Sunday, 27 September 2020

Beers from the smoke

In life, I am a planner. In beer drinking, I am a ticker. These two characteristics compliment one another, especially whilst travelling, but if I’m not careful spontaneity can go out the window. Whilst I’ve had many beer experiences in which careful planning paid off and I was right to leave nothing to chance, the experiences I wasn’t expecting are often more powerful.

The photo above is a memento from one such occasion. As my train pulled into Kings Cross, I smelt smoke. Not the kind that might raise alarm bells in a major railway station, but delicious smoke, charcoal grill-type smoke. I don’t know what it was – possibly something as mundane as a ham and cheese toastie wafting down from the refreshments car – but it was especially evocative, and put immediately in mind of rauchbier. In fact, rauchbier was already on my mind; I’d read that morning that Anspach and Hobday would be pouring theirs at their Bermondsey tap room that day.

With my nose held high in the air, chasing aromas like the grotesque children in vintage Bisto adverts or Divine in John Waters’ Polyester, I formed an improvised plan. I’d need to change trains at London Bridge, so a one-stop diversion could have me in Bermondsey in no time. Over to Druid Street for a swift smokey treat, then back on my way. That’s exactly what I did, and it was wonderful.

Why am I telling this story? I don’t know, really. It is a very long and quite tangential way to start talking about rauchbier. To discuss this style, I need to return to that word evocative. Rauchbier feels especially appropriate at this time of year, as distant bonfires spread their aromas far and wide, soaking into your clothes and confirming that summer is well and truly over. I’ve drunk Spezial Rauchbier on Brighton beach in mid-30 degree heat, and it was still great – but a crisp autumnal air is undoubtedly more appropriate.

I was delighted, then, to find that not one but two London breweries have tried their hand at the style for the A/W 2020 season – the afformentioned Anspach and Hobday, and Signature Brew, who kindly gifted me two cans of theirs.

Signature call their offering In the Dark, so I was surprised that it poured a pretty light amber colour reminiscent of Vienna lager. The aroma proves quickly that there’s nothing half-hearted about it though, with a big hit of smoky bacon on the nose. This is, as will be obvious to anyone familiar with rauchbier, a large component of the flavour, if not an original tasting note. Once you get used to the style, what’s interesting is what else is going on beyond the ham. In this case, the smoke is well integrated with the malt flavour, mingling with toasted and bready notes. There are some almost salty mineral flavours, and just a touch of lemony astringency lending a welcome zingy freshness, before finishing on a burnt caramel note. Like the best smoked beers, this balances intensity, complexity and drinkability very well indeed – I confessed by ticker tendencies at the start of this post, but I’d happily forget all that and drink this all night if I found it in my local.

To Anspach and Hobday, then. This year’s simply titled The Rauchbier is, for the first time, a lager. It makes for a beautiful pour, with a big off-white head that sticks around right til the end of the glass (a result of the addition of that very un-Germanic ingredient, maize?) That meaty umami smoke is there in spades, as per, but rounded out by an intriguing herbal note suggestive of oregano. Spot on, really – but the real coup here is actually more about texture and mouthfeel. The carbonation is relatively soft, which makes the beer feel full and smooth – closer to Schlenkerla marzen poured directly from the cask than the bottled equivalent.

Time for more planning – how can I get hold of more of these beers to see me through the lengthening nights ahead?

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