Smoke beer finally finds itself escaping its specialty niche reputation and a becoming a style which can’t be written off as a novelty. That said, many will still relegate it to one to be sipped slowly but further investigation reveals there are many different flavors of smoke when it comes to these illusive brews. 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. I’ve had fun comparing their seasonal beers in a recent series. Now, I turn my attention to comparing each of the seasonal beers to their Märzen, surely the most famous Rauchbier in the world.
still gravity dispensed from wooden barrels at Schlenkerla
Unlike my last exercise where you almost had to resort to using bottled samples, you could do this at their renowned pub as when a seasonal is “on,” it is from the barrel there just as the Märzen is every day. I rarely find myself doing this. I may drink their Märzen and finish with their Doppelbock strength Eiche in December but I’ve never gone back and forth between the two. With the other three seasonal beers, I always stick with them. I like them that much and I’m generally only there once a year for each one. So, I will use the bottle method once again.
Schlenkerla Märzen vs Schlenkerla Kräusen
First up, I compared their Fastenbier to the Märzen, but here the flagship Märzen (5.1%) is pitted against the summer seasonal Kräusen (4.5%).
Round 1: Both are great looking pours with the Märzen’s gorgeous clear deep chestnut hue and the Kräusen’s unfiltered amber. The heads are both impressive, off-white for the Märzen and ivory for the Kräusen. I imagine if one were envisioning a Rauchbier, the Märzen would be a clear winner but I find them both visually stunning so I’m calling it even.
Round 2: The Märzen has a smokier nose and the ham is more pronounced. The Kräusen has less smoke in the nose, letting some grain, light hops and a touch of yeast through. I’d have to give the edge to the Märzen here.
Round 3: The Märzen is much fuller-bodied but both have a great soft mouthfeel. I’d give a slight edge to the Märzen here.
Round 4: The Märzen has a what has become the classic palate of smoked ham on top of rich malt, well balanced by ample hopping. The Kräusen is has a lot less smoke but mixes in a nice grainy element along with a touch of yeast. Again, it’s not shy hop-wise. Since the flagship is so influential when it comes to most people’s impression of the style, I’m forced to give the Märzen the nod here too.
Round 5: The Märzen has a cleaner finish with the hops putting a slightly more bitter spin on the finish. The lingering finish of the Kräusen mixes in the some grain and yeast with the hops. I’d have to give the edge to the Märzen as well.
This is one of the tougher comparisons but an interesting one. The flagship Märzen is a classic with smoked ham in both the nose and palate. The Kräusen varies from year to year and this year, the bottles seem less hoppy and a bit grainier. This isn’t a bad thing as too much hops in a smoke beer can lead to astringency. The bottled Märzen is sharper than the barrel version but it’s still a rich smoky brew. The Kräusen is a summery mix of smoke and grain, better for warm Franconian days. The Märzen is the overall winner but if you find it too smoky, the Kräusen is your better choice. Even for those who love the Märzen, the Kräusen is worth a try if there in summer during its limited release.
While it was closer than the numbers, this turned out to be more one-sided than I’d imagined. So, when in the pub recently I ordered both at the same time. My server unexpectedly didn’t even flinch and brought them both out side-by-side.
Schlenkerla Märzen & Kräusen on tap
It’s hard to explain why but while the Märzen is much better from the barrel than the bottle, this match-up seemed closer. I was sitting outside on a cool for summer day and the Kräusen still hit the spot. The finish seemed particularly nice with the hops giving a good counter balance to the smoky yeasty palate. The Märzen might still be the winner but if I’d ordered another one that day, I’d have opted for the Kräusen. It certainly would my choice on a hot summer day.
So while the Märzen is the winner, the Kräusen sure has its attributes and perhaps purpose. Its low alcohol (4.5%) for Germany and lighter smoke element are great for warm weather imbibing. For those who find the Märzen too smoky, it’s an excellent alternative. I’ve brought friends in who hate anything smoky, even when it comes to food, and they’ve certainly liked it over the Märzen.
No matter your choice, it’s hard to go wrong with Schlenkerla!
Heading to Bamberg? Don’t leave home without The Pocket Guide to Bamberg’s Best Beer.