A few months after the alcohol limit on beer was raised in Alabama, products from the importer B. United International began showing up at retailers here in Birmingham. It was an exciting development for beer lovers like me, as they have one of the largest and most impressive beers lists of any importer in the United States. Of course they’ve had a presence throughout the rest of the Southeast and most of the country for many years,but it took an update in Alabama law for them to make it our way.
One thing accomplished by B. United’s expansion to Alabama was that a handful of styles never before sold here were suddenly available. They brought us our first weizenbock, eisbock, berliner weiss and gose all the way back in 2009. But another style continued to be completely absent from Alabama until last week: the unusual rauchbier. Rauch means “smoke” in German. So you may be able to deduce that rauchbier is a style of smoked beer that originated in Germany.
It seems odd that even after the alcohol limit was lifted it took two full years before an entire style of beer had its first representative in our state,but that’s a testament to the rarity of rauchbier and to continued problems we face with the 16-ounce container limit on beer—the only rauchbier that most people in the U.S. have easy access to is sold in bottles that exceed our state’s limit on the size of beer.
Hundreds of years ago, most beer was smoked beer, since the primary method for drying malt to prepare it for the brewing process was over wood-burning fires, and this imparted a smoky flavor to the finished product. As kiln drying technologies were developed for producing clean malt, the tradition of smoking malt mostly died out, yet it thrived for centuries almost exclusively in the city of Bamberg in northern Germany.
The most famous of all smoked beers is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen, brewed in Bamberg by Brauerei Heller-Trum. This brewery produces several styles of rauchbier, and they are the most widely available examples of the style throughout the world.
The Märzen is brewed similar to standard Märzens. It’s an amber lager with 5.4 percent ABV. But that’s where the similarities end. In most Märzens you’d expect light malt flavor, with some sweetness and just a touch of hops. The Rauchbier Märzen tastes something like liquefied campfire. Some might call it an acquired taste. Also available from Heller-Trum are an Urbock and a Weizen. All are made with smoked malt, so normal flavor profiles for those styles don’t apply.
Heller-Trum only bottles the Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbierin 500-mililiter bottles, which is equivalent to 16.9 fluid ounces in the U.S. Since we still have that pesky 16-ounce limit on containers for beer, the extra 9/10th of an ounce means you can only get this beer on draught. And not many places would have much interest in having a beer this odd taking up space on their tap wall. Of course in Birmingham, you can count on at least one place to have interestin odd beers: The J. Clyde. They went through a lone keg of the Rauchbier Märzen last week, and the distributor does not have any more in stock, but I hear a couple more kegs are being ordered. So be on the lookout and check this one out if you get a chance. I strongly recommend pairing it with meat if at all possible, preferably sausage or steak.
I mentioned last week that the Brewery Modernization Act was scheduled for a vote in the Alabama House just a few hours after my deadline for my column. I’m happy to report that it passed the House, and as I write this it awaits the governor’s signature. While it doesn’t require his signature to become law, and even if he vetoes it the legislature can override the veto easily, there is a conceivable scenario in which he could veto it right before the legislature adjourns the regular session and they would have no time for an override. Thus, we all wait with bated breath. The final deadline is at the end of the day on Thursday, so if you’re reading this Thursday morning you still have time to call Governor Bentley and urge him to sign the bill. CheckFreeTheHops.org/Blog for details on where the bill stands and instructions for contacting the governor.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org