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 (this was recently possible when business was so slow due to COVID, both the Urbock and Eiche were available from the barrel on a couple weekends). 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 have made a more concerted effort. This fourth comparison is the one I’ve been waiting for. The two heaviest of the Schlenkerla seasonal beers, their autumn Urbock and Advent season Eiche, going head to head. I’ll be honest up front. The Urbock is my favorite of all the Schlenkerla beers. It’s unmistakably the smokiest so it can be off-putting to those not enamored with things smoky. The Eiche is no slouch in that department, though the smoke is perhaps more refined.
Schlenkerla Urbock vs Schlenkerla Eiche
Round 1: They both pour beautifully and attest to the craftsmanship of the master brewer. The heads are majestically massive and long lasting. The Urbock is a shade darker (mahogany vs deep chestnut) in hue as well as its head (tan vs ebony). I’m partial to the dark stuff so a slight edge to the Urbock.
Round 2: The Urbock has a robust nose (think smoked ham). This is not the beer to convert your grandmother to the wonders of smoke beer. The Eiche is much more subtle and perhaps complex (oak, whiskey-like). I might prefer the robust but I’d have to call it a draw.
Round 3: They’re both full-bodied. Comparing the palate of the two shows just how different smoke beer can be, even from the same brewery. Again, the Urbock is the stronger suitor, with a smoky ham/oily element juxtapositioning with a ton of malty/hoppy goodness. The somewhat smoother smokiness of the Eiche lets the ample malt talk more loudly. The hops sneak up on you, circling deceptively in the background. Reading what I just wrote, I’d say it’s a toss-up but my gut still gives a nod to the Urbock.
Round 4: At the end of the day, a strong finisher is what we all hope for and neither of these disappoints. The Urbock is a bit drier and that’s probably its strongest asset. The Eiche is a more lingering experience with perhaps a more rounded melding of the flavors. It’s certainly drier than most 8% beers so I’ll call this a hotly contested draw.
Well, the numbers say the Urbock is the winner but by having such a close look at the two, it’s given me a greater appreciation of the Eiche. While not a sessionable beer at 8%, it’s a gorgeous sipper. The Urbock is a dangerously drinkable one at 6.5%. By all means, seek both out in bottles. From the barrel, in either case, it’s a heavenly smoky experience.
Heading to Bamberg? Don’t leave home without The Pocket Guide to Bamberg’s Best Beer.