IF YOU EVER hope to travel back in time (and who doesn’t?), you need to prepare yourself for the reality that the past was, well, pungent. And I don’t just mean medieval peasants who didn’t take baths. I think all those human body smells would have been far less obvious because, actually, once upon a time, everything smelled like smoke.
Anyone who ever has sat next to a campfire will recall that the scent of smoke permeates everything immediately: your clothes, your hair, your skin. After a few moments, you can’t even smell it; only later, when you pick up that sweater the next day, do you realize it reeks of smoke and char. And back before central heating and coal ovens and pilot lights, everything was heated by open fires. Food was cooked over an open fire, homes were heated by central hearths and everything smelled like smoke all the time. Food was smoked. Homes and clothes were smoked to remove fleas, and disease. And sometimes demons.
So when I tell you that at one time, all beer in Europe also was smoked, this should not surprise you. Before the 19th century, the predominant method of drying grain for malt was to spread it on a screen and smoke it over an open flame. Nowadays, beer made from smoked malt is called “smoked beer,” or “rauchbier” in German, but at the time, it simply was called “beer.”
I also should clarify what I mean by “all beer.” Beer is the original product of mankind’s industry, the oldest drink, and I do not mean to suggest that all fermented brews produced globally were made with smoked grain. I have no idea how the ancient Egyptians dried their grain, for example, although they had plenty of baking sunshine, so I suspect that did the trick. But in cold, rainy Germany, the grain was spread on metal screens over open flame, and the smoke did the work.
And the smoky taste is not always subtle; smoked beer often tastes rather like meat — bacon or a grill-charred steak, perhaps, or a sausage — and the flavor can be shocking at first. Many brewers tore their hair out trying to remove that fire-kissed flavor, striving for a “cleaner”-tasting brew. Only when they finally perfected kiln-drying in the 19th century, fueled by cleaner-burning coke, did the tinge of brimstone finally disappear from European beers.
I virtually can guarantee you will not enjoy your first sip of smoked beer, but you might really like your second and third. (And, because it sometimes tastes like ham, I think it’s particularly good in a chelada.)
Locally, Alaskan Brewing makes a Smoked Porter that’s a bit closer to what the English would have been drinking back in the day, and Oregon’s Heater Allen Brewing and Wayfinder Beer have collaborated on a smoked lager called “Rauchbier Hell” (both of which I found at Georgetown’s Full Throttle Bottle shop: fullthrottlebottles.com).
But to find a beer that truly approximates the brews of the past, you must head to Bamburg, Germany, where the Schlenkerla brewery still produces beers according to the old method — same hops, same process, burning the same beechwood from the same woods (you can reliably find Schlenkerla — and housemade German sausage — at Hans’ German Sausage and Delicatessen in Burien). So unbroken is Schlenkerla’s chain of production that its website (schlenkerla.de/rauchbier/beschreibunge.html) boasts that its beer is a “living fossil,” and consuming it is “like a small time travel.”
Which, until Elon Musk gets over going to space and finally starts working on a time machine, will have to do for now.