Rauchbier - Rauch is the German word for smoke. So a Rauchbier is quite simply a smoke beer.
Just the word Rauchbier evokes facial expressions with people when you talk about it. I've found that people are either pro-smoke beer or anti-smoke beer. There isn't much middle room for people. Even in Germany this type of beer seems odd to many German beer drinkers. Rauchbier is certainly one of my favorite types of beer. There is contention whether or not smoke beer is style or if just adding smoked malt to other styles makes this type of beer a base beer + smoked malts. I fall in the camp that thinks smoke beer is style all its own. Making a good rauchbier is actually a high art form. It isn't an easy style to make. Badly made smoke beers taste like drinking beer from a used ash try, but when this beer style is done correctly you get a beer with an amazing amount of character that pairs better with meat and BBQ than just about any beer on the face of the planet.
Rauchbier has an interesting story. Up until the mid 1700's and early 1800's most beer would have exhibited smokiness is varying form. The malt had to be dried, and until that point most malt was dried using a direct fire method. Many types of wood could be used, but often juniper, beech, or oak would have been used and using the direct fire method the malt would have taken on a smokey flavor when used in the drying process and then finally used in the brewing process. The industrial revolution and lower cost pale malt nearly killed smoke beers. After this point indirect coke fired kiln drying was used and smoke beers went away from just about everywhere in the world with the exception of a small town in the Franconian area of Germany. The city that kept smoke beers alive and well is Bamberg in Bavaria.
Much like the peat-smoked malt from Scotland that gives good Scotch a unique and delicious flavor this method still adds a very unique flavor you won't ever find in other beers.
Smoke beers can run the gamut of the smoke flavor wheel depending on the how the brewers wants to use the smoke malt. The smoke can range from a slight woody smokiness to an all out ham and bacon flavored smoked beer. Some brewers will only add some smoked malt to the grail bill, but the beers that carry the Aecht Schlenkerla name use 100% of the grain bill is smoked malt. That is the reason they will be the most intense of the smoke beers you are likely to run into. Smoke beers can also run from light amber colors to very dark brown. There are also some other types of smoke beers that are wheat smoked beers and those will be much lighter and more golden hue. The head will often be large and creamy with a slightly tan hue.
The flavors are going to pair amazingly well with many of the foods that are popular in the United States. BBQ, burgers, bacon, pork belly, grilled chicken, steak, any type of sausage, and smoked fish are going to pair well with this style. Believe it or not, this beer also pairs wonderfully with most Mexican food. I would challenge you to try this beer alone and then try it with one of those types of food. It will really make the beer and your food come together. They will compliment each other in a way that you don't often find in beer and food pairings. The smoke will draw out some of the caramelized food flavors, highlight spice flavors, and highlight good meat flavors. Just about anything you can buy from Claus' German Sausage and Meats over on Shelby is a candidate for this beer.
Bamberg is home to the most recognizable name in smoke beer: Aecht Schlenkerla by Brauerei Heller-Trum. This is the most recognizable smoke beer that is available here Indiana, and I would also say the world. They were my first introduction to smoke beer. They do a number of smoke beers that are available here in Indiana.
If we had a version of Bamberg here in Indiana that is keeping smoke beers alive and well it would be New Albanian in New Albany. They have made a number of really delicious smokes beers that I have tried. Smoked Abzug, Bonfire of the Valkyries, Imperial Bonfire of the Valkyries, Cone Smoker, and their newest version of a defunct Polish smoke beer Gratzilla. Gratzilla is a version of a Polish style called Gratzer that several US brewers are helping to revive. I had a few of them in Wisconsin recently, and if you enjoy smoke beers they are worth seeking out.
Other smoke beers I've know here in Indiana have been made by Lafayette Brewing Company, Three Floyds, Sun King, Upland did a version of an UPcup winner a few years back, and I feel like Mad Anthony has done one, but I couldn't verify that anywhere online.
You can not get it in Indiana, but if you ever see a bottle of Alaskan Brewing's smoked porter you should pick it up. That is another of my favorite smoke beers available here in the US.
You most likely are not going to see any of those very often, but you can get the Schlenkerla beers all over town, and if you make it down to New Albanian (and if you haven't you should treat yourself and head down there) to get smoke beer.
Don't be afraid of smoke beer, but give it a chance and try it with food.