How to Brew Smoke Beer (Rauchbier) | Homebrew Challenge

by Steve Thanos | Last Updated: May 12, 2020

If I were to describe a Rauchbier to ten beer drinkers and offer them a pour, I feel fairly confident that most would reject the pour. Portrayed as a beer with a “campfire-like” aroma and taste, I can see how some are put off by such a descriptor. However, some nights just call for a little smoke in your glass.

For many years malt was dried over an open fire. This assured the malt dried, however, an inconvenient consequence of this process was the smoke having its grip on every delicious sip of the beer.

Many brewers back then were eager to rid the brewing industry of this rather unwanted aspect of malting.

Innovation in Malting

In 1818 Daniel Wheeler changed everything. Wheeler, a British engineer and inventor, invented the drum kiln and forever altered how malt was kilned.

The drum kiln actually never exposed the malt to fire directly. This increased the range of malt color, flavor, made for a more uniform roast, and eliminated the smoked character of the malt.

Hold on a Minute…

As many brewers were rejoicing in their brew kettles that this smoke character was finally eliminated, there were still some brewers that wanted to pump the breaks on this new fangled way of kilning malt.

Yes, there brewers who actually liked the smoky character of the malt. This was something these brewers knew, understood, and saw very little reason to mess with this tradition. Sound familiar?

In the city of Bamberg, Germany these old school brewers hung on to this piece of history. When kilning malt, there were three main fuels: wood, straw, and coal. Coal was the least favorable because it was expensive and dirty. It also imparted the least desired flavor. English maltsters prefered coal or wood, while the Germans opted for wood.

Style Profile and Characteristics of Rauchbier

Appearance

Color ranges from light copper to dark brown. The head of this beer should be tan to cream color; all while being rich, thick, and creamy. Beer should be extremely clear.

Aroma

The smoke presence is really left up to the brewer. It can be a hint or a smack in the face. The smoked character is compared to wood character, smoky, and almost bacon-like. You should expect a clean lager profile. Hop aroma is very low to almost nonexistent.

Mouthfeel

Medium body with smooth lager-like character. A Rauchbier is highly carbonated. High astringency and harshness is inappropriate for the style.

Taste

The malt and the smoke need to somehow harmoniously coexist. The balance can vary, but one should compliment the other. Toasted malty richness should be present; think Märzen style.

At high smoke levels, the smoke character can take on a bacon or ham-like character. The malt can create a rich and sweet palate. Semi-dry to dry finish will only help to enhance this beer.

The drying effect is enhanced by the smokiness. Hop flavor ranges from medium to nonexistent; spicy herbal, or floral notes. Clean lager fermentation. Aftertaste of this beer should be a nice harmony of malt and smoke.

Food Pairing

When it comes to pairing this beer with food, one jumps at the chance to pair it with smoked meats. Not so fast, Smokey! Hear me out on this one. Sometimes too much of one thing can be off-putting. Instead of smoked meats, pair this beer with grilled meat.

There are some smoke elements to grilled meat, but not in your face like a smoked brisket or pork shoulder. A nice German bratwurst, steak, fish, and chicken all work well with a good Rauchbier.

By the Numbers

Color Range: 12 – 22 SRM

Original Gravity: 1.050 – 1.057 OG

Final Gravity: 1.012 – 1.016 FG

IBU Range: 20 – 30

ABV Range: 4.8 – 6.0%

Brewing your own Rauchbier

Malt

Weyermann Malting makes a vast majority of commercially used Rauchmalz. German Rauchmalz is a Vienna style malt smoked over beechwood. Ironically enough Weyermann Malting is located in Bamberg, Germany.

A Rauchbier grain bill can consist of anywhere from 20 to 100% smoked malt. As mentioned earlier, balance and harmony between the smokiness and the maltiness needs to be taken into consideration.

The base malt can be anything from 2-Row, Munich malt, or Vienna malt. The ratio is really up to the brewer and his/her desire for the smoke character. Briess Malting in America makes a Cherry wood smoked malt that is also very popular. For color purposes, specialty malts such as Carafa Special II and Caramunich I can be used.

Hops

German Noble hops, of course, should be used when considering hops. Since you really do not need much hops in this recipe, a low alpha hop will do just fine. The hops here are just to balance out the malt.

Yeast

A good German Lager yeast should be used for this beer. White Labs Oktoberfest/Marzen WLP820 and White Labs German Lager WLP830 are both solid choices.

Wyeast Munich Lager 2308, Wyeast Bohemian Lager 2124, Wyeast Bavarian Lager 2206, Wyeast Oktoberfest Lager Blend 2633 can all do the job too.

Fermenting and Lagering

Follow the temperature ranges on the desired yeast that you choose for this brew day. Usually primary fermentation will be around 50°F and 55°F(10°C-12°F). Raise your fermentation to around 60°F(10°C) for a diacetyl rest and hold it there for 3 days.

After the d-rest, rack to a secondary and get that beer off the yeast. This will be time to lager your beer. One to two months of lagering at 35°F and 40°F(1°C-4°C) is good practice for this lager.

Martin Keen’s Rauchbier Recipe

Malt

95% 10 lbs Cherry Wood Smoked Malt

2.5% 4.0 oz Carafa Special II

2.5% 4.0 oz Caramunich I

Hops

1.00 oz Perle Pellets

0.50 oz Hallertauer Pellets

Yeast

1.0 pkg German Lager (White Labs#WLP830)

Mash at 152F for 60 mins

Boil for 60 mins

Smoke Beer Rauchbier Homebrew Challenge 7

When I started the Homebrew Challenge to brew all 99 beer styles, I knew I’d be brewing some beers that I really, really enjoy and I’d be brewing some beer styles that I wasn’t really all that familiar with, but I also knew that at some point I’d have to brew that damn smoke beer. Well, today is the day, let’s brew some Rauchbier.

