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Beer Styles - Specialty Lagers

Smoked Beer, Zwickel/Keller/Landbier, California Common, Low Alcohol
Styles & Seasonals June 6, 2005      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

Zwickelbier/Kellerbier– This minor lager style is mainly confined to Franconia, though brewers elsewhere occasionally dabble in it. These names refer to naturally-conditioned lagers of session strength. The beers are essentially the lager world’s version of cask ale. The beer is naturally fermented in the cask – usually wooden and is unfiltered. With kellerbier, the cask is unbunged, which results in low carbonation. It also increases the risk of infection, and kellerbier is highly hopped to guard against that.

The term “landbier” sometimes also is used for similar product, typically maltier in accent, but landbier does not always mean this. Landbier in general is a quaint name used for marketing purposes but may still retain a meaning in terms of style in parts of Franconia.

The beer will usually have settled out, but some examples remain cloudy. Gravity is standard and hop rates range from around 22IBUs to over 40, and any beer called “Kellerbier” would traditionally come in on the high end of that scale. Colour can range from pale to reddish-amber. Carbonation should be low. Malt can range from background structural maltiness to appetizing bready notes, particularly in a zwickel.

Most popular examples: St. Georgenbrau Kellerbier (Germany), New Glarus Zwickel (USA), Mahr’s Brau Ungespundet Hefetrüb (Germany)

Some of my favourites: St. Georgenbrau Kellerbier (Germany), Hartmann Felsenkeller (Germany), Holzhausener Landbier (Germany)

Colour: 1 – 2.5

Flavour: 1.5 – 4

Sweetness: 1 – 3

Smoked – Smoked beer has existed throughout history. It is one of the styles that can claim to have been at one point the world’s my popular. But that was by default, and “smoked” never really was a style, but a family of styles. Many types of beer were smoked – dark lagers, porters, grätzer and more – but like juniper beer or gruit they all had their own regional variations and quirks.

Smoked beer began to fall out of favour by the 18th century – “clean” beers were modern, and smoky beers were for rustic folk ignorant of modern ways. Well, bless those rustic folk because it is thanks to them that smoked beer still lives today. Gradually, ancient smoked styles fell by the wayside. Among the last to die was grätzer, an Austrian style that survived in the form of Grodzisk in Poland up until the 1990’s. Other styles cling by a thread. The low-alcohol Danish style skibsøl exists as but one commercial example. The Swedish smoked juniper beer gotlandsdricke only exists as a homebrewed product of local farmers on its native island of Gotland.

The most reknowned of surviving smoked beers is rauchbier, which simply means “smoke beer”. These are the local specialty of Bamberg, Germany, but one firm has successfully exported the style around the world. The rauchbiers of Bamberg are variously based on Märzen, Bock or Weizen. The brewers there often produce their own malt, in the traditional fashion of course.

When America’s microbreweries, primarily ale-makers, decided to start toying with smoked beer, they turned to porter, a sweeter style with flavour components complementary to smoke. This has proved a success, and there are many examples of smoked porter brewed all over the New World.

Another adaptation uses not Bamberg malts, but peat-smoked malt from Scotland, made for the whiskey industry. One type of beer that uses peated malt is called Whiskey Malt Beer, and is a minor substyle in the smoked family, found mainly in France and Quebec. More commonly, peated malt is used to lend accent to Scotch or Scottish ales. While it makes sense that the Scots themselves once did this, they have not done so in recent memory. All the same, the smokiness of a peated scotch ale is generally done to lend a little bit of complexity to the beer, where other types of smoked beer are all about the smokiness. Thus, scotch ales that contain peat-smoked malt are usually still considered scotch ales.

Another type, which is smokey but not necessarily made with smoked malts, is the minor style of steinbier, which is made with the aid of boiling hot stones in the mash, brew kettle or both. These lend a light smokiness and caramelization of sugars to the brew.

As to be expected, Bamberger rauchbier is very smokey in nature. Most smoked porters are more restrained, but not always. With all smoked beers, balance is important, and the underlying beer – the porter, märzen or bock – and the smoke notes should both be distinctive and complement one another. Strength and colour will depend on the base style. Smoke and hops don’t go together as well and smoke and malts do, so smoked porters will tend to come in on the lower end of the hop scale for porters.

Most popular examples: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen (Germany), Alaskan Smoked Porter (USA), Raftman (Canada), Altenmünster Rauchenfelser Steinbier (Germany)

Some of my favourites: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen (Germany), Spezial Rauchbier Lager (Germany), Fischer Rauchbier (Germany), Bièropholie Calumet (Canada), Dieu de Ciel Charbonnière (Canada)

Colour: 3 – 4.25

Flavour: 3.5 – 4.5

Sweetness: 2 – 4

California Common - There is no such style called “California common”. This is Steam Beer – that rant is for another time and place, however. The style isn’t really all that distinctive, but has a wonderfully romantic story and a few production quirks that make it much better on paper than in the glass.

The style is said to have been born in California during the gold rush days. A lack of ice forced the lager brewers of the day – mostly German immigrants – to ferment their beer warmer than they would otherwise have done. This resulted in a couple of things – one is more esters than one would expect in a lager, and the other was higher carbonation. The latter is said to have given the style its name, as the hyperactive product inside the barrels gave a hiss of rushing gas upon release. Another production quirk is the use of shallow open fermenters, which would accentuate the ester production and “house character” of the beer.

