The world’s ‘worst tasting beer’ makes a comeback (and here's where to find it)

Scott McKinnon, owner-brewer at Wolf of the Willows, where JSP (Johnny Smoked Porter) has been a fixture since the ...
Scott McKinnon, owner-brewer at Wolf of the Willows, where JSP (Johnny Smoked Porter) has been a fixture since the brewery was conceived in 2014. Photo: Simon Schluter

The current market infatuation with only one of beer's four key ingredients, hops, has consigned many classic beer styles to the sidelines.

One of them, rauchbier (German for "smoke beer"), will have its day in the sun on March 5 at Mountain Culture brewery's rauchbier festival in Katoomba, NSW.

Victorian outfits Hop Nation, Dollar Bill, Fixation and Banks are among the ten visiting breweries at the left-field event hosted by brewer DJ McCready, who founded Mountain Culture with his wife Harriet in 2019.

Mountain Culture brewer Jumbo checks on a rauchbier ahead of the brewery's smoky beer festival on March 5.
Mountain Culture brewer Jumbo checks on a rauchbier ahead of the brewery's smoky beer festival on March 5.  Photo: Wolter Peeters

Like most of the other festival participants, Mountain Culture has made its name on hop-driven beers; more specifically the juicy, cloudy style of the moment, New England India Pale Ale (IPA).

"I still love drinking New England IPAs. We make them all the time and it's a great style," says McCready.

"But I wanted to level the playing field and challenge the brewers to use an ingredient that maybe they haven't played with before."

DJ McCready pours a rauchbier at Mountain Culture. The brewer jokes that he wants to make the world's worst tasting beer ...
DJ McCready pours a rauchbier at Mountain Culture. The brewer jokes that he wants to make the world's worst tasting beer taste amazing. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Rauchbier can have smoky bacon and wet campfire aromas and the taste is acquired to say the least.

When announcing the now sold-out rauchbier festival on social media last year, McCready jokingly claimed Mountain Culture was "trying to make the worst tasting beer in the world taste amazing".

However, the brewer also fondly remembers his pilgrimage to the home of smoke beer, medieval city Bamberg in Bavaria, Germany.

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"It was one of the best days of my life – a 24-hour love affair with rauchbier," says McCready.

"Harriet and I had a big day of touring all the traditional breweries. I woke up in my Airbnb the next morning and the whole place smelled like a campfire."

While malt-driven beers such as rauchbier are broadly out of favour, select Australian breweries champion local interpretations of the style.

JSP (Johnny Smoked Porter) has been a fixture in Wolf Of The Willows' range ever since the Victorian brewery was conceived in 2014. Co-founder Scott McKinnon says it is a smoke beer designed for the local market.

"In Bamberg people are expecting a big 'punch in the face' from smoked malt, but Australian palates are still adapting to the extremes."

Each year Wolf Of The Willows brews the higher-strength Imperial JSP that is seasoned with time spent resting in ex-whisky barrels supplied by Tasmania's Lark Distillery.

In some vintages, McKinnon has ramped up the smoke flavours at his Mordialloc brewery using a small portion of peat-smoked malt, more commonly used to produce whisky.

"We chat regularly with the team at Lark to ensure the recipe profile we use balances with the barrels they select, just to ensure that we're not creating an extreme [smoke beer] monster!" he says.

"Even with beechwood-smoked malt, you've got to be very careful how you use it in combination with other ingredients.

"Using peated malt really is dancing with fire, so you have to modify the brewing process to get a more gentle impact from it."

Sydney brewing company The Grifter moderates the manuka-smoked malt in its Demon Lungs Smoked Porter with six other malts.

"We've got a lot of oats in there, which is probably unusual for that style of beer," says Grifter co-founder Glenn Wignall.

"But I think smoke can be a bit dry and acrid at times, so we wanted to balance it out with a bit of extra body and sweetness."

You can also bank on a few smoky beers at Brewmanity Beer Co's new South Melbourne brewpub when it opens later this year, according to head brewer Tim Miller.

"I've always had a fascination with smoking meats, and how using different wood on the same type of meat can impart different flavours.

"For me, rauchbier in essence is kind of the same thing. You can take any style of beer and add the extra element of smoked malt to it."

The German brewers that produce rauchbier to this day are continuing a tradition as old as brewing itself.

Up until the advent of air dried kilning in the 18th century, barley was invariably exposed to smoke during the malting process. This meant smoky beers were the norm rather than the exception.

Classic rauchbier is a German-style lager brewed using beechwood-smoked malt, but McCready will not be confining his guest breweries to such parameters.

"I've just told them they need to bring a beer that is rauchbier-inspired, so there has to be some sort of smoky element to it," he says.

"We're not a bunch of German breweries, so we can go nuts with this theme. How they incorporate it is totally up to them."