Smoked beers are not entirely new. Time was, before coal and gas kilns, all brewers cured their fresh grains over burning wood. As production modernized, beer's heady fumes dissipated, except in the German city of Bamberg, where rauchbier, as it's called there, lived on, made in ovens fired with fragrant beech.
Today's new smoked beers are made the same way, with wet kernels of barley slowly dried over wood fires. The difference is that instead of using only beech, American brewers are smoking with local hardwood to create beers as varied as the nation's regional barbecue styles. Fullsteam brewery, in Durham, North Carolina, makes a brown porter, Hogwash, with grains that are smoked using the state's trademark hickory. Most pitmasters would never pair their meticulously smoked meat with strong, full-flavored brews, but chasing eastern North Carolina barbecue with Hogwash amplifies the meat's subtly sweet wood flavor and mellows its tangy vinegar sauce.
“Smoky beer with barbecue is the path less traveled, for sure,” says Sean Lilly Wilson, founder of Fullsteam. Bucking the notion that barbecue's accompaniments should be secondary—plain white bread, paper plates, pitchers of light, forgettable beer—brewers like Fullsteam, Fort Point in San Francisco, and Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau are not just smoking beer, but insisting it be paired with the country's best smoked meat.
Other breweries are teaming up with smokehouses for special-collaboration beers, smoking their grain with the same type of wood used to barbecue the meat. Los Angeles' Bruery uses white oak for the Mrs. Stoutfire imperial stout served at Beachwood BBQ, and Woods Beer Co. flavored the Almond Rye brewed for Perdition Smokehouse in Berkeley, California, with—what else—almond wood. Spoiled for choice in central Texas, the brewers at Jester King worked with new-school favorite Franklin Barbecue for the Figlet, a farmhouse ale made with local figs smoked over oak. But it's not just the upstarts that are embracing smoky beers: Hill Country legend Salt Lick also partnered with Jester King on another farmhouse ale using malt smoked over pecan wood in the smokehouse's own pits.
Five Smoked Brews to Try
Stone Smoked Porter
Stone's was one of the first American-made rauchbiers when it debuted in the '90s. Today, the company offers experimental spin-offs flavored with chiles or vanilla. 22-oz. bottle, $5 at craftshack.com
Fort Point Manzanita
German tradition with a homegrown twist: A classic tawny, malty-sweet brew, called an "alt" (old) for its long, mellow aging, gets some local flavor from charred manzanita branches. Check thejugshop.com for availability.
Alaskan Smoked Porter
This dark beer from Alaskan Brewing Co. has hints of spicy alder smoke that mellows with time. Vintage bottles are bacony and sweet like charred plum. 22-oz. bottle, $9.99 at bevmo.com
Uncommon Bacon Brown Ale
Santa Cruz, California
Nutty and crisp, thanks to roasted buckwheat, this experimental beer gets its smoky character not from grain but from a cured hog leg steeped in each batch. 4-pack of 16-oz. cans, $10.99 at binnys.com
Durham, North Carolina
For this lighter brown porter, North Carolina-grown barley is smoked over the state's famous hickory—its tingly fumes fade into a subtly sweet toffee finish. Check bruisin-ales.com for availability.