Didn't French anthropology guru Claude Lévi-Strauss once divide the world into two radically opposed categories: the raw and the cooked? Even though the humble Neanderthals hadn't yet thought of algebra or dental floss, they were at least civilized enough to grill their haunches of mastodon over a roaring fire in good steakhouse fashion.
In previous centuries, most homemade beer probably had a smoky character because of the proximity of the malt to household fires. Although the smoking hearth has been replaced these days with an odorless screensaver, you can still get smoked beer. It's a specialty of the city of Bamberg in Germany, but the style has been revived by several adventuresome American craft brewers in recent years. It's an acquired taste, but one that's definitely worth acquiring. These brews can range from the subtly smoky to assertive versions that might make the uninitiated feel like a salmon trapped in a smokehouse. If you have any qualms about these brews, the simplest solution is to just try them.
Here is a trio of the best smoked beers available, representing three directions that brewing method can take. They make great sipping beers for cool autumn evenings, but serving them with food brings out even more of their complexity.
ALASKAN SMOKED PORTER ($3 per bottle)
Alaskan Brewing & Bottling Co. co-founder, president, and brewmaster Geoff Larson is probably the country's leading expert on smoked beers. Along with beer writer Ray Daniels, he recently authored a definitive book-length study called, simply, Smoked Beers.
Larson has a deeply historical approach to beer and can go on with great insight and at length about how and what people were drinking 200 years ago. He is also the mastermind behind what may be the most celebrated smoked beer produced in the New World - Alaskan Smoked Porter.