Timing is everything in brewing. Beer style depends on the timing of the mash and hop additions, and IPA sales depend on timing the latest trend. The first time I got excited about smoked beer, I wanted to write a column about how great it was. That was around September 2017.
It was not great timing.
Two years later, it was too soon again for Moonlight Brewing Company’s Dim Lights, a gently smoked lager the brewery planned to make for the holidays.
“I made the call to cancel it,” says founder-and-owner Brian Hunt. After three consecutive autumns of wildfire smoke hereabouts, it didn’t seem like the right time.
Renowned for his anti-trend-chasing stance, Hunt says that smoked beer is not the latest style. Rather, it’s the oldest beer style.
“All malt was brown and smoky-tasting for centuries,” Hunt explains, “because all of it had to be dried over some kind of fire.”
Beer is made from barley that’s heated to stop the sprouting process. That heat came with woodsmoke until different fuels, and new technology, took away the smoke while making it possible to make evenly toasted, pale malt. “And then the smoky flavor was obsolete,” except in a few places like Bamberg, Germany, where locals never lost their taste for “rauchbier.”
But Dim Lights, which Moonlight head-brewer Zac Greenwood cooks up to evoke “a liquid encapsulation of the Russian River in springtime, when the cool ocean fog wraps you up in the smell of wood stoves and damp Redwood forest,” is returning in time for spring. It’s scheduled for release the week of March 16.
That’s good news to Gabe Jackson of the Beverage People fermentation supply.
“Every time I drink anything at Moonlight, I ask, ‘Can you please make that smoked lager again?'” Jackson says, upon the first mention of smoked beer. Although customer interest isn’t as high—he gets an inquiry about the style “Oh, once every couple months”—Jackson stocks a little “rauch malt,” and says he always talks up smoked beers in his brewing classes.
Meanwhile, Windsor’s Barrel Brothers Brewing has six more barrels of Suck It Trebek to satisfy smoke fans for the next few months. A Scottish-style ale, but not a “wee heavy,” this crisp, light amber beer has a hint of beechwood smoke.
It’s a good beer back for Sonoma Distilling Company’s latest batch of cherrywood-smoked bourbon whiskey. Made with 13 percent barley that spends a day with smoldering California orchard wood, this bourbon’s candied notes of toasted corn and cocktail cherry mingle pleasantly with the hazy ghost of fruitwood, and the smoke highlights the distillery’s signature dry finish.