As smoked beer grows in popularity at American craft breweries, few brewers may have the perspective of Colorado brewer Jan Chodkowski. He traveled to Norway five years ago with Colorado Malting Company owner Josh Cody to learn how to make smoked beer and recently enjoyed the fruits of his journey.
“We were in Norway for three or four days and visited a såinnhaus where stjørdalsøl malt is made and the beer is brewed,” says Chodkowski, the head brewer of Our Mutual Friend Brewing Company in Denver. “We learned how they smoked and kilned the malt at the same time which gives the beer its truly unique and intense flavor. We also learned that the beer is traditionally brewed just for Christmas Eve as a way to celebrate and relax during the hard northern winters.”
The trip to the town of Stjørdal resulted in Our Mutual Friend’s December release of Stjørdalsøl, a 9% ABV ale with 100% alder smoked malt that’s a collaboration with the Colorado Farm Brewery. Alder smoked malt is an ingredient “so impactful to the beer that a true stjørdalsøl cannot be made without it,” Chodkowski says.
Our Mutual Friend, which opened in 2012, has brewed other smoked beers, including Clemens Smoked Lager, a 5.4% ABV beer brewed with A.D. Laws Bourbon Barrel Smoked Malt from the Colorado Malting Company.
“Clemens Smoked Lager uses malt that was smoked using Laws whiskey barrel oak staves,” Chodkowski explains, “so the malt has a much softer and approachable smoke character compared to Stjørdalsøl.”
Other Colorado breweries have created unique smoked beers.
Greeley-based WeldWerks unveiled its first one, Smoke & Pineapples, last June.
“The base of this beer is pretty much a smoked pilsner recipe,” says Skip Schwartz, WeldWerks’ head brewer. “It’s 55% pilsner malt with 45% beechwood smoked malt.”
Schwartz says that Aecht Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier, brewed in Bamberg, Germany, is his favorite smoked beer. (The brewery’s most famous product is another smoked beer, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen.)
“The Helles Lagerbier is such an easy-drinking full-flavored beer,” he says. “The smoke takes over the flavor, but it has such a nice smooth, crisp body. No smoked malts are used in its production. The yeast they use is harvested from their other smoked beers and gives it that amazing smoked taste. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind, well-made beer.”
Smoked beer hasn’t captured the full attention of American consumers.
“I honestly am not sure why smoked beer hasn’t taken off,” Schwartz says. “Smoking meat and smoked BBQ are such a big part of American cuisine.”
Consumers are generally not open-minded “to trying things they think they won’t like,” says Brandon Capps, the founder of New Image Brewing, which has taprooms in Arvada and Wheat Ridge, Colorado. “Most people have never tried a smoked beer, and the idea appalls them. There are also a lot of smoked beers done poorly, so some have been turned off by a bad producer and conflated that to a dislike for the style.”
But when smoked beers are done well, “it’s like adding salt to a great dish,” says Capps, whose brewery released its first smoked beer, Cozy Vibes, in December. “The intensity of flavor is so expressive, and it enhances a lot of other things going on in the base beer.”
Capps prefers oak smoked beers over peat smoked beers.
“The smoke intensity is less, and the flavor depth is really wonderful,” he says. “It definitely gives campfire vibes which is exactly what we are going for with Cozy Vibes.”
Tom Moseman, the co-owner and brewer at Mythmaker Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado, first brewed a smoked beer in 2008. It was a Smoked Scotch Ale with peat smoked malt.
“My favorite thing about smoked beer is its connection with the history of beer,” he says. “Wood fire was used to dry and malt all the grain before the use of coal. So, all beer had a smokey taste in the past. I also love the extra layer of complexity that smoked malt can bring to the beer.”
The smoked flavor in beer is not enjoyed by everyone, so Moseman hopes to create some smoked beers that will appeal to the naysayers.
“Some people find smoked beer too phenolic, meaty, rubbery or just plain off putting,” he says. “My future goal is to brew some gateway smoked beers. With the popularity of sour beers now, I brewed Lichtenhainer, a smoked sour wheat ale, and it is very well received. I am beginning to play with balancing some fruit with my smoke to get more people to enjoy smoked beer.”
Moseman brewed his American Brown Ale with a tiny bit of peat smoked malt.
“It was added purely to dry and crisp up the back-end aftertaste of the beer,” he explains. “I think more experimentation with smoked malt will lead to more of a fan base.”