Continuing with the report from Bamberg, and now on to Rauchbier, the local specialty made with smoked malt. Above is a post-first-sip shot of Spezial’s Rauchbier, shown in the taproom on Obere Königsstraße. In Bamberg itself, there are two main producers: the oh-so-famous Schlenkerla, aka home of Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, and Brauerei Spezial. (While a few other producers in the larger region also make Rauchbier, I’ll focus on Bamberg for now.) Before I compare the two, I’d like to talk about something else for a second: wine.
Hang on — there’s no need to choke on your Double IPA, bro. This is still Beer Culture, and of course beer and wine have much in common, not the least of which is the fact that they both make life worth living. And just as extreme beers — with more alcohol, more hops, and of course higher prices — have taken off in the past few years, winemakers have gone through their own forms of extremism, producing wines with more alcohol, more oak, more fruit, more malolactic buttery flavors and mouthfeel, and of course ever-higher prices. And not everyone has been happy with the changes.
Much of this was catalogued in the lovely film Mondovino, which pointed out how the preeminence of just one critic, Robert Parker, has single-handedly changed the way French wines are made. A high rating from Parker’s Wine Advocate can take your vineyard from obscurity to sold-out status in a matter of days. If your winery is struggling to survive, why wouldn’t you consider making wines that are just a bit more in line with what the world’s most important wine critic seems to prefer?
Another factor, of course, is the fact that many big wine tastings are done with dozens if not scores of bottles at once. (There’s a reason why they spit it out, and it’s not because the stuff doesn’t taste good.) I’ve been a judge in several blind tastings of 20 wines or more, and honestly, after trying two dozen sauvignons blancs in thirty minutes, it’s very hard to keep track of subtleties. At that point, just about the only wines that have a chance of getting noticed are the ones with more: more oak, more butter, more alcohol or more fruit. This is not the same as saying they are the best, and individually, compared one to another, the more modest, more balanced, less extreme wine might very well be every judge’s favorite. It’s just that when you’re tasting a large amount of samples over the course of an afternoon, subtlety, modesty and balance are often hard to grasp.
Well, that’s what seems to be happening with beer — not in the sense of the preeminence of a single critic, not in the sense of people tasting 20 Doppelbocks in a session, and not in the sense of judges spraying the world’s greatest brews into a spittoon. Rather, it’s happening in the sense that the loud, noisy beers, if you will, are the ones that are getting noticed in the crowd, rather than the elegant and understated beers that you’d want to bring home to Mom and Dad.
Which brings us back to Rauchbier.
As I said, there are two producers of Rauchbier in Bamberg town, and of them, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier is about as Rauch-y as it can get, so assertively smoky that people compare it to liquid bacon. The smoke first hits your mouth like a Montecristo #2 torpedo, lingering with bacony, porcine flavors before heading off to a bittersweet finish, like the point when your maple syrup gets on the last bite of your breakfast links. For smoked beers, it is extreme, and if you’ve never had one, it pretty much blows your mind (and your gustatory papillae) the first time you try it. It is literally awesome.
And yet I think I prefer Spezial. Compared to its cross-town competition, Spezial is moderately, even modestly smoky. Instead, it’s easier to taste the malt, and much easier to taste the meal you have with it. Another bonus: after you have a Rauchbier from Spezial, you can still enjoy something else. You could have another Spezial Rauchbier and still like it, or you could move on and enjoy the subtleties of the brewery’s very nice Ungespundetes.
Whereas after you have one from Schlenkerla, it’s hard to taste anything else.
Well, that’s a brief take on Bamberger Rauchbier as it looked last week. There is another interesting beer from Schlenkerla, the Rauchweizen (“smoke wheat”) beer. It has a slightly lighter body than the Rauchbier, with a wheat beer’s spicy clove finish, and isn’t quite as aggressive in its smokiness. The Czech Republic’s new Pivovar Kocour Varnsdorf is set to produce a Rauchweizen, and beer fans here can’t wait to check that out. Both Bamberg breweries also produce a strong version known as Fastenbier, available only during Lent, meaning right now.
Oh, and one more thing about wine: while extreme wines aren’t disappearing, there are rumors of winemakers in California scaling back the alcohol and fruit. I mentioned this as a possible sign for a coming sea-change in brewing trends in a discussion about extreme beers on A Good Beer Blog which Stephen Beaumont also cited in his post on the subject at On the House.
Of course the extreme will continue to get the attention from the hoi polloi, but consider Lew Bryson’s Session Beer Project in the US and CAMRA’s attempt to rekindle interest in mild in the UK. Consider the fact that non-alcoholic beers are one of the growth segments of the Czech beer market, and that cult producer Bernard is emphasizing its lehké pivo (“light beer”), an uncommon style of table beer brewed at 7.99° or less and, in this case, containing just 2.2% ABV. With that in mind, you could make the case that the next big thing — at least at the leading edge of beer culture — just might be smaller beers.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to plan my trip to Munich for Starkbierzeit.