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Beer makers and mixologists are delivering smoky flavours and aromas straight into your glass, using methods old and new.
Imagine a cocktail arriving at your table literally smoking. That’s what happens to customers at the Tide & Boar Gastropub in Moncton, New Brunswick when they order the “Gen & Tonic,” a smoky twist on an old favourite.
“Instead of gin, we’re using Genever, Jack’s tonic [Jack’s Artisan Tonic] and we’re torching a juniper branch as a garnish, so it goes to the table with a little bit of smoke,” says owner Chad Steeves. “[The aroma] hits your nostrils as you’re drinking it.”
The smoky cocktail trend is a favourite amongst bartenders, both for theatrical presentation and for adding depth of flavour. Steeves helps develop much of the bar and food menu at Tide & Boar. He says using a charred garnish is just one way to add a smoky element to a cocktail. “In the past, we’ve charred wood,” he says. “You can use cedar, oak, that kind of thing, and do infusions. Incorporating that into a syrup or into the cocktail itself.”
Another way mixologists are serving dramatic cocktails engulfed in smoke is by using a small, portable smoker, or smoke gun. The process involves filling a wine decanter with smoke, pouring a mixed drink into the decanter, and briefly swirling around the liquid. This infuses the cocktail with smoke, and when poured into a glass with ice, offers an impressive presentation.
Smoke as a flavour profile is also appearing more often in the brewing world. Brewers achieve this affect by smoking part, or all, of the grains they use to make beer. Typically, the smoke is from different woods or peat, each producing its own unique flavour profile.
Jeff Saunders, owner and brewmaster at Bad Apple Brewhouse in Somerset, Nova Scotia, has been making smoked beers at his brewery for the past two years. “Smoked beers give a nice twist to some of your standard beer styles,” he says. “You can smoke your own grains…I buy [mine] smoked for consistency.”
He purchases beechwood-smoked malt from Germany, a country known for the rauchbier style of smoked beer. Traditional beer-making methods involve either air-drying the grains or drying them over an open flame. Until kilns were invented during the industrial age, all beers made with grains dried over an open flame inevitably had a smoky taste. Some brewers in Bamberg, Germany still use this traditional method, making the town famous for its rauchbier.
Last year, Saunders released his Smokehouse Lager, an extra-strong beer that offers a pronounced smoky taste complemented with hints of citrus and melon. He made it with smoked malt and no other grains. “It had a really smoky, campfire-ish taste,” he says.
Brewmasters use a higher percentage of smoked grains for smokier flavour. For more subtle flavour, they cut it with base grains that are unsmoked. Looking ahead, Saunders plans on releasing a rauchbier, dubbed the Smokeshow, which he’s been aging in hickory for over a year and contains 100-per-cent smoked grains.
Saunders says smoked beers seem to provoke a “love ’em or hate ’em” reaction from most beer drinkers. Although his experimentation so far has proven that heartier beers take on the smoky character better, he’d like to test it on different beers. “You can add a smoky finish to almost any style, with the right amount,” he says. “It’s all about balance.”
Pairing smoked beers with food depends on the style of smoked beer. Rauchbier pairs well with smoked foods like ham, pork, or sausage. Grilled meats are usually a safe bet, plus hearty roasts, blue, sharp, or smoky cheeses and even some stone-fruit desserts.
Steeves suggests pairing smoke with smoke. And having an in-house smoker gives Tide & Boar an opportunity to experiment with smoked ingredients on both the food and the cocktail side.
To make your own smoky cocktails at home, Steeves recommends the easiest method: using a smoky ingredient or spirit. “I recommend mezcal if you’re looking for a very clean smoke,” says Steeves. “You can maybe add a quarter ounce to substitute part of a tequila-based cocktail, to give it a smoky background.”
Or try a smoky scotch. Similar to smoked beer, some scotch producers dry their grains over a peat fire (or smoke the grains using more environmentally friendly methods) as part of the production, imparting peaty smoke flavour into the spirit.
While smoky beverages may seem a little intimidating at first, they can liven up your favourite cocktail or beer style. As smoked beers may be more of an acquired taste, start on the subtle end of the scale, with something like Bad Apple’s Smoked Porter. Saunders describes it as a “lighter dark beer.” “You can drink a handful of these on a summer day, and they won’t fill you up,” he says.