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Rauchbier: Realest of Autumn Seasonals

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Matt Horn

For my first post I wanted to cover autumn seasonal ales. In my hunt for beers to review, I realized that most breweries' autumn seasonals have so little in common that they're impossible to compare. Anything goes this time of  year. Some brew doppelbocks like Capital Brewery's Autumnal Fire, maybe because they're a good middle ground between the Oktoberfest style and heavier winter warmers. Others brew brown ales, maybe because fall leaves turn brown. And there are tens of pumpkin ales, some like pumpkin pie (Southern Tier's Pumking) and others like the spices people put in pumpkin pie (Dogfish Head Punkin Ale). Both approaches can turn out tasty beers, but I've never found pumpkin ales consistent enough to be a true style worthy of seasonal status (more after the jump...)

Because American breweries have yet to settle on a shared style for late autumn seasonal beers, I've decided that smoked beer, or rauchbier in German, is the true autumn seasonal. That was maybe a crude decision, but you have to admit that the autumn wind can smell wild and smoky, especially when that crazy old guy is burning an epic heap of leaves in his backyard. Also, I drank all the beer already and I'm way past deadline for this post. Are pumpkin ales the true autumn seasonal because brewers make so many of them? I don't care anymore. Time is up, and I drank too much for me to backpedal.

I have no clue where smoked beer originated, but the best-known smoked malts are produced in Bamberg, Germany, where every day some lame teenaged malts inhale burning beechwood fumes, cough their lungs out and maybe throw up a little, but from then on they're adult malts, am I right? And as I learned in 3rd grade health assembly, once you smoke it's only a matter of time before you get into beer.

Haandbryggeriet -- Norwegian Wood
First on deck, Norwegian Wood poured a pale caramelized brown with an off-white head whose fizz dissipated quickly, leaving a ring of foam around the edges. There was a faint campfire chariness on top of the caramelized roasted malt typical of a porter nose. I picked up licorice-like juniper berries too, but I forgo credit for the sniff -- I would've IDed the juniper as crabgrass or something if I hadn't read about it on the bottle first.

The first sip opened with oatmeal and cinnamon, with hop bitterness cleaning up juicy molasses and brown sugar flavors that would otherwise cloy. The minty-sweet juniper [not BSing this time] complemented and tempered the smoke nicely. Light porter consistency and above-average carbonation make sure this all comes through with clean consistency so the palate isn't exhausted even 12 oz. deep into the bomber.

Norwegian Wood is complex but not pretentious or heavy. Plus, I have a thing for brews that manage to work in berries without letting them dominate (Dogfish Head Sah'tea, Dark Horse Tres Blueberry Stout).

Nils Oscar -- Rokporter
This Swedish smoked porter poured with a sandy, foamy head that receded slowly, leaving a lovely island of big bubbles in the middle of the glass. In greed and spite I guzzled down this delicious island, uncovering a dark amber-colored porter that smelled like fresh woodchips and tangier malt. There are a number of pulled pork sandwiches in my past wondering where this beer was at their moment of truth -- sorry team.

Extraordinarily clean pumpernickel and roasted walnut flavors glided above the smoke, which rose to the fore mid-sip but was present throughout, imbuing what would otherwise be a competent but conservative Euro porter with enigmatic tensions. This beer begs for pairing with savory and rustic meats like, uh, Whole Foods pork sausage. Like a has-been geologist leafing through a peer journal after finalizing a feverish analysis of his pet rock, I anticipate that you will shame me with the discovery of more exotic pairings.

Mikkeller -- Beer Geek Rauch Breakfast
Next up are Danish proxy brewers Mikkeller, who brew all their beer in other peoples' breweries, including Haandbryggeriet. Beer Geek Rauch Breakfast is a coffee-infused smoked oatmeal stout. This is one of the best beers I've ever had, and it's a challenge to hold off drinking this one long enough to take notes, but I'll try to be responsible. Unlike regular Beer Geek Breakfast, I haven't had this one for breakfast, which by the way was a terrible life decision.

The combo of smoked, roasty flavors in the nose is darkly revelatory blah blah blah how did I write this? Guess I was dumb with the contentment that this brew inspired. So anyway, there's the always-odd smooth yet grainy roastiness of a thick oatmeal stout, along with burnt bacon, black coffee with a pinch of sugar and a flummoxing shot of rum. A possible negative is that the bacon flavor doesn't live up to the beer's overwhelming bacon fumes and the logo on the bottle, though I'd counter that if you want to taste real bacon, at some point somebody's got to slaughter the hog.

New Holland -- Charkoota Rye
This beer pours a dark amber with a fairly bombastic head. It smells like sugary malt, incense and baked sweet potato smokiness, and of course booze. The back of the bottle describes the flavor as "smoke-forward", but I was hit hard by brown sugar doppelbock sweetness going into the first few sips, which the cherry wood-smoked malt unexpectedly deepened and did not counteract. I feel like the brewers were going for a sweeter BBQ flavor. This is in Slim Jim or honey-mustard barbecue sauce territory, and it would be a dark malt bomb of a bock without the smoke. To me this sweetness on all fronts is too much too fast.

I think Charkoota Rye is definitely well made, and it might be better as an experimental rye bock without any smoke. After perfecting that recipe, the brewers could try smoking the malt, maybe using traditional beechwood to complement the sweetness of the rye bock instead of sweet cherry wood.

Great Divide -- Smoked Baltic Porter
Smoke-wise this is the most subdued of the lot, far less smoky, malty, and alcoholic. It's like 1:10 mockup of the badass Schlenkerla, with crispier mouthfeel, lower viscosity and wispier smoke flavors that never get into the afterburner charcoal/bacon/rib tips range. I tasted dark-roasted coffee and baker's chocolate with pangs of smoky sweetness fading in and out. This beer is satisfying but it won't smack you down.

Brauerei Heller Bamberg -- Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier
Sometimes, when American craft brewers set out to surpass the best examples of European styles, the result is a rougher-hewn frontier facsimile lacking the original's restraint. That rule doesn't apply to the beers I've tried for this post. Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, the Bamberg original from which all modern craft rauchbiers draw inspiration (and ingredients; I believe all of these beers incorporate at least some Bamberg smoked malt) is the two-ton tusked boar to American rauchbiers' piglet.

Rightly classified as an "Urbock" on the bottle, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier is massive for its 6.60% ABV. Fumes of smoky maltiness rose from the glass while I poured, disorienting my buddies who were daintily sipping New Glarus Cranbic from fluted glasses a few feet away.

As you'd expect from a beer brewed since 1678, Schlenkerla is very balanced. Unlike these other beers, which are chiefly excellent stouts or porters in which smoke plays a role, smoke drives Schlenkerla all the way -- woodsy, bitter, and haunting. As in the ashes of an actual tree that these German dudes killed and chopped up and set on fire, and then they drank its soul, man, like totally.

You'll find the full range of barbequed and charred meat flavors here if you hunt for them -- brisket, baby-backs, and flaming sausage links. Not many beers have been good enough to outlast changing fashions for hundreds of years. Those beers that have survived into the present often become so well-refined that they're a challenge to classify, achieving flavors of such breadth and variation that the overall experience can't be broken down into obvious constituents, unless you're a Cicerone, or lazy like me: This beer tastes like awesome barbecue and expensive cigars. That was easy. So who wants to pipe this into a bourbon barrel and see what emerges?

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