs in surrounding villages.

We don’t want to bore you with all the beers we had in Bamberg this time round, but here are our top five drinking experiences, in no particular order.

1. Lunch at Griefenklau Greifenklau

You don’t hear much about Griefenklau Greifenklau – I don’t think I’ve seen their livery outside of their outlet on Laurentziplatz. We suspect the locals want to keep this one to themselves. It’s a fair hike up a hill, but definitely worth it, as the beer garden is beautiful, with great views across the wood to the Altenburg. It’s a very mixed crowd, from grandparents with children to business people. The beer is very fresh and satisfying. Possibly not the most complex in town, but with a garden like this, who cares?

A similarly beautiful spot is the Spezial Bier-Garten on Steinwartstrasse (listed in the Bavaria Lonely Planet guide). You can’t beat this place for the view across town, especially at twilight. The beer itself is very subtle –- you only notice the smoke flavour when it warms up a bit. And they don’t do the full range of Spezial beers — you need to go to the outlet on Obere Koenigstrasse for that.

2. Mahrs Brau Ungespundete

This was the first beer of the holiday that made our eyes pop out and caused us to make ‘mmmmm’ noises (perhaps we’re getting jaded?). It’s copper coloured and extremely fruity, with peaches, cherries, cloves and liquorice. There’s a good hop flavour as it goes down, which balances the roastiness and oakiness. They also do a lovely weizen, which is (without being advertised as such) a bit smoky.

3. Reacquainting ourselves with Schlenkerla

We’ve been drinking Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Maerzen from bottles in London during the last year or two and, although we always enjoy it, it sometimes seems a bit one-dimensional. Not as fresh as it is from the tap, where the crazy smokiness is just one flavour beautifully balanced with a lot of others. We sat outside under a tree, listening to a university orchestra rehearsing in a nearby building, and sighed with contentment.

4. Discovering Keesmann Stern-la

Keesmann are another brewery we’d not heard much about. Their beers are on the commercial side — a bit ‘cleaner’, maybe — but we were very impressed by Stern-la. It’s an unfiltered lager but was very clear in the glass and a dark golden colour, with a lot of sweet malt flavour. We’d expected something as rubbish as, say, Ingolstadt’s Ingobrau and it’s always a treat to be pleasantly surprised.

5. Afternoon session at Klosterbrau

You know how much difference a pleasant waiter can make? Our waitress on the sunny afternoon we spent here was great. “Nice beer?” she asked with a smile as we swooned over the seasonal bock. “Yes!” we said. She smiled and looked delighted. “All is well with the world,” we said to each other several times. Although the bock might have had something to do with that, too.
Notes

As is usually the case, Ron‘s guide to Bamberg pubs is a great place to start researching your own crawls. Links have been included where appropriate, but neither Keesmann nor Griefenklau Greifenklau seem to have a homepage. UPDATED. Griefenklau don’t have a homepage but Greifenklau do.

Bamberg smells nice

We’re all used to judging the aroma of the beer we’re enjoying, but it’s rare to be able to enjoy the aroma of the town where it’s being made. Bamberg is fairly small and so dominated by brewing that the very air is full of it.

When they’re making Rauchbier, the air fills with the smell of smoke, making a summer evening feel rather autumnal.

At the other end of town within sniffing distance of the colossal Weyermann malting plant, every time the breeze blows there’s a powerful scent of toasting, sugary grains in the air.

Makes you thirsty.