Beer making, through the centuries, clearly provides a history of the industrial evolution of mankind. Today's method of malting the sprouted grains of barley and wheat is a high-tech process. Turn back time and it was once a crude farmyard process. Starting with germinating the stored grains, the moist growing heads of grain would be placed over a wood fire, closely watched, and stirred frequently. The objective was to take the malt off the smoke at the right time. "Nailing it" meant the the malt would be perfectly dried. Too much heat, or a few minutes too long over the smoke, and the malt would become overly caramelized or even burn to ashes. Beers made from this direct-fired malting process of utilizing nothing more than a campfire would certainly have had a recognizable smoky character. Today, malt that is dried over smoke-filled heat is a specialty, and has a rather limited fan base. The German Rauchbier (“smoke beer”), however, remains a traditional favorite, especially by those who appreciate the ancient methods of beer making and want a real taste of what a beer was a few hundred years ago.
We love the history of Rauchbier, but must admit that we cook with it a lot more than we drink it. Many years ago, during a brew day here on the farm, we made our first Rauchbier using malt that was smoked over cherry wood. Sourced from our own Wisconsin maltster, Briess, we immediately detected a lot more smoke aroma than expected. A typical error of applying the dangerous methodology that “if a little is good, a lot is better.” Nonetheless, the wort would still be fermented into beer, cold crashed like all of our lagers, and bottled a couple months later. After another week or two, opening one of these bottles reminded us of sitting too close to a huge smoldering fire of corn cobs, and having the perfume of an autumn bonfire stick like glue to your hair and clothes. Not pleasant for sitting next to company, and certainly not pleasant to drink.
Our family's own Rauchbier seemed more appropriate for a different use than drinking. We found our heavily smoky substance to be an excellent choice for cooking dishes where smokey character is expected. Yes, adding a little of our Rauchbier to sauces, marinades and a gravy was a no-brainer. Adding it to our grilled onions and reducing it to become a close cousin of a caramelized jelly, was an unanticipated success. Rauchbier can chicken is a great choice, too.
The first signs of appreciation for our grilled onion condiment was from a party of educators. But it was the end of the school year party so the mood made anything taste good.
OG's Wisconsin style smoked bratwurst with Rauchbier onions is close to a state tradition commonly found at family gatherings and tailgating. Instead of finishing the bratwurst in a kettle of beer, onions and butter, we omit the poaching process and develop a topping with the same ingredients. The result is a bolder profile of sweet, creamy, and a little bitter. A much stronger contribution coming from the smoked beer. To add some added sweetness and texture to the smoke, we top the sausage with OG's mustard seed relish.
Beer pairing suggestion: A fine Schwarzbier ("black beer"). Our family's recipe is creamy yet moderately light in body. The German ingredients and the German lager yeast is sure to develop a crisp and well-balanced beer. It clearly finishes with a distinct roasty-coffee profile that works well with the complexity of smoked meats. Our dark lager also is appropriate for other foods with bold flavors, like our cheese plate, featuring some fine Wisconsin aged products that bring the sweet and sometimes slightly bitter characteristics of the smoke house. Like all of the lagers we have brewed on our farmstead, our Schwarzbier is made for the dinner table and the company surrounding it.
BTW, yes, that is a Sheboygan style bun we serve. More about the West Side
Bakery sometime in the future.
Rauchbier grilled onions
Ingredients (a little more or a little less):
3 lbs. sweet onions
1 stick unsalted butter (Please note the photo above incorrectly shows 2 sticks! Even 1 stick of butter and all of its naturally rich beauty can be reduced by half if you wish)
1 beef bouillon cube (optional)
3/4 cup beer or water (we use 1/2 cup of our family's very strong smoked farmstead lager and 1/4 cup water)
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
1. Remove outer onion skin and slice the onions. We use a mandoline set to the thickest slicing option. Too thin and they will turn to mush. Place in a bowl and toss onion slices with some Kosher salt, sit for 15 minutes, and drain. This step helps the onions shed some moisture and develop some color when you cook them.
2. Grill the onions over moderate heat until they start showing some brown color. We use a stainless steel grilling basket. Usually takes about about 15 minutes. Remove from grill.
3. In a separate skillet, melt one stick of butter over medium heat. Add onions, cook for about 3 minutes.
4. Heat your liquid (beer, water or combination) and add beef bouillon cube. Mix to dissolve.
5. Add liquid to onions and cook until onions become thick and start to carmelize. Remove from heat.
Serve warm, as a side or as a condiment to your grilled meats.