Fire in the Castle Classic-style Smoked Beer
There are effectively three smoked-beer categories in the 2015 BJCP guidelines: Rauchbier, Specialty Smoked Beer (which incorporates specialty ingredients or undefined styles in addition to smoke), and Classic Style Smoked Beer, upon which I’ll focus here. The guidelines for the individual base styles are obviously going to vary, but the guidelines do provide some useful guidance for any of those to which you might add smoke. The keyword today is balance. In whichever style you choose to smoke up, the smoke character should more or less equal in magnitude the strongest flavor in the profile and should complement and enhance the flavors present. This is both easier and harder than you might think. Style: Smoked malts can be touchy to work with. For one, not every batch of smoked malt is identical, even when comprised of the same grain and smoked with the same wood. For another, wood flavors present differently from one palate to the next. In addition, the secondary flavors (other than “smoke”) may interact in unexpected ways with your other ingredients. Keeping that in mind, I recommend beginning with (and maybe sticking to) simpler base styles as your “smoking” targets (the base style for our recipe is English Brown Ale). Can you brew a smoked Belgian Stout? Yes. Should you? Maybe not. Recipe: Think of smoked malt as a base malt in the same family as Munich. It’s not that dark (2–4L vs. 9–10L in Munich malt), but the smoking adds a depth of flavor that makes it seem heavier. We have two questions to answer: which wood and how much? Conventional Bamberg-style Rauchmalt is beech-smoked and will work for most styles. It has a clean basic smoke flavor that won’t get in the way of anything. It’s very commonly available. A slightly less common but still available malt is cherry-smoked, and while its flavor is roughly comparable to that of the beech-smoked (it’s sometimes described as a “sweeter” smoke), it should have a longer finish—you’ll taste it much more in the aftertaste of your beer, making it a better choice for richer/ stronger base styles. Oak-smoked wheat malt might also be lurking on the shelves of your local shop and to my palate adds a cocoa-and-spice flavor that can be a lot of fun in pale beers! Then there are the more intensely flavored (hickory, mesquite, walnut) and rarer (pecan, maple) woods—approach these with caution but don’t be afraid to experiment with them! The “how much” question goes against the grain for me (not a pun): use more than you think you need or want, except on the stronger woods noted above. I find that subbing in smoked malt for half of your base malt(s), to start, is a good percentage. The intensity of smoke flavor in your beer is not really a function of the percentage of smoked malt in the grist: it’s the level of smoking in the malt. Having said that, you’ll need a sufficient amount to bring out that clear character, so you don’t want to shortchange it and create a beer that’s mostly “X” style, but with a “hint” of smoke. In these recipes, there’s no correcting for “not enough smoke” down the line, so you need it all up front. Finally, consider adding a bit (2–3 percent of the grist) of chocolate rye to any style that you’re going to smoke but that should finish dry: I’ve found it to be almost universally true that the added smoke presents as sweet on the palate. I had limited success balancing it with bitterness, but a touch of drying roast was perfect.. Process: These smoked malts need to be mashed, and I’m unaware of good extract options. This might be the excuse you need to upgrade to an allgrain tun, BIAB, or partial-mash system!