A great Rauchbier has been my white whale after leaving Bamberg about five years ago. Bamberg Rauchbier is a great, roasty, bacony, dark style of beer that is smoky but not burnt or incredibly intense. Over the past five years I've been trying various American style Smoke Beers and Rauchbiers, trying to find something comparable to the Bamberg Rauchs. I've found that nearly all of the American Smoke Beers are much more dark, burnt and bitter than the German style. The comparison I use to explain this to others is that American Smoke Beer tastes like a campfire while Bamberg Rauchbier tastes like dark chocolate covered bacon. I've heard good things about a Rauchbier from Quebec that is similar in style to what I'm looking for. I was finally able to find a bottle and I can't wait to try it.
My memories of Bamberg are too fond to allow me to write an unbiased review of one of the city's iconic beers. If the following paragraphs come off as too glowing or whimsically reminiscent, it's because Bamberg beers have cast a spell on me and I'll forever be smitten with them. I will say that, while Schlenkerla is probably the most well known Bamberg brewery outside of Germany, it's probably my least favorite. The tour groups that come through Schlenkerla each hour on their tour of the Altstadt really detract from the authenticity of the experience. That being said, Schlenkerla makes some great beers I'm always excited to drink.
For me, every Smoke Beer will always be measured against Spezial and Schlenkerla. It's not entirely fair but those are the Rauchbiers I grew up on and I have a special place in palate for them. Z Lager from the Fort Collins Brewery really does hold its own compared to the originators. The Z Lager is closer in style to the Spezial Rauchbier because it has a lighter body and isn't as overwhelmingly smoked. I can't say it's entirely the same style because the Z has many Amber-like characteristics. This beer has a bitterness that doesn't distract from the smoke until it gets close to room temperature. There is also a spicy, but not overtly hoppy, finish that just screams Amber to me. The entire package is quite good. The Amber qualities give this beer a levity that the traditional German Rauchbier generally don't have. But then, when you're looking to drink a Smoke Beer it's usually not meant to be refreshing and crisp.
Rauchbiers and Smoked beers aren't my favorite style. Unless it's the dead of winter and I have a hankering for pork, I generally don't think to myself, "Hey, why not have a couple smoke beers?" That being said, I am quite partial to beers from Bamberg, Germany. I spent the better part of 2006 studying in Bamberg and became well acquainted with the local beers. Rauchbier is Bamberg's local delicacy so I can't help but appreciate it for what it is, a unique style of beer and a bit of an acquired taste. You know the saying about doing as the Romans while in Rome? Well, in Bamberg you do as the Bambergers do and that means drinking a Rauchbier.