T here is something primal about the smell of wood smoke. It bypasses all trappings of civilization to connect directly with our ancient lizard brains. It says, “Fire! Food! Warmth!”
It’s easy to be comforted by that smell. It’s much, much harder to make good beer with it.
In the old days, they say, a lot of beer would’ve tasted smoky. I really can’t say; I wasn’t there. It makes some sense, though. Before the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of cleaner-burning fuels, folks would have dried and kilned malt using wood fires. Without clever tricks, those fires would have imparted some smoky character.
Most of the world left that taste behind as quickly as it could. Meanwhile, a handful breweries around Bamberg kept it going as a local specialty. Thank goodness they did.
Schlenkerla Märzen is the most famous of these. In a way, it’s not just a flagship for the Heller-Trum brewery—though it certainly is that, as we’ll see—but also for smoked beer in general. I say this with respect and apologies to my friends who prefer Spezial Rauchbier, the one brewed across the river. It’s excellent too. But it’s not the ambassador.
It could be said, in fact, that Schlenkerla Märzen is a flagship for the city of Bamberg. Ask a typical German if they have been to Bamberg. If they have, they are not likely to begin by saying, “Wow, what a Cathedral!” or “Yes, did you know it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site?” No, they are far more likely to say, “Smoky beer!” And when they think of smoky beer, they are almost certainly thinking of that beautiful dark brown stuff drunk from elegant half-liter willibecher glasses by locals and tourists alike, inside and outside of the sprawling Schlenkerla pub on Dominikanerstrasse.
Beers of such strange and distinctive flavor—yes, it does kind of taste like bacon—are rarely so drinkable. The cliché about it is firmly based in truth: first-timers find it odd and don’t know what to make of it. Then they often order a second glass. And a third.
Heller-Trum brews a few other beers that bear the name Schlenkerla. There is the Weizen, whose smoke character is softened by wheat malt. There is the deep golden Lagerbier, whose subtle smoke taste comes not from the malt but from its yeast, which is borrowed from the Märzen. Then there are seasonals like the rich, oak-smoked Doppelbock, which lagers for three months or longer in brewery’s ancient cellars beneath the hill called Stephansberg.
There is growing interest in the bocks and seasonals especially, but the Märzen drives the brewhouse. It is more than 80 percent of the brewery’s production.
Spezial and Heller-Trum are the only two Rauchbier breweries that smoke their own malt in the traditional way. All the rest are made with what brewmaster Matthias Trum calls “industrially made smoky malt.”
“It would actually be economically better for us, to purchase the industrial smoky malt,” Trum says. “We, of course, will not do that, because flavor is for us more important than price. But since there are only two producers left, the traditional smoke beer is an endangered species.”
That’s why the Slow Food movement named Bamberger Rauchbier to its Ark of Taste, a list of heritage products that ought to be supported and preserved. All are produced on a small scale.
Scale is relative. When thinking about German-brewed flagships, for example, I could have written about Munich’s Augustiner Hell, even though Augustiner produced 1.4 million barrels of beer last year. I could have written about Köstritzer Schwarzbier, a nice enough beer—though one brewer I met recently said, “it’s just black pils”—but in Germany it is nearly omnipresent as part of the Bitburger brewing group, which produces about 3.1 million barrels per year.
In 2018 the Heller-Trum brewery produced about 17,000 barrels. That’s about 1 percent of what Augustiner did.
So I could have written about Augustiner or Köstritzer—hey, Boston Beer is bigger than either of them—but I wanted to write about a smaller brewery. The beer I chose is not just an ambassador for its brewery, but also for traditional beers of character that have found ways to survive and thrive.
Trum says his family has only barely tweaked the recipe over the years, to compensate for how the raw materials change. (Consider the beechwood logs, which must be seasoned for more than three years before they can be used for kilning.) “But the base recipe has not been changed to my knowledge at least since my family has been in charge,” Matthias Trum said.
I feel obliged to note here that his family has been in charge since 1866. “I am the sixth generation,” Trum says. “And the seventh generation is here playing Lego.”
For whatever reason—the setting, the freshness, or both—Schlenkerla Märzen tastes best when poured from Holzfass at that pub in Bamberg. Those wooden barrels are lined—completely inert inside, they add no flavor to the beer. When it goes into those barrels it is in finished form, fermented and naturally carbonated. Technically, it is the same beer as in the bottles. But putting it into those non-pressurized barrels inevitably knocks out some carbonation, resulting in a beer that is softer, but still lively and with stubborn foam. Put simply, you’re tasting more beer and less bubbles. Anyway, that’s my working theory.
Or maybe it is the context after all. On the morning of Wednesday, November 9, 2016, my wife and I woke up in Bamberg and learned the results of the U.S. presidential election. (We had voted absentee.) Like many, we were shocked by the results. We also knew that the Schlenkerla pub opened at 9:30 a.m. We decided that we could really use a beer.
That morning we sat in a pub that has been a house of hospitality for more than 600 years. It has seen many historical moments far more troubling than our present day. In the end, to Schlenkerla, they were only moments.
It was a thought as comforting as the smell of wood smoke.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.