The launch of our Gladfield Manuka-Smoked Malt Homebrew Showcase offering up to 5kg of this malt for free has lead to a number of interesting conversations with homebrewers, with reactions ranging from “I can’t wait to brew with that” to “why would anyone want to put smoke in a beer!” It is clear it is a polarising ingredient.
Historically it was the case that (until the industrial revolution at least) common malting processes would have inevitably imparted a level of smokiness to all beers. Since methods became refined enough to produce unsmoked malt there are very few breweries that have continued the tradition continuously. The most notable of these come from the Bamberg area of Germany, where beech-smoked malt has been the flavour of choice, used in varying degrees up to 100% for the famous Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen.
With the boom of the craft beer industry, a growing number of breweries have smoked beers on the market, either as a recreation of a traditional recipe or development of a new one. Significantly, there is a large degree of regional variation in the type of wood that is used for smoking as brewers are finding the most success using a wood-type that is commonly used for flavouring food in their region.
This approach goes beyond the simple economics of sourcing wood, as one of the main reasons smoke can work so well in beer is that it can trigger sensory memories that no other ingredient will. Whilst not everyone has had a smoked beer, most people will have tried smoked food that has been deliberately smoked commercially or simply cooked on a wood-fired bbq. When this person then tries a beer with malt that has been smoked with the same wood flavour there is a high chance the person drinking it will recall a positive sensory experience. This is one reason why people can react so differently to beech smoke versus peat smoke vs manuka smoke as we often use here in New Zealand.
As with any element of your recipe, a critical requirement is to achieve balance. However, with regard to smoked malt (as with some other ingredients) what is considered “balanced” is actually quite subjective. For example, a regular whisky drinker with a fascination for Islay is more likely to tolerate a higher level of peat-smoked malt in their beer compared to someone who can’t stand whisky of any type. Similarly, someone who has spent most summers living off food cooked on a wood-fired bbq is likely to have a very different tolerance for wood-smoked malt in beer compared to someone who didn’t. This tolerance is further increased if the same type of wood is used in both cases. As home-brewers, we need to consider the type of smoked malt we are using as well as the audience. The chance to brew your own “smoked” beer is a fantastic opportunity to design a beer that suits your palate, rather than the commercial brewer’s (or their marketing department).
The first question to focus on is what style of beer you wish to brew. Whilst BJCP category 22a is for “Classic Rauchbier” it is immediately followed by category 22b which has the catch-all title “Other smoked beer”, including the explanation “Any style of beer can be smoked; the goal is to reach a pleasant balance between the smoke character and the base beer style.” So the options available to the homebrewer are effectively unlimited. However, it is important to start with a style of beer that you personally enjoy, and then to consider the type of wood-smoke that you are going to introduce and how much of this flavour you want to impart according to your personal preferences.
One piece of good news is that smoked malt does seem to be one of these flavours that is volatile, changing it’s profile in the beer over time, and also one that you become acclimatised to once you have tried it a few times. So even if you don’t get the level of smoke perfect the first time, you should find that as the beer ages and you try it a few times your initial reaction to it may change substantially.
Commonly quoted styles for adding smoked flavours (over and above the obvious Rauchbier option) include darker heavier beers such as porters, stouts, scotch ales, bocks and doppelbocks (and their imperial cousins) but also the other end of the spectrum such as mild ales, bitters, wheat beers, and helles lagers.
As for personal experience, the League of Brewers has experimented quite a bit with smoked malt. The batch of Belgian Pale ale we brewed using oak-smoked malt did end up as delicious, however the home-smoked malt using oak chips from a Pinot Noir wine barrel initially contributed too much acrid and phenolic character that clashed with the yeast phenolics of this essentially soft and smooth style, despite only using 8% smoked malt in the recipe. It was only once this had subsided that the beer became popular. Alternatively, a whole keg of our Smokey Best Bitter made using 20% beech-smoked malt was devoured by 12 people in one session following on from a house-moving working bee. In this case, the
beech flavour worked brilliantly with the malt characteristics to become reminiscent (but not overly so) of a smoked honey bacon flavour. We have had numerous successful smoked Porters with between 10% to 40% smoked malt of varying types. Finally, the Rauchbier made using 100% beech-smoked malt was politely tasted and then turned down by some, to the delight of the rest of us who couldn’t get enough of it. People that loved this Rauchbier included some who have significant problems enjoying the 100% peat-smoked beer Rex Attitude, highlighting the difference the type of smoke character can have on people’s reactions.
For those looking to take part in our Gladfield Manuka-Smoked Malt Homebrew Showcase then it is important to consider Gladfield’s comments on this malt: “We take our top quality Pilsner malt and smoke it over 100% Manuka wood from the West Coast. This malt has a smooth smoke character that is both floral and sweet. Perfect for a Kiwi twist to a Rauchbier or to add something unique to almost any beer style.” So you should not be afraid to experiment with your choice of recipe.
Whilst we will not be entering a beer into our own competition, we plan to brew something that you might call an Imperial Rauchbier or Smoked Barleywine, depending on your perspective! 100% Manuka Smoked Malt to as high an ABV as we can manage. It will definitely be a beer to age, provided we can exercise enough will power along the way.