So smoked bears. Why? Why There’s actually an historical reason as to why originally all bears were smoked beers, but the malt was dried over an open flame and that would result in the molt having a smoky characteristic to it, which would eventually get imparted into the beer. When killing became more popular and by the 19th century almost all malt was kilned.

Then that smoky grain really went away. And as I’m giving you this, uh, this little history lesson, I have 10 pounds of smokey malt right here over my shoulder and the whole brewery already smells like a bonfire.

Smoke Beer Rauchbier Homebrew Challenge 2

Now the wood that is used is going to make a big difference as to the sort of smoke characteristic your malt is going to pick up. And when I went down to the Homebrew store, I saw that they had multiple different types of smoked malt. Now, from what I understand, Pete malt, well that’s for the truly brave or perhaps truly stupid.

I’ve heard nothing good whatsoever about Pete malt. The two main ones that you will typically see are cherry wood and Beechwood smoked malt. And I went for cherry wood. So let’s get to it. What are the ingredients for my, uh, my brat, Alex, how do I say this?

Hey Martin, it’s pronounced “row-ch-beer”. It helps have a german friend. I’m just going to call this best smoked beer from now on. So what are the ingredients I’m going to use? Well, the, uh, the style guidelines say that you can add between 20 to 100% of your grist be made from smoked malt.

Smoke Beer Rauchbier Homebrew Challenge 3

Most recipes I looked at online were sort of in the 20 to 30% range. I figure if we’re going to do this, let’s go all in. So I’ve gone 95% for malt – specifically. That is cherry wood smoked malt, 10 pounds of this. And, uh, the funny thing about that is when I went in the Homebrew store to pick this one out, it came in this tiny little jar that only had three pounds in there. So we had to bring out this, uh, this big sack for me to get my 10 pounds worth. So I think 10 pounds is probably a pretty unusual purchase for this.

Now, in addition to that, I do have some specialty malts as well. Um, I have Cara Munich I, uh, four ounces of that and four ounces also of Carafa Special II, which will get me to that slightly dark color that I’m looking for.

Then just in case that isn’t quite smokey enough, I’m going to be sprinkling some of the Ash from the cigarette butts into the beer as well to make sure I really get that smokey flavor. The cigarette thing was a joke.

Okay. So I’m going to mash this at 152 Fahrenheit for about an hour. I’m looking to get a gravity of 10 53, which is going to give me a beer around 5.5%abv. If you can really see here the Carafa Special II has done its job giving this sort of darker Brown color. This is a SRM of about 15. It smells like, like something’s on fire in here.

Hops wise, I have as my bittering hop Perle hops, one ounce of this will go in at 60 minutes and then at 10 minutes I have Hallertau Mittelfrüher. I have half an ounce of that. Overall. This should give me a beer of about 27 IBU. And in fact, I do believe it’s, uh, it’s time to add the Perle.

The beer is coming at 10 53, so right on the money, uh, I managed to chill it down to about 63 Fahrenheit and now I’m just using my, uh, my usual process of putting that in the chest where I will drop it about another 10 degrees in there to get it to about 50, at which point, WLP 830. Again, German lager yeast is going in.

If you’re wondering why this is such a small little flask, uh, that’s because I decant it out of a bigger flask. Uh, move this in here so I can make another you starter. You know, I’m both simultaneously looking forward to and dreading tasting this beer and about four or five weeks.

Smoke Beer Rauchbier Homebrew Challenge 10

Well it’s time, it’s time to taste this thing. Uh, the fermentation notes, this came out that 10, 15, 5% beer, um, did struggle a little bit to find willing volunteers. Lauren has somehow agreed to do this. So yes, I know, I was kind of excited because I heard it was like smokey bacon and I was like, okay, it is supposed to be those things.

I looked at it. Yeah. So, so let’s talk about the appearance of this because this beer is supposed to be very clean in color. What would you say about that? Like a clean toilet. Yeah. It’s like mud in a glass, isn’t it awful? Yeah, it does not look in any way appealing. It’s not attractive at all. No. I’m not sure what happened there. Maybe it just needs a bit longer at this beer is about five weeks old, so it should have had plenty of time for clear up, but it hasn’t, there is definitely a smokiness to it.

There is a lot of weird smells going on in that. To me like you know, if you’ve been to like a bonfire the night before and then you smell your clothes the next day. Yes I do. I have a story about that and I smoked my clothes for seven days cause I forgot where I stashed my sweater. Well that is exactly what that’s the smell. It’s, it’s the stale bonfire smoke I think. Never have. I less wanted to taste a beer but to keep an open mind with this one. I still can’t get over the smell. Cheers. Bottoms up.

Well Oh, Oh. I’ll tell you what is the drink that keeps giving because you think the flavor’s gone and then it hits the back of your throat and it’s still there. It’s, it’s still there. If I have to make this face every time I say this, not what I’m going to order it by. Now, as far as smoke queers go, we took this one to the extreme with the amount of smoke malt, the winner. Next. I thought I was going to make it smoky. Let’s make it smoky.

And I think it’s quite fair to say that the smoke flavor from the malt has definitely imparted itself in the beer. Yes, definitely there. Um, but in a completely overpowering way that I can taste nothing but smoke.

I don’t like it. I’m sorry. I’m not, I am not offended by that whatsoever. This is absolutely the worst beer I have ever made. Without question.

I’m going to bring in another taster. He’s going to regret this. That’s bad. That’s my review.

I am the former President of my homebrew club, Plainfield Ale and Lager Enthusiasts (PALE) in the western suburbs of Chicago, IL. I brew on my BIAB system with my incredibly patient and understanding wife, adorable 9 year old daughter, and 12 year old brew dog.