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Posted at 1:00 PM ET, 11/29/2010

Beer: Bacon overload

By Greg Kitsock

(iStockphoto)

Bacon beer. Those are the first two words off my lips when I take a sip of Rauchbier from Bamberg, Germany, with its smoky aroma and flavor reminiscent of backyard barbecues and smoldering campfires.

There's not actually bacon in it, but Rauchbier (the name literally means “smoke beer” in German) is brewed wholly or partly with barley malt kilned over an open flame, a once-standard method of drying malt that’s largely fallen by the wayside. The exemplar is Aecht (“genuine”) Schlenkerla Rauchbier from Bamberg’s Brauerei Heller-Trum, which comes in a variety of traditional German styles offering different levels of smokiness.

Thirty-five-year-old Matthias Trum, the sixth generation of his family to run the brewery, was the guest of honor at a beer dinner Nov. 17 at Birch & Barley in Logan Circle. Trum described the Franconia region where he resides as “the Disneyland of beer,” with the highest density of breweries in the world: one for every 5,000 inhabitants. The city of Bamberg has nine breweries to serve a population of 70,000. But only two of these, Heller-Trum and the brewpub Spezial, brew Rauchbier nowadays.

The brand name Schlenkerla, notes Trum, comes from a German verb meaning to walk with the arms swinging vigorously ... a reference to the odd gait of one of Trum's ancestors.

Heller-Trum’s flagship is the copper-colored Schlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen, with its rich, sweet, almost sausage-like aroma that recedes after a few quaffs, letting the specialty malts come to the fore. “You have to drink three pints to appreciate it,” advises Trum. The beer is served alongside a Bamberg specialty: a fist-sized onion filled with minced pork and garnished with a strip of bacon.

Other offerings include Schlenkerla Rauchbier Weizen (more subtly smoked, with a sherbety fruitiness from the yeast); Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier (a hoppy golden lager that contains no smoked malt but still manages to pick up a waft of soot from its environs); and the seasonal Schlenkerla Oak Smoke.

The latter is a doppelbock, an extra strong lager that measures a formidable 8 percent alcohol by volume, made with malt kilned over oak instead of the usual beechwood. The oak smoke imparts a flavor that isn’t quite as rich, but is drier and more phenolic, lingering longer on the palate. “It almost gives you a notion of Scottish whiskey,” suggests Trum.

The Oak Smoke (or Eiche in German) was first brewed two years ago and is now available in bottles and barrels. (Greg Engert, beer director for Birch & Barley and the upstairs bar Churchkey, hopes to snag a few kegs to tap within the next couple weeks.) This and all of the other Schlenkerla beers are imported into the United States through the efforts of another Matthias: Matthias Neidhart of B. United International importers.

There was no bacon beer at the Capital Bacon and Beer Bash, held Saturday, Nov. 20 at National Harbor. But they offered almost everything else that once hollered “Oink!”

There was a bacon-infused vodka, a bacon jam, bacon chocolates, bacon soda and bacon itself in about 10 flavors.

Heavy Seas/Clipper City Brewing Co. in Baltimore had supplied a couple of its mainstay beers. The citrusy, hop-prickly Loose Cannon IPA in particular made a nice palate cleanser after a plate of applewood-smoked and bourbon flavored bacon.

Unfortunately, several promised beers from Clipper City’s higher-octane Pyrate and Mutiny Fleet series never showed up. A pity: the Peg Leg Imperial Stout, with its burnt molasses and bittersweet chocolate notes, would have gone superbly with the dark chocolate bacon bark from Parfections.

“Hugh ran out of beer!” one of the organizers from the Trigger Agency told me. Hugh Sisson, general partner of Heavy Seas/Clipper City, is apologetic when contacted afterwards. “I didn’t know I shorted them that much.” He explains that the brewery is in the middle of an expansion, installing three 150-barrel and one hundred-barrel tank that will increase its output by about 7,000 barrels next year.

(Sisson notes that the brewery holds its own bacon-and-beer bash every September, in addition to oyster, barbecue and chili fests).)

Not every bacon novelty item turned out well. A bacon soft drink from Jones Soda Co. was almost indescribably awful: Imagine carbonated grease. But the bacon popcorn from the Loveless Cafe made a nice sweet-and-savory snack, and a maple bacon gelato ice cream from Aromi d’Italia was delicious.

Bacon beer? It doesn’t sound so strange anymore, does it?

-- Greg Kitsock

By Greg Kitsock  | November 29, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags:  Greg Kitsock, beer  
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