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Smoke ’em if you got ’em

Lionshead Lager – 5.6% ABV – 26 IBU

Here’s one of the only good things to happen in 2020: My fiancee, Allison, won a Traeger smoker in a food photo contest put on by a local realtor early this summer. Turns out, being good at Instagram (and a damn good chef) can get you more than “likes” from strangers. Who knew?

We’ve made amazing brisket, chicken, bacon, trout, and even mushrooms and beets on the smoker, but… I’m a homebrewer. So as soon as we’d set it up, I started dreaming of ways to use it to make beer.

I’m not the biggest rauchbier fan. Though I’m a more open-minded drinker (and brewer) than many people I know, most of the commercial smoked beers I’ve had beat you over the head with the smoke in a way that I find offputting. Even the German and Austrian ones. That’s odd, since it’s usually American brewers that tend to go over the top. I resolved that my smoked beer wouldn’t fall into this trap: it would be less a smoky punch in the face, more a gentle caress.

Anyway, while I initially toyed with the idea of a smoked stout, it seemed too obvious. My ponderings, however, coincided with the closing of our LHBS (you’ll be missed, Brew Shop!) and my acquisition of a bunch of leftover grain—including the better part of a sack of Best Malz Red X malt.

Here’s how my thought process went:

  1. Fire is red.
  2. Fire makes smoke.
  3. Smoked red malt?
  4. Profit!

And here we are.

What’s in it?

The Vitals

  • Method: BIAB in the Robobrew
  • Batch size: 4 gallons into fermenter
  • Mash: 75 minutes at 152F
  • Boil: 60 minutes
  • Ferm temp: 50F, diacetyl rest at 60F near end of primary
  • OG: 1.053
  • FG: 1.011
  • ABV: 5.6%
  • IBU: 26

The Grain

  • 3.5 lb. Best Malz Red X (Cherrywood Smoked)
  • 2.5 lb. Best Malz Red X
  • 1 lb. Best Pilsen

The Hops

  • 15g Loral [10.5% AA] @ 60 minutes
  • 15g Loral @ 5 minutes

The Rest

  • Water: 5 gallons Bend tap water + 0.75 tsp CaCl2, 0.6 tsp baking soda, and 0.5 tsp gypsum
  • Yeast: Saflager W-34/70, 1.5L starter using dregs from Birra Perfetto

How’d it go?

Step one here was obviously smoking the malt.

Ideally, you’d want to cold-smoke malt to preserve its original color and prevent any flavor change beyond smoke infusion, but with a Traeger I didn’t have that luxury. So I read up and formulated a plan. It looked like this:

  1. Wet the grain, using about a half cup of water per pound of malt.
  2. Set the Traeger to the lowest setting and get a good smoke going.
  3. Spread the moistened malt on some baking sheets and put them directly on the smoker grate.
  4. Fill a spray bottle with more water and mist the malt every 20 minutes, turning it to ensure coverage.
  5. Smoke for a total of 4 hours, or until grain tastes appropriately smoky.
  6. Once grain is tasting good, transfer cookie sheets to an oven set to the lowest temp (170F) and dry to near original moisture content.
  7. Set smoked grain in a paper bag to off-gas for a few days before use.
Settling in for a long smoke.

This all went surprisingly well. I used Traeger’s cherrywood pellets, and after smoking, my Red X tasted beautifully malty and powerfully smoky.

I’d read in several places that while Red X is considered a base malt (actually a blend of several base malts), it can have trouble with diastatic power, conversion, and attenuation. IMO, a malty smoked lager should have a bit of body and sweetness to it in order to counteract the other intense flavors, but I definitely didn’t want to end up with a flabby beer. So I added a portion of pilsner malt to boost conversion and attenuation. I also mashed low and long, hoping that would help strike the right balance.

After a 75-minute mash, I came in just a hair under my expected OG: 1.053 to the expected 1.055. Totally fine. I chilled my wort to 55F before pitching yeast and transferring it to a sanitized corny keg equipped with my latest gear acquisition: a Clear Beer Draught System floating dip tube.

This was actually my first try at using a floating dip tube, my first try at fermenting in a keg, and also my first try at fermenting in and serving from the same keg. Suffice it to say, I’m really, really pleased with how well it all worked. Using this technique means the beer never touched oxygen after I closed the keg lid, and using my other recent gear acquisition, a spunding valve, meant that I was able to carbonate the beer without using forced CO2.

The addition of a spunding valve helped give this beer some really creamy, dense head.

I’ll write more about this later, but I think this is a great solution for limiting oxidation potential in lagers and hazy IPAs, especially. I ordered two CBDS dip tubes initially, and I’ve just ordered two more. That’s how much I like ’em.

Anyway, once the keg was sealed up and I’d hit the headspace with a bit of CO2 to keep the lid sealed, I continued chilling the keg to 50F and left it there for four days (until the SG was around 1.014). At that point, I removed the keg from my fermentation fridge for its diacetyl rest and attached the spunding valve. Set to ~23 PSI, I hoped it would carb my beer to around 2.5 volumes by the time the beer finished. (I must confess I found the math of how to calculate PSI for spunding quite difficult to wrap my head around, but it worked out in the end.)

Once the d-rest was done and the beer had hit its 1.011 FG, I put the keg back in the fridge and crashed it down to 34F, letting it lager for a couple weeks before moving it to the keezer.

How’s it taste?

Liquid fire.

This is without a doubt one of my most successful beers. Perhaps my most successful full-stop. It might not be my overall favorite (simply because I don’t necessarily want to drink a smoked lager every day), but it hit every mark I wanted it to, and it disappeared surprisingly quick for 4 gallons of smoked beer.

Appearance: Red X delivers! This beer is truly, sincerely red—slightly on the copper side, but certainly more red than many “red IPAs” I’ve had in the past. The head, whether due to spunding or some other factor, is exceptionally dense and sticks around for a long, long time, leaving nice lacing on the glass all the way down. It took forever for this beer to fully clear, weeks after I put it in the keezer, and more than a month after crashing, but once it did it was crystal.

Aroma: Sweet malt, moderate smoke, no discernible hops. The smoke isn’t the campfire smoke you can get from smoked tea, for instance, and it’s not quite the Christmas ham I’ve experienced in other beers. I think cherrywood was a very good choice here.

Taste: The smoke is pronounced, but not as aggressive as you’d get with some Schenkerla beers, for example. It doesn’t have the acrid edge or ultra-hammy flavor that smoked beers often get, and while it drinks dry, it has some residual sweetness to balance the flavors. There’s a strong malt backbone here, and the hops are decidedly in the background, which is ideal for this style.

Mouthfeel: Quite crisp after more than a month at lager temps, and doesn’t linger long on the tongue despite the malty, smoky flavor. Makes you want another sip, for sure.

Would I brew it again?

Yes, absolutely. I don’t think I’d change a thing, except maybe to mess with some other lager yeasts. I’ve really been wanting to try Imperial L17 Harvest, and I recently got my hands on some Omega OYL-114 Bayern Lager, which seem like good options. Nothing wrong with W-34/70, to be clear, I just can’t help myself when it comes to playing with yeast strains.

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