A flight of glasses is lined up in front of me, for what might be called a liquid smoke tasting.
No, it’s not a sampling of that bottled stuff you find on the barbecue sauce aisle. Greg Engert is walking me through a field of smoked beers at ChurchKey. He is beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which includes this Logan Circle hot spot.
The beverage was new to me, but with grillers chased indoors even in this mild winter, it seems as if smoked beer could be another way to keep smoke flowing in our veins till we go from 40 degrees to 68.
At ChurchKey and its downstairs sister restaurant, Birch & Barley, Engert carries several bottled versions and at least one on tap. In November, Birch & Barley hosted a four-course tasting menu beer dinner with the owner of Bamberg, Germany’s, Tavern Schlenkerla, the world’s most famous producer of rauchbier, or smoked beer.
Schlenkerla’s method is a long-standing tradition. For regular beer, barley is dried through an industrialized process. At Schlenkerla, run by the Trum family for six generations, the germinated barley is spread over wire netting and dried over smoldering beechwood logs. The process gives the beer its characteristic aroma.
“People are really experimenting with smoke in their beers,” Engert says. “It’s something that’s almost kind of comically mundane to the history of beer brewing because open flame was the way you created heat, and we know that beer was being produced at least 6,000 years ago. Smoke would have been in the beer for fermenting the grains to get the sugars.”
Before going further, let me say that I have only a vague idea what Engert is talking about. I’m the barbecue guy, not the beer guy. My interest isn’t in the brew so much as it is in the smoke.
After my tasting, I was certain of just one thing: I wasn’t going to be drinking a smoked beer with smoked food. I like my smoked foods complemented, not suffocated.
Wondering if I could cook with it for some semblance of barbecue until the weather turned nicer, I came across a smoked beer barbecue sauce recipe by cookbook author and overall barbecue guru Steven Raichlen. He calls for it to be used with sauerkraut-braised ribs, which sounds delicious. But I liked using the sauce to create a faux barbecue sandwich for a bit more of that summertime vibe.
I slow-roasted a pork butt until it fell apart and I roasted a whole chicken till it withered. To each I added some of the sauce, put the sauced meat on a hamburger bun and served them as I would a regular pulled pork or pulled chicken barbecue sandwich.
The beer’s smokiness was no match for the real deal, but it was good and it brought some of summer’s flavor to my wintertime table.
Wanting to branch out, I threw a smoked-beer tasting with friends. I started with a mini-version of the ChurchKey tasting, which had included beers other than Schlenkerla’s. But Schlenkerla is the most commonly available — and even it isn’t common — so I used four Schlenkerla brews: a wheat, a lager, a bock and a double-bock.
My intrigued guests sipped at first with skepticism (“this is weird”), then with something passing for enthusiasm (“let me try that one again”). The favorite was the weizen, or wheat. It is light but somehow sturdy, its smoke flavor unmistakable but not overwhelming.
I must say, I liked all four.
We then sat down to eat a twist on a classic: beer and cheese soup. I used an aged cheddar and a smoked lager (or marzen, as it says on the Schlenkerla label), which has more depth than the wheat beer.
Since living in Maine years ago, where clam chowder is often more brothy than chowders found outside the state, I have preferred a thinner quality to my thickish soups. That is how I made the beer and cheddar soup. The smokiness came through beautifully. My guests loved it; so did I. I’ll probably never make the soup with regular beer again.
It might not taste a whole lot like slow-smoked pulled pork, but it will definitely feed my smoke jones till the temperature rises.
Follow Shahin on Twitter: @jimshahin.