This week’s Canada’s Craft Beer post comes from our Ontario and Quebec craft beer guy, David Ort. Today he’s staying clear of the pumpkin beers so popular this time of year and checking out smoked beer instead, reviewing selections from Ontario's Royal City and Quebec's Unibroue.
Pumpkin beers are the elephant in the beer room every September. Luckily, I covered that territory in 2015 and both of those selections are back in stores for another year.
Instead, I'd like to draw a more subtle connection between autumn and beer. To me, this is the time for the season's final bonfires and for lighting the woodstove at the cottage. I'm hooked by the association and seek out smoked beers.
Because brewers put a smoky characteristic into a list of otherwise quite different beers, it’s more a loosely associated family than a specific style. Often, the point is to make a beer that helps drinkers recall a time they couldn’t have experienced; before the 19th century when heat sources other than wood came into fashion as part of a newly refined malting process, all beer had a smoky aspect to it.
Some maltsters, mainly in Germany, still dry their sprouted barley the old school way and when their product is added to the grain bill it gives the resulting beer an element that varies from “whiff of bacon” to “standing beside a smouldering bonfire."
One of my favourite (and often repeated) theories of matching beer and food is that smoky beer doesn’t pair well with smoky food. It’s too much wood and char. Even if the smoke is subtler in one, they both tend to overwhelm and make the other taste acrid.
Instead, I’m happier when I’ve paired a smoked beer with food that's sweet or salty. Ham and sweet potatoes are two seasonal examples that spring to mind.
Here are two good introductions to smoked beers that won’t overwhelm beginner palates.
Royal City — Smoked Honey Ale
This is one of the earliest offerings from Guelph’s two-year-old nano brewery, Royal City. It’s very dark brown with hints of mahogany at the edges and a light tan cap. I smell roasted malt, dates and just a hint of woodsmoke in the background. The flavour is mildly sweet with more dried fruit and a tame bitterness.
Generally, I find honey beers tend to be underwhelming or too sweet. Royal City manages to add a hint of honey’s floral characteristics without bumping the sweetness. This gets better as the beer warms, so don’t serve it fridge cold.
ABV 6.2%, available in ON
Unibroue — Raftman
This beer from Quebec’s Unibroue shares its imagery with one of Canada’s most recognizable cult classics, The Log Driver’s Waltz. In this case, homage is being paid to the mainly Scottish log drivers by making a beer with smoked whisky malt.
In classic Unibroue style, Raftman is vigorously carbonated and raises an impressive head over an amber-brown body. On the nose, I find bread yeast, a bit of caramel and orchard fruit. The flavour has drier fruit notes like raisins, lots of Belgian yeast character and lingering, subtle smokiness.
Raftman is another fine option for those who want an intriguing hint of smoke from their beer, rather than a full blown attack.
ABV 5.5%, available in ON and QC
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David Ort writes about food, travel, and craft beer for various online and print publications. His first book, The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook, is in bookstores and available for purchase online. For more of his thoughts on all things edible and potable follow him on Twitter or get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.