I’m not just saying this to brag about the supremacy of my palate – I’ve rarely felt out of my comfort zone with beer, and hardly ever have to work hard to enjoy it. I’ve always enjoyed the taste – as a youngster, my grandpa would occasionally slip me a tiny portion from his stubby green lager bottles, and besides the ego boost that came from swapping Ribena for a grown-up’s drink, it was always delicious to me. Bitterness was probably the main appeal – my other favourite thirst quencher as a child was straight tonic water, which makes a lot of adults wince.
There are styles that test your perception of what beer is – acidic and sour flavours in beer took some getting used to, for example. But there is only one traumatic incident that really sticks out in my mind, and it’s the closest I’ve ever come to spitting out a mouthful of beer.
The brew in question was Flue Faker, a smoked lager from Camden Town, sampled at The Craft Beer Co. in Brighton some years ago – thank God I asked for a taster first. I don’t remember it tasting of bacon, the common descriptor for the niche lager sub-genre known as rauchbier. I just remember it tasting disgusting and wrong. “Urgh! No!” I exclaimed to the blank-faced barman, unable to disguise my horror.
I’m not sure how I went from this unpleasant experience to continually pestering my girlfriend about visiting Bamberg, home of the rauchbier style. I’d read about the beer in books by Michael Jackson and Mark Dredge in the meantime, putting it in some context, which probably encouraged me to persevere and learn to like it. In fact, rauchbier is probably the ultimate discomfort beer. In Jeff Alworth’s The Beer Bible, Schlenkerla boss Matthias Trum says;
“At the first sip, the smoke flavour is extremely dominant on your palate. If you’re new to this taste, you will notice nothing but the smoked flavour. Only as you go through your first two or three pints does the smokiness step back in perception and then the malty notes come out, the bitterness, the smoothness.”
On my visit to the Schlenkerla pub, I do remember remarking that their famous marzen was a brilliant lager underneath the smoke, and this aspect is probably worthy of further contemplation. However, I love that smoky flavour – that’s the appeal of the beer, not a challenge to be overcome. As such, it’s rare that I’ll ever drink more than one rauchbier on the trot. So, I decided to do just that, and procured three bottles of Schlenkerla marzen.
Even on the first mouthful of the first glass, I realised that the intensity of the smoke didn’t hit me in the way it used to. I’ve heard of a ‘lupulin threshold shift’, the idea that we build up a ‘tolerance’ to hop bitterness, and perhaps there’s something similar going on here with smoked malt. I think I’ve drunk this beer often enough that I’m just used to it, which slightly undermines the idea behind this ‘experiment’. Not to say it isn’t smoky – it certainly is. I’d say it tastes like bacon, but as I haven’t eaten bacon in over a decade, I’ll say it tastes like bacon flavoured WheatCrunchies. The bitterness is notable from the outset, something like the slightly acrid malt-derived bitterness you sometimes get in stouts and porters.
Around a quarter of the way into the second glass, the smoke flavour has really faded. It registers mainly as a background savoury flavour, with occasional bursts of bonfire and meat on the palate. I’m starting to notice a bready malt quality too, which in combination with the bitterness suggests slightly burnt wholemeal toast. As interesting as it is to draw out the backgrounds elements of the bee, for me the most exciting moments are still those flashes of smoke.
By the final glass, the prickly carbonation is starting to irritate, putting an obstacle in the way of the smoothness Matthias Trum suggests is waiting beneath the smoke. It feels like it should be silky, but that fizz jabs at my tongue. I’ve never had a problem with the carbonation in bottles before, but the accumulative effect is distracting. The traditional gravity-tapped serving method would solve this problem, of course. Towards the end, I’m beginning to notice a woody, tannic element. Further complexity clearly awaits, and I’d probably have opened a fourth bottle if I’d had one. Who knew that a beer style I first found so challenging would prove so sessionable?
The interesting thing about all this is that, now that I’m past the discomfort stage, I miss it. It’s like watching a difficult film for the second or third time – I’m always jealous of those experiencing it fresh. Those who are new to rauchbier shouldn’t hold their nose and joylessly gulp down the first few pints, waiting for the smoke to fade – they should revel in the discomfort and enjoy the challenge.