Smoked beer has overtime become my definition as a beer enthusiast. (If you didn’t know this, refer to my swooning over meeting a worker from Schlenkerla at Port Street Beer House last year.) It is my niche; my attribute where people will get in touch to say to me, “Do you know such-and-such-a-place has a smoked porter on at the minute?” or “Such-and-such-a-shop has got a new smoked beer in.” It’s also my brother’s (The Booze Nooze) love too and we tend to get in touch with each other any time we drink a beverage supposedly smoky to review it for each other. Yes, I have a lot of time for this particular genre of beer.
Despite this, it is a style rather untouched in British brewing, noticeably absent from many of the more modern microbreweries or “craft” brewer’s range. Though this disappoints me, I hope it’s not the next “thing to do” on the Brewer’s check list. We’ve had the big influx of Saisons and the recent fad of Sours, I hope Smoke isn’t the next big thing. Especially since when the style is explored, it’s generally in the form of a Smoked Porter and is often a tenacious, mild and cautionary delve into the use of smoked malt. This puzzles me. It feels at times as if brewers are afraid to work with the style, but indulge in it just to add it to the roster. In fact this whole post began because of a taste I had of Alpha State Brewery’s Smoked Porter , Mette. L (?) in Port Street Beer House a few weeks ago. The beer was unquestionably a Black IPA. There was a hint of smoke trying to sift its way through a barrage of tropical hops, but not enough to even begin to refer to it as anything but a Black IPA. I tweeted about this at the time, and it was my brother’s response to this that, aside from making my laugh, prompted this post.
Go hard or go home! Never a more apt phrase has been used. Why make a smoked beer with subtle smoke? I sometimes read beer bloggers reviewing smoked beers with phrases such as “the smoke is subtle which is good for me, as I don’t like my smoked beer smoky.” Sorry? Why is it in your glass then? Though I’ve never come across a beer style I’ve disliked, if I had to pick a least favourite one it would probably be sours. However, I would never buy a sour beer only to complain that it is TOO sour for my palate. If I’d gone out of my way to purchase a sour beer I’d be pretty disappointed if it wasn’t sour.
The crux of this post on smoked beer disappointment is that I dug into my stash to drink some of the beverage and confirm my opinions. I chose four beers, all smoked in style, from four different nations and made sure to include at least one British one, to confirm whether or not I am right to assume that the fear of the style is worse on these isles.
I started with the British choice and a beer I thought I was trying for the first time. It's thick, black with a hint of ripe plums in the shade. The smell is bold, close to many a big imperial stout. Roasted coffee and cocoa beans are overwhelming, whilst the smoke is a peated warming underneath that is more flame flicker than roaring fire. A rather thin body is, unfortunately, the first noticeable attribute of the taste. It's also incredibly similar to chocolate porters. It's deep, rich, dark chocolate with a hint of hazelnut in the afterthought and toasted pecans. That toasted flavour is as close to smoke as you can find without really digging between your taste buds. There is some firewood and burnt toast hidden beneath a deep, sweet richness, as though somebody mixed a chocolate porter with a Rauchbier 6:1. Not a bad beer, but not a smoked one for me either. I find out at the end that according to Untappd I've had this beer before in York Tap (obviously a heavy session.) I awarded it 2 stars with the tasting notes "no smoke." That was on cask. The bottles aren't much different.
Well this is different, but then again it was bound to be. I have to say I had Haand's "Smoke Without Fire" a few months ago and that was absolutely terrific and one of the best smoked beers I've ever had. This beer though, whilst being a traditional Norwegian Smoked beer, is brewed with junipers so is therefore going to provide something very different. Deep amber with a lovely sitting head, the smell is remarkably complex. Almost sour in nose, the memory is of hot blackberry pie with burnt pastry. The junipers sit amongst the embers of a forest fire. The taste is similar too; delightful, yet unusual. It's safe to say I have never tasted any beer like this before. There's an initial split second where a fruit based ale, like Saltaire's Raspberry Cascade, seems to be sat in your glass. But then a powerful smoke blast gusts at you like a passing steam train. And it IS smoke. It's not a hint or a suggestion, it is the taste of smoke, no similies, no metaphors.
Something of an institution I only discovered on receiving a bottle for my birthday last year, this pours a lovely dark brown. It has great Rauchbier quality on the nose with a sweet hint of pecan and caramel in the background. The taste... IT'S GOOD! The worry that it won't have enough smoke is overcome by a sweet peatiness that's mellow in the CORRECT WAY mellow should refer to smoked beers. Where the Haandbryggeriet beers, like Schlenkerla, define smoke in a more literal sense, this Alaskan beer provides all the smoke flavourings in a more palatable way. Rather than giving tasting notes, I'd use this beer as a good benchmark for where I stand on smoked beer. Smoked beer is a style, a genre and a niche. It is not for everyone. But as it is not for everyone, it should not be created with everyone in mind. Similar to some of the other more divisive styles such as flemish reds or English Barley Wines. A certain style shouldn’t be dumbed down so that those that can’t abide it suddenly sing alongside it. This isn't an in-your-face smoked beer; it carries the flavour coolly bringing a well-balanced experience. But it IS most definitely smoked. And that is what I require from this style. Brewers, take note, if you don't like the style, don't mess about with it. If you do then experiment all you want. I think there's a lot of fun to be had with it.
Taking the "it tastes like gammon" ideal to a whole new level, this flat appearing beer certainly smells like gammon fat, you can't help but be intrigued by the approach. It's different than I remember this originally but has changed in to a sum of its parts. The smokiness with a hint of bacon fries has been turned into pure bacon grease. It's chomp on the bit bacon fat with a full bodied smoked background. There's depth yet difference. It becomes exactly what it says in Ronseal form.
I’ll happily have more style rants if it leads to delicious tasting nights like this. Unfortunately, the British Smoked Porter was the beer that failed tonight. I think our lack of acceptance of the style has led to a lack of imports of the foreign versions too. When I think how much beer is imported from Samuel Adams, Rogue or Sierra Nevada into specialist beer shops these days and yet their smoked beers never make it, it really disappoints me. I’d like to think they are creating the style perfectly, yet I may never know. If they’re not then they should Go Hard or Go Home. I want smoke in my smoked beer. Is that such a surprise?