Alaskan Brewing Company’s most award-winning beer is also their most polarizing. Those who enjoy the Smoked Porter say the peatiness reminds them of campfires and fine scotch. However, multiple times in the 23 years since the beer’s debut, customers have asked brewmaster and founder Geoff Larson whether he used smoked salmon in the brew.
“It’s definitely divisive; people either love it or hate it,” Larson said.
Alaskan isn’t alone—smoky beers can be a hard sell for breweries across the country. They’re simply not for everybody. But as more breweries noodle around with different levels of intensity and myriad styles, smoked beers are finding a new audience.
Once upon a time, virtually all beers tasted of smoke. It wasn’t so much a stylistic choice as an unavoidable part of the brewing process. For a time, almost all kilns that dried malt (one of the four main ingredients of beer) were heated by direct fire. As the heat rose, it impregnated the grains with a smoky flavor.
In the early 1800s, new malting practices were invented in Britain and spread worldwide. Maltsters were able to toast the grains with indirect heat sources, which eliminated the barbecue-like flavor. Lifting that smoldering veil meant beers became crisper, cleaner, and generally more crushable. Over time, palates changed and drinkers tended to prefer the “new” alternative styles.
Smoked beers didn’t fall out of fashion everywhere, though. Rauchbier (German for “smoke beer”) has consistently been brewed in the Franconia region since the Middle Ages. Similarly, grodziskie, a kind of smoked wheat beer, was brewed religiously in Poland until the 1930s, and more sporadically since. In recent years, more and more American brewers have started experimenting with the style.
“Craft brewing has involved a lot of exploration, both forward and backward,” said beer historian Brian Alberts. “Brewers feel into the corners of history to revitalize obscure styles just as much as they experiment to create new ones.”
Now it seems the original style may very well be returning to fashion.
One way we can gauge interest in certain beer types is by looking at how many entries were made for that style at the Great American Beer Festival. According to Chris Swersey, the Brewers Association Competition Director, the number of smoked beers entered in the competition has risen steadily in recent years. Not to the same extent as other styles, like sours, but enough to indicate that smoked beers are again gaining traction.
Part of that, Swersey thinks, might just be that brewers have learned that less is more in smoked beers. Up until recent years, it was obvious which beers were smoked—there was nothing subtle about them, with distinct barbecue notes. While craft beer drinkers are usually down to try anything, they’re not always keen on going back to something they didn’t enjoy the first time. However, a positive experience with a well-balanced beer pushes drinkers to seek out others.
Neshaminy Creek Brewing head brewer and 2021 GABF gold medal winner in the Smoked Beer category, Jason Ranck, echoed that sentiment, and said when used correctly, smoke adds complexity and flavor. It’s something he hopes to see more interest in—from brewers and consumers. It wouldn’t be the first time a divisive beer became solidly part of the mainstream. Not so long ago, IPAs that would be considered mellow today were pooh-poohed as too bitter. Now, IPA is arguably one of the most popular beer styles—you’d be hard-pressed to find a brewery that doesn’t have at least one (if not many) on draft.
“I feel like smoked beer is a style that the door could open up more on,” Ranck said. “I feel people really appreciate it as something unique and different, but something also made with love and class.”
Beer, Alberts argued, reflects the society that produces it. Budweiser, he said, was able to rise to dominance because it fit the drinking experience and flavor profile that Americans preferred at that time.
“Eventually, craft beer put a crack in the phalanx of American beer tastes and made it okay to seek out unexpected flavors,” Alberts said. “I doubt a smoked beer will become the next Budweiser, but it will probably always have a place for connoisseurs, adventurous drinkers, or foodies looking for a perfect pairing to their meal.”