05 September 2008

We will rauch you

Just when we thought we were getting an easy topic for The Session this month -- Germany -- Lootcorp has imposed a variety of terms and conditions into the theme. We get extra points for Bavaria-related posts, but we're not allowed write about Oktoberfest unless we really have to (fair enough: my trip to the 2005 Oktoberfest is covered here). Most of all, we've been asked to discuss how "Germany and beer have become intertwined in your life". Well, ever since this post my interest in German beer has centred on the hammy delights of rauchbier, a speciality of Bamburg in (guess where) Bavaria. Look at those points racking up.

Tragically, Schlenkerla Märzen is the beginning and end of German rauchbier in Ireland. I'm not really complaining as it's one of my standard go-to beers now and I'm still thoroughly enjoying it on a regular basis. However, when I visited De Bierkoning in Amsterdam last month I headed straight for the German section to seek out new smoky delights.

And so, first up is Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier, and I got a little bit worried when I brought this home: there's no mention anywhere on the bottle of it being smoked, nor is the label the fancy faux-parchment style of the other rauchbiers. Is it possible they just make a bog standard helles alongside the specialities? When the cap popped, no smoky vapours greeted me, and a good sniff of the poured beer didn't reveal any either. The paleness also had me thinking I'd been sold a smoke-free pup. Thankfully, I was wrong.

One sip reveals this to be rauchbier to the core. The strong bacon tones sit on top of a rather sharp and bitter hoppiness, of the sort I associate with parts further north than Bavaria. The two flavours vie for dominance briefly before the smoke prevails and gives the taste wonderful legs. I think the smokiness works better with the fuller märzen body under it, but it's definitely still a success as a helles.

At only 4.3% ABV, what I've got here is a superbly tasty session beer and only its gassiness might prevent me spending a whole evening necking it cheerfully. Well, that and the fact that I have to travel several hundred miles if I want another bottle.

My second beer of the Session is another lager, this time from the other Bamberg rauchbier specialist: Spezial Lager. It's a much more attractive, and smoky, shade of amber. No smoke on the nose though and... oh dear. Oh dear oh dear: there is virtually no smoke flavour to this at all. It could be the after-effect of the Schlenkerla, of course, but I doubt it. All I'm getting is a rather full-bodied heavy lager with very little hopping and just the faintest dry wisp of smoked malt. Specialist concerns aside, this is quite a dull beer by any standards: the smoke-free pup I was dreading earlier.

Of course, this is more about me than about the beer: yes it's a lager made with rauchmalt, and I'm sure it has legions of fans who wouldn't touch something as crudely flavoured as Schlenkerla with a bargepole, but such subtlety isn't for this drinker: I want a beer that screams smoke at me while waving a packet of bacon fries in my face. And this is very far from being it. Certainly, I'm willing to take a chance on the other beers in the Spezial range, but when given a choice between breweries, I know for certain where my loyalties lie.


  1. Oh, that's a relief for me on the Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier, as I got a bottle in my Bamberg Box and, like you, was wondering why Rauch wasn't mentioned. I also have the Spezial Märzen and Lager. I'll have to compare the Schlenkerla and Spezial Märzens, but it sounds like the Spezial should be tasted first if they are generally lower on the smoky-bacon front. Good pre-tasting service there TBN! :D

  2. With regard to the Helles, I understand that it is not a Rauchbier per se but rather it absords the smokiness from being made in the same equipment as Schlenkerla's other brews, which may also account for the lack of fancy label. However, it is a superb lager and I love the stuff.

  3. For once, Adeptus, I'm not warning readers off rubbish, which is what usually happens here.

    Velky, that's really interesting, thanks. Just goes to show that methods of production and dispense don't matter a damn as long as good beer comes out the other end.

  4. I'll agree on the Helles; I'm a rabid supporter of that beer, and urge anyone who thinks the style is boring to give that particular one a go.

  5. It's different enough to the point of making a nonsense of systematised beer styles, Eric.

  6. Most definitely, Beer Nut, and that's what I like about beers such as this one. I prefer to operate in sketches rather than in those narrow, and sometimes misleading, BJCP guidelines. And I like to be surprised.

    It's always great to see someone take a sip and have them ask, "What kind of beer did you say this was?"

  7. A smoky lager sounds interesting, and smoked to a degree that I think I would enjoy.

  8. Bottled Spezial that's found it's way to Ireland clearly doesn't do justice to what's served on draught at the brewery tavern, then.

  9. Bailey6:17 pm

    I've had Spezial both in Bamberg and out of bottles in London and found it pretty, er, special. A more elusive smokiness, but definitely there. Classy is the word that springs to mind. I used to prefer it to Schlenkerla, but have changed my mind in recent months -- what I used to find an overwhelming smokiness I'm now getting quite addicted to.

    Can you get patches to help you give up Rauchbier?

  10. When I had the helles it had zero smokiness, and others have commented in a similar vein on RateBeer.

    It's a beer I must try again to see how different (and hopefully better) it might be.