Smoke and Beer–Part One

photo by Ritch Marvin used with permissionBy Ezra “Samurai Artist” Johnson-Greenough and Jimmy Blum

Photos by Ritch Marvin

Smoke and beer are old companions. Yet, most beer drinkers are more likely to find smoke flavor in the grilled foods and smoked cheeses accompanying their pints, rather than in the beers themselves. Fortunately, a number of breweries and maltsters have endeavored to provide the public with smoke-tinged pints despite the relative scarcity of dedicated smoked beer connoisseurs. In order to truly appreciate the efforts of the men and women who have striven to keep smoke in the glass, as well as the unique craftsmanship that characterizes a well-made smoked beer, it is helpful to reflect upon the robust history of smoke and beer.

Beer first gained its smoke flavor as a result of pragmatism. Before the European Industrial Age, European beer production often rested in the hands of families and inns that brewed beer on a very small scale for private consumption. In the absence of specialized maltsters, these individuals needed to produce their own malted barley. [i] In order to transform raw barley into malt, the barley must be wetted and heated to stimulate germination, and then dried to stifle the growth and leave the malt in a storable state. Necessity dictated that these individuals find an accessible source of heat in order to accomplish this task. Thus, these Europeans (and, perhaps, even their ancestors from the Fertile Crescent and Egypt) relied upon local fuel sources to dry their malt: straw, wood, dung, peat, animal hair, etc. Most sources of fire, of course, also produced smoke. Hence, many early beers must have carried one of a number of smoke flavors.

smoke beer 2 This is not to say that all pre-Industrial beer was smoky; there is evidence that seasonally air-dried malts and malts dried from smokeless heat did exist in particular regions. What is certain, however, is that an 8th century beer produced in Norway from smoke-dried malt would taste very different than one produced in England, due not only to contrasts of culture and method, but because of the different fuel sources available. In fact, this phenomenon seems especially fitting; producers of modern smoked beers often draw upon local fuel to dry their malts and lend their beers a regional identity. [ii]

Smoke’s privileged seat by the side of beer would ultimately be challenged by the transformation of the European economic and technological landscape beginning around the 18th Century. In Britain, brewing became a stand-alone industry. The proliferation of hopped beers following the middle ages allowed storage and shipment of beer; it was no longer necessary that beer be produced on a domestic level for fast consumption. Meanwhile, coke was emerging as a new industrial fuel throughout the British Isles and being used in malt kilns as early as 1700. Unlike wood, coke produced virtually no smoke. Then, the design and distribution of sophisticated hydrometers in the late 18th century [iii] proved that pale malts, made with smokeless heat, provided more sugar extract per pound than brown smoked malts. Finally, in 1818 Daniel Wheeler patented a method for creating black malt; dark beers could now be made primarily with the more efficient pale malt with a small addition of highly kilned black malt (and, most important, without any brown smoked malt). These factors all tied together to eliminate the place of smoked malt in Britain. Because brewers and maltsters were separate and sizable industries, they dealt in production of scale; pale malt simply made more sense for maltsters to make and brewers to buy, and it came without the smoke flavor that had always been so divisive among drinkers. [iv]

…more to come…


[i] Daniels, Ray and Larson, Geoffrey. Smoked Beers. Boulder, Colorado: Brewers Publications, 2000. Pp 12-13.

[ii] Smoked Beers. Pp 17-18.

[iii] “Hydrometer.” Institute and Museum of the History of Science. Web 10 Oct. 2009.

[iv] Smoked Beers. Pp 22, 28, 30-32, 50, 53-55.