Why freshness also matters for your Rauchbier

Should you ever question the significance of savoring your smoked beer freshly and, ideally, straight from the barrel in its origin, here is why it is so crucial.

The Importance of Freshness in IPAs

In the ever-evolving world of craft beer, the pursuit of freshness has taken center stage, especially when it comes to the production and enjoyment of hop-forward IPAs. Breweries have gone to great lengths to ensure that enthusiasts experience their hop-centric creations in the best condition possible, emphasizing the importance of consuming these beers as close to the canning date as possible.

Canned date and best before date
IPAs, renowned for their bold hop flavors and aromas, are at their peak when fresh. Hops, the flowers (or cones) of the hop plant Humulus lupulus, are the soul of an IPA, imparting unique flavors and aromas ranging from citrus and pine to tropical fruit and floral notes. However, these volatile compounds begin to degrade the moment the beer is fermented, leading to a loss of the nuanced flavors and aromas that hop aficionados cherish. As such, the freshness of an IPA is paramount in experiencing the beer as the brewer intended, with all the hop character in full, vibrant display.

Recognizing the critical role freshness plays in the enjoyment of their hop-forward beers, Craft breweries have adopted various strategies to emphasize and preserve this aspect. One of the most direct methods is marking cans with the canning date.

The emphasis on freshness has also fostered a sense of community among craft beer enthusiasts. Beer trading, for instance, has become a popular way for fans to share and enjoy fresh IPAs from different regions. Online forums and social media groups dedicated to craft beer often buzz with discussions about the latest releases, with freshness being a frequent topic of conversation. This community-driven aspect further underscores the importance of freshness in the enjoyment of hop-forward IPAs and supports the efforts of breweries to deliver their beers in the best condition possible.

Why freshness matters for Rauchbier

Though rarely recognized, freshness is also particularly crucial for Rauchbier, a traditional German beer style known for its distinctive smoky flavor derived from malt smoked over beechwood fires. The unique character of Rauchbier, which sets it apart from other beer styles, is heavily dependent on the intensity and quality of its smoke-derived flavors.

My first interest in this derives from one of my first trips to Bamberg in 2009. Even though I had drunk Rauchbiers in various places for many years, it wasn't until my first visits to the renowned Brauerei Gasthöfer Schlenkerla and Spezial, that It dawned on me that their beers looses quite a bit of smoke intensity over time even when stored in ideal conditions. I have since come back multiple times yearly and often bought bottles directly from the breweries. I must say now, based on my personal experience I believe that the maximum shelf life for these beers, when refrigerated, is between two to three months – afterwards they can still be enjoyed, but it is just not the same beer that the brewer intended. 

The fading of smoke flavor from smoked malt over time can be attributed to several factors, each related to the nature of the compounds that impart the smoky characteristics and how they interact with the environment or the beer itself. Here's a closer look at the reasons, I have found:

  • Volatility of Smoke Compounds: Smoked malt gets its distinctive flavor from phenolic compounds, such as guaiacol and syringol, created during the smoking process. These compounds are volatile, meaning they can evaporate or dissipate over time (just like hops), especially when the beer is exposed to air or stored at higher temperatures.

  • Oxidation: Oxidation is a natural process that affects all beer components, including the smoke flavor compounds. Over time, exposure to oxygen can lead to chemical reactions that alter the flavor profile of the beer, potentially diminishing the intensity of the smoky notes (again, just like hops).

  • Chemical Reactions: As beer ages, various chemical reactions can occur, changing its flavor profile. This includes the interaction between smoke compounds and other ingredients in the beer, such as hops, yeast, and malt sugars. These interactions can lead to the formation of new compounds that may overshadow or alter the perceived smokiness.

Brewing good Rauchbier requires freshly smoked malt

Brewing with freshly smoked malt when making Rauchbiers, or any smoked beer, is important for several reasons, all of which contribute to the quality, authenticity, and flavor profile of the final product. Freshness in ingredients is a key factor in brewing, and this is especially true for smoked malt due to the volatile nature of the compounds that impart the smoky flavor and aroma. Here's why:

  • Preservation of Volatile Compounds: The smoky flavor in malt comes from phenolic compounds that are inherently volatile and can dissipate over time. Freshly smoked malt retains a higher concentration of these compounds, ensuring that the beer brewed with it has a more pronounced and complex smoky character.
  • Depth of Aroma: Similarly, the aroma compounds are at their peak right after the smoking process. Using the malt soon after smoking preserves these aromas, contributing to the beer's overall sensory profile.

Over the years, I've brewed numerous variations of Rauchbiers, experimenting with malt from both Weyermann and Best Malz. In my experience Best Malz tends to produce a more intensely smoked malt compared to its Weyermann counterpart. However, neither manages to reach the profound smokiness level found in a Schlenkerla brew. It's a realization many lager-focused brewers come to, prompting them to smoke their own malt to capture the necessary intensity. Not having the space for my own smoker, it is my luck that, I can source freshly smoked malt from a Danish maltster, which allows me to achieve the smoky flavor profile in my brews that I desire. It really can be recommended to walk the extra mile here.

The quest for fresh Rauchbier

In short to maximize the enjoyment of Rauchbier, it is important to check the bottle date and consume the beer within the brewery's recommended freshness window. Since neither are present on two of my favorite Rauchbier breweries, Spezial and Heller (Schlenkerla) you will have to calculate it from a seasonal release or a verified fresh example. The BBD will also roughly hint the packaging date if you know how long shelf life the brewery recommend (often a year).I've been tracking the recommended shelf life of beers from my favorite breweries and maintaining a spreadsheet with that information..

While the convenience of local distribution is undeniable, some experiences demand the extra mile — or thousand miles in some cases. Schlenkerla or Spezial in Bamberg are two of those experiences, offering not just a beer but a journey through time, taste, and tradition. Whether you're a die-hard fan of Rauchbier or a curious traveler eager to explore the rich tapestry of German brewing culture, Bamberg await with open arms and full steins. So, if Spezial's or Schlenkerla's bottles are nowhere to be found in your area, perhaps it's the world's way of inviting you to embark on an unforgettable journey.

Enjoying the Schlenkerla Urbock on Bockbier Anstich day.


Malting and Brewing Science
Hough, Briggs and Stevens - 1982.

Food Chemistry
Werner Grosch and Peter Schieberle - 2009

The use of Oxygen 18 in appraising the impact of oxidation process during beer storage, Journal of the Institute of Brewing
Sophie Noël, Nadine Metais, Sabine Bonte, Etienne Bodart, Fabrice Peladan, Stéphane Dupire, Sonia Collin - 2012

2 comments for "Why freshness also matters for your Rauchbier"

Franz - Saturday, February 24, 2024
I really like how you drive the point home by comparing the volatile smoky compounds in Rauchbier to those in IPAs. I think if more hop heads understood the freshness thing with Rauchbier (and pretty much any lager), they might be more inclined to give lager beers a chance. But then, as you mention, they'd need to buy a train or plane ticket to get to the source. (No different than those pilgrimages to Russian River, minus the train.)
Kim Lund Johansen
Kim Lund Johansen - Monday, February 26, 2024
Thanks Franz, much appreciated. I've been attempting, hopefully with some success, to convey this message for years within my closest beer circles. It's a concept that's challenging to persuade others of, especially if they haven't experienced the fresh version themselves.

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