Our beer this week is Aecht Schlenkerla Eiche from the Heller-Bräu Trum brewery, brewed in the Franconian town of Bamberg, Germany. Schlenkerla Eiche is a doppelbock made with rauchmalz, or “smoke malt,” which is kilned during the malting process over an oak wood fire. Schlenkerla Eiche is sold only during Christmastime and is exported in relatively small quantities, making this a rather special occasion.
Rauchbier, or “smoke beer,” is something of a holdover from the time when all beer was produced using smoked malt. It wasn’t until the 18th century when new kilning techniques became available that the method of kilning malt over an open flame began to die out, becoming nearly nonexistent around the mid-19th century. Bamberg, Germany is known for its rauchbier and is home to nine breweries, two of which—including Schlenkerla—carry on the smoked beer tradition to this day.
The Schlenkerla tavern was first documented in 1405, but the brewery itself wasn’t founded until 1678. The brewery changed hands numerous times throughout its history, most recently in 1967. For this reason, it is difficult to say when exactly the present version of the brewery’s rauchbier appeared.
Schlenkerla’s best-known beer is their Märzen-style rauchbier. Märzen, like doppelbock, is a German lager with a distinct malt presence in both the aroma and flavor, moderate hop bitterness, and little to no hop flavor or aroma. Doppelbock, however, is more intense and fuller bodied with additional aromas and flavors akin to prune, plum, or grape. Another distinction between the brewery’s Märzen and their doppelbock is in the wood used for kilning: the former relies on the more traditional beech rather than the oak used in the latter.
Schlenkerla Eiche is made with 100% smoked malt, produced on site. The brewers claim that oak (eiche) smoke is smoother and more complex than beech smoke. The hop variety used is Hallertau, the most popular German noble variety. It is used especially for aroma and flavor and has a floral and spicy character. Schlenkerla’s beers are matured over a period of six to eight weeks in caves underneath Stefansberg, one of seven hills in Bamberg. The 700-year-old caves are part of a 7.5-mile (12.1 km) system of tunnels which were originally sandstone mines and which later served as air raid shelters during World War II.
As for Schlenkerla Eiche’s specs, its original and final gravity and 8% ABV are all within standard for a doppelbock, but its bitterness level of 40 IBUs is very high. In order to balance the intensity of the smokiness, the hop bitterness in rauchbier is often heightened.
Schlenkerla Eiche pours a mostly clear, deep copper body and a khaki-hued head. The smoky aroma is savory and refreshing and is complemented by lightly sweet malt and a dash of clove-like spiciness. The malt in the flavor is smooth and sweet. There is also toasted grain, some prune, and—like the aroma—a little clove. Unlike the aroma, the flavor has only a little smokiness. The alcohol is well hidden for 8%. Malt and bitterness linger in the finish. It’s medium bodied with subdued carbonation but just enough bite to punctuate the richness of the malt.
Schlenkerla Eiche is quite tasty overall, though the bitterness is a bit intense. While the smoky aroma is appetizing, the smoky flavor is almost negligible, making the heightened bitterness essentially moot. On the other hand, the smoky aroma persists throughout, so there is at least a waft of it while sipping.
Today’s beer was purchased at Tanakaya in Mejiro, just a couple minutes’ walk from Mejiro station in Tokyo.