Until coal-fired malting technology was developed in the 19th century, all beers picked up a smoky character from barley and wheat drying over open fires. Now smoked beers are a niche subset of the brewing universe, but the addition of smoked malt can open a new world of flavor to any style of ale or lager. While some beers on our list of favorites are distinctly smoked beers, or rauchbiers, if they're German-inspired, others simply use a small portion to amplify the flavor within another style, like a porter.
RELATED: Best Coffee Beers
Stone Smoked Porter
Brewer: Stone Brewing
Style: American Porter
Brewers have historically gone to great lengths to get the flavor of smoke out of their beers. For the majority of beer's history, there was no way to make a dark beer without a certain smokiness, since the only way to turn the malt brown or black was to roast it over a flame. The big breakthrough in eliminating smoky flavors came in 1822 when England's Danny Wheeler obtained a patent for a machine that allowed the malt to be roasted in an iron cylinder similar to a coffee roaster. The malt he created, which came to be known as Black Patent Malt, revolutionized the beer industry.
While smoky beers never went completely out of style (a few celebrated breweries in Bamberg, Germany, never stopped making them), its reintroduction into the craft beer scene is largely an American innovation. One of the more popular styles in which smoke is applied is a robust porter. Porters are the brawny, older brothers of stout and are similar in color and flavor. But typically they emphasize chocolate flavors, whereas stouts emphasize coffee. A porter's big flavor profile allows it to stand up to the bold flavor of smoked malt without getting overwhelmed.
Several breweries make smoked porters, but one of our favorites is Stone Brewing Company's Smoked Porter. The smokiness comes from a small percentage of malt that has been smoked over peat. It finishes with notes of chocolate and makes for a full-flavored and warming impression that belies its relatively sessionable strength at 5.9 percent. It might not be for everyone, but if you have an adventurous palate and an open mind, we can't think of a more warming beer to enjoy on a cold winter day.