Monday, September 19, 2011

One Good Smoke Deserves Another

This weekend I did something I haven't had the chance to do all summer—barbecue. I don't mean grilling burgers or dogs, I'm talking true, all-American, low and slow B-B-Q. Amy and the kids were out, so it was me, a racks of pork ribs, a rack of beef ribs, five hours, and a whole mess of smoke. That smoke got me thinking about something else I haven't had in a while—Rauchbier. I had all that time to kill, and if there was going to be smokey goodness on the outside, there might as well be smokey goodness on the inside. That was it, the die had been cast, a mid-week Oliver's trip had to happen. Now, I'll be honest I was actually looking to try Sam Adams' rauch-y offering—Bonfire. Unfortunately they don't offer it singularly, only in their fall sampler. So, I decided to go the more traditional route of a German brewery, and as is usually true, Oliver's had what I was looking for. After weaving my way through a canyon of six packs I saw it. High on a shelf sat the frakturly gothic, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen, with it's pale yellow and crimson label so reminiscent of monastic illuminated manuscripts. Rauchbier and Bamberg, Germany have been linked for centuries, and Schlenkerla is at the smokey heart of it. The guys at Brauerei Heller-Trum, beechwood smoke everything—the Märzen, a Rauchweizen, a seasonal Urbock, a Fastentbier (for Lent), an oak-smoked Christmas Dopplebock, and even Rauchbierschnapps—all smoked!

What I was not expecting was to spy another vaporous offering in the Turkish section. That's right, I said the Turkish section. I'm going to admit to knowing almost nothing about Turkish beer. I do know that Efes Pilsen is wildly popular, but about as far from being a craft beer as you can get—Taps Brewery however, is. Turkey's first craft brewery opened, first as a brewpub in Istanbul in 2002, then moved to  full-scale brewery operations, in 2006. Taps produces seven beers including a Kölsch, a Red Ale, and tah-dah... a Smoke Lager. The now franchised brewpubs, also happen to be Italian-American—not just Italian, but Italian-American (whodathaunk?)—resaturants.

So what do we got? Old school, Bambergian traditionalism versus upstart, Turkish innovation. Both beers were obviously smokey, so I'm going to leave that part until the end. Both were good, but very different. The Schlenkerla poured a very deep ruddy-brown with glimmering ruby highlights and a thick rocky head. The Taps, after exploding in an eyeball assaulting, fobby mess, poured a hazy honey-gold with a three-inch deep, meringuey white head. The German produced a caramel and fruit aroma with a hint of smoke and a bready note, like rye or pumpernickel. The Turk was grainier and more cereal-like with almost no smokiness on the nose at all. The dark Schlenkerla was amazingly smooth and rich, nearly creamy, slightly drying, with a nice citric, fruity edge. The caramel is there as well, but in the background and rounds out the beer, nicely. The lighter Taps was breadier and much sweeter, also dry and citrusy, but in a different way than the German beer. The Taps was very reminiscent of a phenolic-less wheat beer. No bubblegum, but mildly tart, with a yeasty flavor.

Onto the smoke. The Taps aroma foreshadowed the beer as a whole. It's smokiness was subtle—not as downplayed as something like Stone's Smoked Porter—but fairly low key. The smoke in this beer builds as you drink it, starting more as an earthiness, then as you progress down the pint, growing into a more noticeable smokey flavor. I will say, I wanted more. It was nice, and I realize that smoke beers aren't everybody's cup of tea, but if you're going to do this style, do it all the way. Whereas the smoke in the Taps was understated, the Schlenkerla was aggressive. A massive woody, smokey flavor washes your mouth on the first sip. It's not sooty or ashy, and it doesn't overpower the sweet malty notes at all, but it is without a doubt smokey. In fact, it's what you want it to be—and that's the same quality as in barbecue. It has a sweet spiciness with an in-your-nose smokey tone. That smokey tone lingers, too. Unlike the Taps, Schlenkerla's smokiness continues well through the next sip, after you finished the bottle and well into the next morning! The best way for me to describe this: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen is like eating caramel covered bacon. I know that sounds crazy, but the Food Network says bacon is all the rage and now I want to eat as much caramel covered bacon as I can. I think the two differences between the smoke quality, comes down to craftsmanship. I know Heller-Trum kiln their own malt, to achieve its character and I'd suspect that Taps does not. That makes all the difference. Bought smoked malt just isn't the same as smoking the malt yourself.

After 5 hours of barbecuing, every stitch of clothing on me reeked of hardwood fire—from my ball cap to my socks. After 28.8 ounces of Rauchbier and as many ribs as I could eat, my insides were just as smokey.

Now I know what heaven is like.      

No comments:

Post a Comment