More testament to the health and robustness of the new Texas craft beer scene is evident when another Old World classic arrives with little notice and no fanfare. Like other "white whales" also arriving quietly earlier this year, the Schlenkerla line of beers is now stocked on local beer shelves.
If the awkward-sounding name Aecht Schlenkerla is unfamiliar to you as a craft beer enthusiast, your world is just not broad enough. It is the name of an historic brewpub and beer hall located in Bamberg, Germany, and has been brewing since Christopher Columbus was in diapers. Its reputation and infamy comes from brewing the Franconia region's famous style of smoked beers, including rauchbier, and doing so without equal anywhere in the world.
Schlenkerla beers are polarizing products and, like sour beers and lambics, some may not care for them. There is nothing passive about the levels of smoke encountered in these beers, which can range from subtle and nuanced to liquid bacon and brisket. Depending on your tolerance and sensitivity to the chemical phenols that yield these smokey flavors, some may even find these beers unpalatable. But for those who persist, depths of flavors await like none you have ever experienced in a craft beer.
Many will go straight for the traditional rauchbiers, beers of smoked malt with a base of märzen or urbock styles. However, if you are new to the world of smoked beers or craft beer in general, these may prove overwhelming as a first sample. The peaty, campfire flavors of beechwood-smoked malts in combination with their well-caramelized sweetness does lend comparisons to candied bacon or liquid smoke flavoring. Yet the smoking is never harsh or chemical, with the Schlenkerla brewers mastering the art centuries ago and making it taste as smooth and natural as any other ingredient.
Besides a couple of rauchbiers, Schlenkerla also makes a smoked weizen and a couple of other easier seasonals in contrast to the urbock. A good place for those new to this brewery to start may be with their special Christmas beer (sometimes available throughout the year), the "Oak Smoke" doppelbock or Eiche. With its properties as a hardwood oak was more valuable as building timber than for cooking or smoking, so to use it to smoke malt is a luxury. The flavors it imparts to the malt are milder than the traditional beechwood, less charcoal and more whiskey with traces of charred vanilla, and the gentle smoke builds pleasantly as you drink down the glass.
None of these beers are particularly high in ABV, with the Eiche as the strongest at 8%. The flavors practically beg to the paired with food or used as an ingredient in other dishes, and any cheeses or cured meats (smoked or not) work well as an accompaniment. Try it with a simple platter of fine cheeses, smoked salmon, sopressata, olives and whole-wheat crackers. And who could pass up this beer with local Texas barbecue?
Availability: Sold in single half-liter bottles at better craft beer retailers and grocery stores. No word yet on local draft accounts.