Rauchbier, or smoked beer, is an old German beer style that is almost synonymous with Bamberg. It dates from the days when malt for producing beer was dried by exposing it to the smoke from beech-wood fires, which impart its smoky flavour. The classic Rauchbier, and by far the easiest to track down, is Aecht (or 'Original') Schlenkerla Rauchbier, brewered by Heller-Trum, and lagered for two months in caves in the nearby hill of Stephansberg. It is dark brown, smooth and malty like a stout, with an intense smoked flavour and finish which can be something of a surprise if you've never had it before. But as it says on the beermats (roughly translated), 'it may taste funny when you first swallow, but persevere and you'll enjoy it more the more you drink'.
The name Schenkerla, which is the name of the tavern in Bamberg where it used to be brewed, is said to derive from an old Franconian expression for not walking in a straight line!
Other beers from the Heller-Trum brewery include a smoked autumn Bock and a Helles, also with a hint of smokiness.
Another method of imparting smokiness to beer is by dropping hot rocks into it! The rocks are heated to white heat in a beechwood furnace and then dropped into the brew kettle to heat the mash liquor. Although recently revived, this practice is also ancient, and dates from the days when mash tuns were made of wood, when it would have been very silly to heat them directly with flames. The hot rocks also caramelise the sugars in the wort, imparting a toffee-like flavour on top of the smokiness. This variety, also considered a speciality of Franconia, is known as Rauchenfelser Steinbier, (Rauchenfelser translates as 'smoking rocks').
The Poles and the Baltic states also produce some more than passable porters, on the model of Imperial Russian Stout - when British supplies were cut off during the Napoleonic Wars, the inhabitants of these countries felt so deprived that they decided to make their own versions! Hard to find in the UK, but worth going to the Great British Beer Festival for.
Into Belgium, don't miss classics such as Ellezelloise Hercule, a 9% classic Stout. Yes, it is named after the detective! This is a dark, flavoursome, can't-put-down beer, and you soon find yourself ordering yet another, so be warned!
There is also, Quist Corvus, which is a punch-in-the-mouth stout, with so many flavours, the only way to go from here is a Rochefort 10 (oh dear!).
If you like weaker stouts, try Bavik Pony stout or Louwaege stout (for sweet) or Strubbe Callewaert stout for dry.
As always, happy drinking!
The Lambic Monster