Drinking on the Last Frontier: Where there’s smoke, there’s buyers — Tradition of smoked beers finding renewed popularity

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

For most of us who live in Alaska, the flavor of smoke is quite familiar, given the amount of smoked foods available for us to enjoy. In the past, when almost every kind of food would have been cooked over wood, the flavor of smoke would have been even more ubiquitous. This is also true of beer, since its main ingredient — malted barley — would have been dried over wood fires. Smoke flavor in historical beers typically wasn’t mentioned, not because it was absent, but because it was omnipresent. It was only mentioned when it became so excessive as to detract from the taste of the finished product.

All this began to change three centuries ago, as new smokeless fuels became available. First coke and then more recently steam, natural gas and electricity made possible the production of unsmoked malt. Beers with smoke flavors hung around longer in some backwaters, like gold rush-era Alaska, but by the early 20th century, smoked beers were essentially extinct, with one notable exception.

In the town of Bamberg, in the Franconia region of Germany, smoked beers (rauchbier in German) have continued to be produced to the present day, most famously by the Schlenkerla Brewery. It produces three smoked styles, an urbock, a märzen and a weizen, all from malt that has been dried over beechwood fires. Its smoked märzen is considered by many to be the gold standard of smoked beers and represents a direct link to the taste of beers from centuries ago.

While Bamberg may be the home of these wonderfully anachronistic beers, Alaska can rightly claim the honors for inspiring the modern American smoked beer.

In 1988, Alaskan Brewing Co. (then known as Chinook Alaskan Brewing) had been in business for all of two years. Just across the street from the brewery was Taku Smokeries, owned by Sandro Lane, a business that smoked salmon using local alder wood. Alaskan owner/founder Geoff Larson recounted what those days were like in a March 2012 interview for All About Beer magazine:

“Across the street a friend of ours had a fish-smoking operation. We’d get together routinely on a Friday afternoon. He’d bring over some of the products he had, we’d have our beer, and we’d commiserate. There was a point when we thought, boy, it would be great to make a beer touching on the history of Alaska and the fact that to get these dark roasted malts, the old maltsters were having to really crank up the heat, invariably resulting in some smoke. And here we are finding smoke is a perfectly legitimate flavor in both beer and this fish. It was an interesting investigation: he knew smoke, and we knew beer and malt, so we collaborated in making part of our grain bill that would impart smoke character. With smoke, there’s a real balance if it is to appeal. Cross that line, and it becomes objectionable. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. But in subtle uses, it adds a dimension that is very, very enjoyable.”

In the end, the brewery created its now world-famous Alaskan Smoked Porter, which has since earned an unprecedented 21 medals at the Great American Beer Festival, more than any other beer in history, plus another 30 national or international beer awards. Every American smoked beer produced since 1988 owes at least some of its inspiration to this porter from Alaskan Brewing.

Alaskan Brewing is not the only brewery in our state that brews smoked beers, however. Midnight Sun Brewing Co. in Anchorage has brewed several, including Hibernator Smoked Doppelbock, BarFly Smoked Imperial Stout and Second Hand Smoke Smoked Stout. Kassik’s Brewery, here on the Kenai, brews an excellent Smoked Russian Imperial Stout. Of special note, 49th State Brewing Co., in Healy, brews Smoked Märzen, the very same style of beer for which the Schlenkerla Brewery in Bamberg is known. At this year’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver, 49th State’s beer took home the Gold Medal in the Smoked Beer Category. So we come full circle, with a brewery here in Alaska winning first place by making a smoked beer in the same style as the German rauchbier that indirectly inspired it.

If you are looking to enjoy the flavor of a smoked beer, now is a great time to pick up some Alaskan Smoked Porter, as the 2015 vintage has just been released and is on local store shelves. Be sure to purchase some extra bottles, as this beer ages extremely well, due to the preservative powers of smoke. You can also find bottles of Kassik’s imperial stout without much trouble, and you can even find beers from the Schlenkerla Brewery in specialty beer stores in Anchorage. Unfortunately, 49th State Brewing is closed for the winter, so you’ll have to wait until next spring to sample its award-winning Smoked Märzen.

Until next month, cheers!

Bill Howell has been an avid craft beer drinker and homebrewer since 1988. Upon retiring from the U.S. Navy in 2004, Howell moved to Alaska, where he blogs about the Alaskan craft brewing scene at alaskanbeer.blogspot.com. In 2007 he created a beer appreciation course titled “The Art and History of Brewing,” which he teaches annually at Kenai Peninsula College. He is the founder of the Kenai Peninsula Brewing and Tasting Society and serves as a media consultant to the Brewers Guild of Alaska.

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