Barbecue season never ends for those of us who enjoy smoked meat year-round, and I do my best to get smoky flavors into meats even when I cook on my gas grill. (That’s right, I don’t own a charcoal grill. No judgment, please.)
Based on the principle of coordinated rather than contrasting flavors of paired food and drink, few things go better with smoky barbecue than smoky beer. A few craft breweries in greater Chicago are doing their best to keep alive the smoky beer tradition.
If you go back a few centuries, a lot of beers were smoky. That’s because the grains (usually barley, but also frequently wheat or rye) were malted by moistening and then sprouting; the malted grains were dried over open flames, which meant smoke flavors remained in the grains, which flavored the beers. Scotch whisky gets its characteristic smoky flavor in the same way, from the barley traditionally dried over peat fires.
We’re going to look at some of the fine smoked beers served up at Chicago breweries. These smoky beers—several of many—include Grodziskie, Rauchbier and Smoked Applewood Gold.
Grodziskie (sometimes called Grätzer) is not heavily smoked and might be a good beginner’s smoked beer-style—easy drinking, with wheat malt smoked over oak and with relatively low alcohol. It originated in the small western Polish town of Grodzisk Wielkopolski. Although it’s not a common style, it’s brewed occasionally by Chicago-based craft breweries, like Off Color Brewing, Sketchbook Brewing and Dovetail Brewery.
It’s uncommon these days to dry malts over an open flame. They’re usually dried in a kiln, or more traditionally, on the floor of a large, barn-like structure. But even those dried malts can be smoked, as it was explained to me at Off Color Brewing as they described making their 15 Feet Polish Style Grodziskie. “The first challenge was going from smoking like ten pounds of wheat to smoking like 2,000 pounds. So, we did what any socially ill-adjusted brewery would do: we locked the door, picked up an angle grinder and built a double-barrel smoker modified for malt smoking. After hours of smoking wheat (and drinking beer), we were ready to make the first production batch.”
The official description from the Beer Judge Certification Program describes Grodziskie as “Moderately low to medium oak smoke flavor up front which carries into the finish; the smoke can be stronger in flavor than in aroma. The smoke character is gentle, should not be acrid, and can lend an impression of sweetness. A moderate to strong bitterness is readily evident which lingers through the finish. The overall balance is toward bitterness. Low but perceptible spicy, herbal, or floral hop flavor. Low grainy wheat character in the background. Light pome fruit (red apple or pear) esters may be present. Dry, crisp finish.”
On a hot and muggy Saturday, I was pouring Sketchbook Brewing’s Grodziskie at the Beer and BBQ Fest benefit at St. Viator’s Parish. The classic Polish-style beer was paired with bigos, the Polish stew, the recipe for which was dreamt up by the crew from Hofherr Meats. The Grodziskie was so prized by the attendees at the Beer and BBQ Fest that we ran out of two sixtels of it (a sixtel is one-sixth of a keg); that’s a little over ten gallons.. At about four ounces per serving over six hours… Well, you do the math. We sold a lot.
If you’d like a truly smoky beer, try a Rauchbier (aka bacon in a glass)—originally produced in Bamberg, Germany. The classic version from Bamberg is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier. Local creditable versions are made by Short Fuse in Schiller Park (Oscar the Rauch), and Chicago-based breweries Dovetail (Rauchbier) and Revolution (Chicago Smoke).
Smoked Applewood Gold
In between the two styles of Grodziskie and Rauchbier is Smoked Applewood Gold, from Moody Tongue on the near South Side. Reviewers describe this beer as a little less smoky than a Rauchbier. There is a difference between the applewood smoke that characterizes Rauchbier and the oak-smoked wheat malt typical of a Grodziskie.
You’ll sometimes see other styles of beer with smoke added—Lichtenhainer is one. It’s a smoky sour beer originally produced in Lichtenhain, Germany. I’m not aware of any local Lichtenhainer. Traditional styles may also have smoke added—they’ll usually have “smoked” in the name or on the label.
Explore Historic Beer Styles in Chicago
A little research reveals more of the craft breweries scattered around the Chicago area that might be serving versions of smoked beers. Any well-stocked liquor or beer store should have a few samples of the styles from outside of our area, but given the choice, I support local breweries.
Anyone even mildly interested in beer history might be well-served by seeking historical beer styles that only a few breweries—among the many around Chicago—decide to make. We suggest you put smoked beers at the top of your must-try list for barbecue season or any time of year. Like a glass of Scotch, a glass of smoky beer is the right sip on a winter night.
And if you really want to go down the rabbit hole of smoked beer, check out homebrewers’ events. These feature many beer styles, including smoked. (Homebrewers don’t have to worry about the commercial viability of what they make, and experienced homebrewers often make beers as good or better than those from craft breweries.)
I get sneers sometimes from wine geeks when I contend that beer has a greater variety of styles and flavors than wine. I believe it; that’s why I save my geekery for beer.
Full disclosure: I work occasionally at beer events as an independent contractor for Sketchbook Brewing. But I was drinking beer (and brewing it) at home decades before Sketchbook was founded in 2014.