While smoke beer is unlikely to ever go entirely mainstream, it has been garnering more and much deserved attention as of late. The new inductees seem to consider the beer a slow sipper relegated to the colder months but for locals in Bamberg, it’s a regular session beer. I personally find it quite quaffable myself and have come to appreciate the variations in the overall style, even within a given brewery’s line-up. Schlenkerla, for example, has not only its flagship smoky Märzen and Rauchweizen but also four exceptional seasonal brews, all using their own smoke-infused malt.
still gravity dispensed from wooden barrels at Schlenkerla
If at their pub, you’ll know if one is on if you see two wooden barrels and Schlenkerla does a good job of calling your attention to their seasonals, with small placards announcing them on their tables. You’ll never see anything “leftover” from the previous specialty. They run out a few weeks before the next one is up so comparing them on tap is not really an option. So, you have to squirrel away some bottles if you want to see them go head-to-head. I’ve never been good at doing it but this year, I am going to make a more concerted effort. The first battle was between what are likely my two favorite Schlenkerla seasonals: their Urbock vs Fastenbier. In this next bout, we’ll see the much lighter Kräusen go up against the Fastenbier.
Schlenkerla Kräusen vs Schlenkerla Fastenbier
Round 1 was close and showcased how well-brewed they are with ample, rocky lasting heads atop both. The Fastenbiers’s was a tad darker but the Kräusen’s was initially chiffon-like and longer lasting. The dark hue of the Fastenbier is perhaps closer to what a Rauchbier stereotypically looks like. The bottled Kräusen is even lighter in color than the barrel version so has a more refreshing appearance. I might give a slight nod to the Fastenbier but I tend to prefer dark beer. That said, the bottled Kräusen really had an outstanding head and on a warmer day would likely appeal to most. I’d call it a draw.
Round 2 was interesting with the hoppy/lightly smoky nose of the Kräusen quite a departure from the lovely interplay of yeast and smoke in the Fastenbier. Before you even take a sip, it’s obvious just from their aromas that despite their being products of the same brewery that they are two very different Rauchbiers.
Round 3 showed just how different the beers are with the Fastenbier a smidge heavier in body and the yeast element mingling well with an obviously stronger smokiness. The Kräusen has a much lighter smoke element and the hops are more prevalent. One thing often overlooked is the fine hop quality of the Schlenkerla beers and these two in particular feature them prominently.
Round 4 was another showing the two’s contrasts. The Fastenbier had a more lingering and surprisingly bitter finish. The Kräusen was cleaner and while hoppy even in the finish, less bitter. They both are surprisingly dry and sessionable beers but that is where the Kräusen is the better choice since it’s 4.5% to the Fastenbier’s 5.9%. Again, this may have been an unfair comparison. One is a session beer, the other a dangerously drinkable Bock-like one. I call a clear decision for the Fastenbier but not a knockout by a long shot.
I think in the end, it shows that Rauchbier is not a single style but a range within itself. With summer upon us, I’m enjoying the Kräusen out in the backyard and am looking forward to returning to Bamberg soon to drink many in Schlenkerla’s charming Biergarten.