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Classic Beer of the Month August 2017: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, 5.1%

Rauchbier is the beer world’s equivalent of Marmite. You either love it or loathe it.

SchlenkerlaSome can’t get enough of the rich smoky aromas and flavours; others find the phenolic character just too overwhelming, however subtly it is applied.

Personally, I’m firmly in the first camp, although a rauchbier has to be well made in order to keep me on board. As much as I like the bonfire and bacon notes the best have to offer, I have also tasted many examples that are so clumsy or out of balance that they’re impossible to drink.

So what makes a great rauchbier? Well, you could do worse than study the world’s leading example.

Rauchbier simply translates from German as ‘smoke beer’, the smoky notes being derived from the use of grains that have been dried over aromatic wood during the malting process.

The world centre for rauchbier production is Bamberg, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northern Bavaria that is not only one of the most stunningly preserved old cities but also a magnet for beer lovers, given its dense population of historic breweries, brew pubs and other taverns of character.

Original Smoked Beer

Probably the most popular of all these bars is the wonderfully atmospheric Schlenkerla, described on these pages in October 2010.

They don’t brew there any longer: the family-run brewery was moved to a nearby hillside in 1936, but it’s still the place to visit for the ultimate smoked beer experience and particularly to taste Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen – the brewery’s original smoked beer.

If you’ve drunk märzen before then cast aside all preconceptions of what this beer might taste like. Yes, it has the full body you’d expect from that chunky style of lager, and the same juicy malt sweetness at its heart, but overriding all that is the intense smoky character.

The beer is made using malt that has been dried in the brewery’s own maltings over beechwood fires. The smoky notes this generates in the beer are so powerful that a robust hop – Hallertauer Magnum – is needed to provide a counterbalance, and it does just that, although it never gets close to competing with the dominant grain.

After fermentation, to ensure cleanness and smoothness, the brew is lagered for six–eight weeks in a network of naturally cool tunnel cellars cut into the hillside some 700 years ago.

Smoked Bacon

The beer pours a deep ruby colour with a thick beige foam. Instantly, the smoked character leaps from the glass, suggestive of kippers, bonfires and just a little TCP.

Smoked bacon, charred wood, caramel and a hint of chocolate feature in the bittersweet taste but, despite these bold flavours, the beer is very quaffable, drinking a touch lighter than its strength would suggest. It then finishes dry and bacon-smoky, before turning slowly more bitter.

Variations on a theme include the brewery’s bottle-fermented Rauchbier Weizen, which combines the smoked beer tradition with that of Bavarian wheat beer, creating a taste that merges banana and clove with smoky caramel, and Eiche, an oak-smoked double bock.

There’s also a helles lager, which is not brewed using smoked malt but still has a distinct smoky character because it is fermented with the same yeast that, after years of reacting with smoked malts, has acquired ‘rauch’ characteristics.

Bamberg needs to be on every beer lover’s bucket list, but if you can’t make it before you reach the end of the mortal coil, at least you can sample Schlenkerla in bottle.

Inevitably, it’s not quite as good as in the Schlenkerla bar itself, where it is tapped from wooden casks, but it’s still a remarkable beer.

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