There are few beers made in this style today, and of those that are it is hard to say how many go as far as using the traditional steam beer fermenters. All are fermented with lager yeasts at warm temperatures. The ideal character should be a lager-like smoothness with the fruitiness and complexity of an ale. Colour is amber, fermentation natural. The beer has a fairly moderate malt-hop balance and moderate bitterness. Alcohol ranges between 5-6% typically.

However, all of these characteristics are based strictly on what is out there today, which isn’t much. There are few tasting notes from the 19th century floating around, so we really do not know what steam beer is all about. Most guidelines are written around Anchor Steam, which is quite frankly an amateurish way of viewing any beer style and indeed Steam is the only style in which this viewpoint is common. The truth is that because of this outlook, we know little about what the Steam Beer style can be. We only really know what Anchor Steam is about, but no beer style can be clearly catalogued on the basis of one example. The end result is that Steam Beer’s evolution has been stifled and the style remains on the endangered list.

Most popular examples: Anchor Steam (USA), Flying Dog Old Scratch (USA), Sleeman Steam (Canada), Barbary Coast Gold Rush-Style Beer (USA)

Some of my favourites: Flying Dog Old Scratch (USA), Barbary Coast Gold Rush-Style Beer (USA)

Colour: 1.5 – 2.75

Flavour: 2.5 – 3.5

Sweetness: 1.5 – 3.5

Low Alcohol - The most widely known low alcohol beers are the non-alcs, which were developed in response to a perceived need for beer without alcohol. There are, however, many types of alcohol with low alcohol levels, particularly in Scandinavia (hvitdøl, skibsøl, svagdricka/kalja, Klass I beer), Eastern Europe (kvas/gira), and the Netherlands (oud bruin). In Germany, there is also non-alcoholic weissbier being produced. Some may consider malta/malz a part of this style, but for the purposes of Ratebeer these malt sodas are not considered to be “beer” and thus not included.

Non-alcoholic beer usually does have alcohol in traces amounts. Most jurisdictions set a threshold at which a beer can be considered “non-alcoholic”, typically 0.5% or 0.9%. These beers are produced using a variety of processes, some of which involve fermentation and other which do not. Even those that do involve fermentation and subsequent alcohol removal generally do not ferment to more than a couple of points of alcohol. One of the end results is a beverage that is sweet, with the taste of fresh wort. Occasional examples have hop character but North American examples have as much hop character as their full strength counterparts – minimal at best. The colour is typically pale yellow, though there are dark versions available. These beers will have less than 1% alcohol. In Scandinavia, lagers like this are produced to the 2-3% range, rather than >1%.

A few German breweries do a non-alcoholic weissbier. As the esters and phenols produced in the fermentation process are key to the weissbier style, these resemble a worty, bland version of American Wheat rather than anything German.

Dutch oud bruins and other table beers like svagdricka and kalja (the Sweden and Finnish names for what is essentially the same product) are sweet brown lagers, usually with a simplistic brown sugar-like character. One or two Dutch examples will have complexity of malt character, but this is not common. The alcohol is between 2-3%, hop character virtually non-existent and body quite thin. In England, there are similar top-fermented beers like Mann’s Brown Ale, though these are considered to be milds as Mann’s was the original example and was born as a bottled mild.

Danish hvidtøl is similar to Dutch oud bruin, but has different origins. These were originally a family of wheat beers. Today, they are low-alcohol (2-2.5%) sweet, brown lagers with worty notes and creamy bodies. The one exception is the rare pale hvidtøl, which is similar to a low-gravity lager, but more estery. Skibsøl is an ancient style of smoked beer (classed on Ratebeer as Smoked as well but worthy of discussion here on account of its lightness) that combines a rich, malty sweetness, lots of smoke, and a creamy body in a package of less than 2.5% abv. This is the sole-surviving member of a family of beers that included the wild-fermented, spiced, highly hopped mumme, diest, and jopenbier.

Kvas is a very low-alcohol (sometimes none) brew made in Russia from rye bread, raisins, and other seasonings. The beer is light, sweet & sour, and raisiny. It may give a mild alcoholic kick if consumed in sufficient quantity. Kvas wagons are still common in Moscow, around Metro stations outside the city centre. The kvas varies in character, and because the wagons are generic one ever really knows its origins. The kvas found around the Ryazanskiy Metro Station is southern Moscow is very raisiny. In provincial Russia, carts are becoming rare, and those that are still around have been known to dispense undrinkably sour examples (as in Kazan’). In Riga, Latvia, kvas carts look more modern than their Russian counterparts, and are found in the area of the Riga market and train station. Bottled kvas is common wherever Russians are to be found, though it typically bears more resemblance to lemonade than traditional kvas – sweet, thin, lousy-tasting lemonade at that.

In rural northern Lithuania, kvas is known as gira and traditional examples such as Daujena Gira can be found in good beer bars dispensed from wooden barrels. It is a phenomenally refreshing beverage – perhaps the most refreshing on Earth. It is paler in colour than Russian kvas, gingery, fruity, light-bodied and a little hazy.

Most popular examples: O’Doul’s (USA), O’Doul’s Amber (USA), Kaliber (Ireland), Clausthaler (Germany), Erdinger Weissbier Alkoholfrei (Germany)

Some of my favourites: Daujena Gira (Lithuania), Refsvindinge Skibsøl (Denmark), Alfa Oud Bruin (Netherlands), Gerstel Brau (Germany)

Colour: 0 – 4

Flavour: 0 – 3

Sweetness: 3 – 4



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