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I remember my first encounter with rauchbier very clearly. Drawn in by a retro-cool label and the effusive praise of a friend, I'd picked up a bottle of Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen and unceremoniously dumped it into a shaker pint. A bold, intensely smoky aroma emanated from my glass, transporting me to a dark (and fairly messy) place: my college apartment. In my flashback, my roommate and I were surrounded by about a dozen friends as we unveiled an oily, cloudy bottle of vodka that we'd infused with smoked bacon. It looked like a weird, terrifying version of spin-the-bottle. On a count of three we threw back shots. Our newest boozy experiment was salty, smoky, and...evil. Pure evil.
Everyone gagged at that party, and now, with Bamberg's finest in hand, I gagged again. For years, rauchbier remained the only style of beer I didn't enjoy. As an ambassador for all forms of the beverage, it represented an ugly stain on the whitened shirt of enthusiasm I wore with pride every day. I just wasn't ready for it.
If you aren't properly prepared for rauchbier, the flavor is shocking. Your palate is overcome by waves of bacon-like beechwood smoke and it's only by the third or fourth sip that you can start to appreciate the beer's subtlety—if you can get that far.
Smoked beers like rauchbier seem to be the most widely hated of all beer categories, and as a semi-recent convert, I get it. Savory beer is a hard thing to get used to. But there's a trick for learning to enjoy smoked beers: pair them with food.
Take It to the Grill
Many will begin by suggesting that you drink smoked beer alongside smoked meats, but I'm not a big fan of this approach. Pairing intensely smoky beer with foods that have similarly smoky profiles will lessen the blow of that initial, potentially-off-putting liquid savoriness on your palate, but that's not really the point, is it? Pairing should enhance both beer and food, not domesticate one or the other.
Instead, start by looking at foods commonly cooked (or finished) using direct heat from flames. These foods naturally have a mild smokiness, and piggybacking onto that with a smoked beer will help bridge those flavors. If you'd throw it on a grill, there's a good chance you can find a smoked beer to match it.
It's a bit of a layup to suggest German lager with bratwurst, but set one of those suckers up with a beer like my once-maligned Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen and you'll see how a little smoked malt can be an amazing tool. The beer's smokiness kicks up the meaty savoriness of the sausage while dense maltiness provides a nice counterpoint to the acidity of accompanying sauerkraut or mustard.
Grilled steak is taken up a notch when served with a smoked stout or porter. Match a well-marbled ribeye with a dry, aggressively smoked imperial stout or porter. Roasted dark malt bitterness balances the richness of the steak while the smoke adds a layer of flavor complexity.
Even simple grilled vegetables can be successfully paired with smoked beers. Smoked pilsners and helles lagers seem to be popping up with increasing frequency—pick one of those up the next time you're throwing some asparagus on the grill.
Beyond the Barbecue
Outdoor barbecues are far from the only setting in which smoked beers are appropriate. Given a starring role, umami-laden non-meat foods such as mushrooms, tomatoes, parmesan cheese, and seaweed can be dramatically enhanced by smoked beers.
Try roasting some mushrooms under high heat to develop some caramelization and serve them tossed in brown butter and thyme on toast sprinkled with parmesan. Rauchbier is fantastic here. If you're sick of the most-common offerings from Schlenkerla, look for examples from Spezial, Emelisse, or De Molen.
Generally speaking, if adding smoked bacon to your dish doesn't sound too crazy, you might consider pairing it with a smoked beer. Desserts are no exception.
Sweeter smoked beers like Sam Adams' Cinder Bock and JW Lees' Harvest Ale aged in Lagavulin casks [not made from smoked malt, but aged in casks used to make whiskey that was] are fantastic with caramel, chocolate, and nut based desserts, as well as those driven by warm spices. Apple pie? Gingerbread? Sticky toffee pudding? Go for it.
Maple frosted doughnuts? A little beer for breakfast might be nice...
Smoked beer, often feared on its own, is incredibly versatile with food. Don't bash it 'til you try it, folks!