Redefining Rauchbier

A Northern California twist on the classic German Style

The beginning of any brewery’s life is a special time: it’s an intoxicating flurry of hope, optimism, fear, and panic. I think this nervous, frenetic energy is the perfect environment for creativity. It’s no surprise, then, that this is the environment in which Manzanita was born. The beer, our take on the classic German rauchbier, will be available in cans in Northern California and the Los Angeles area for the first time starting October 31st until the end of 2017.

But initially, Manzanita was just an experiment: a collaboration between Fort Point and Sebastian Sauer, the German brewer behind the esoteric breweries Freigeist and Monarchy of Musselland.

The idea for a collaboration beer was brought up a few months before Fort Point opened, while I was still at Mill Valley Beerworks in 2013. Sebastian was going to be in California in January, and a friend of mine at Shelton Brothers suggested we do something together. I was, and still am, a big fan of the Freigeist and Monarchy beers, particularly their smoky beers and goses — there’s a strong sense of freedom and experimentation in them. Lots of brewers in America were starting to do interesting things with fruits, spices, and hybrid styles, but Sebastian was always one step ahead, retaining that elegance and balance that’s too often the first casualty of “weird” beer.

I wrote a long-winded and awkward email introducing myself and explaining what I was up to at Beerworks and Fort Point. I was hoping to brew something smoky that incorporated local ingredients. We had been working on a series of botanical beers at Beerworks at the time, and I thought that something herbal or woody would dovetail nicely into some of the beers Sebastian had been brewing. One ingredient I’d had on my mind for a while was manzanita wood.

I was on a hike near Mendocino the first time I considered incorporating manzanita into beer — all the woody, forest-y aromas combined with the striking color and twisting branches of the tree resonated with me. After doing a little research, I learned that native people would use the wood and berries to create a tart, refreshing beverage. At the time, I thought the tannins of the wood would do well in a barleywine and help dry out the sweetness from the heavy malt bill. That barleywine never came to be, but the manzanita idea still lingered in my mind.

I mentioned it to Sebastian, and he was intrigued. That set off a series of experiments to try and extract an interesting flavor out of the wood.

Mike and Sebastian starting off the brewing process for the first batch of Manzanita in 2014.

First I tried steeping it in water and beer at different temperatures to get a feel for what it would do. The answer was not much. The aroma from just plain wood was stale — a cross between an old cabin and an aquarium. This made me a little panicked. For whatever reason (desperation, disgust, anger)I lit the wood on fire. At this moment, everything came together. The aroma was bright, herbal, smoky (obviously), and most of all, recalled a sense of time and place. I reported the results and we agreed on a recipe for a darker beer that would feature about 25 percent beechwood smoked malt. The initial recipe called for around 40 percent, but in the interest of balance we stepped it down. Plans were set for an early January brew day and I got back to work on the impending Fort Point opening.

When brewers are using ingredients like wood or herbs to flavor beer, they typically want to maximize the surface area of the ingredient to get the most efficient extraction. My initial idea was to use manzanita wood chips, thinking we’d need fewer and be able to more accurately control the amount of flavor they imparted.

But it turns out that manzanita chips are real hard to buy — so my next thought was to make them. Surely I could just rent a wood chipper, throw those logs inside, and have all the manzanita chips I would need. Strike two. We had a week before brew day, and I learned that wood chippers were expensive; it was kind of like bringing a tank to a knife fight. Next idea: use a chop saw! Two broken blades later, that idea was abandoned (manzanita is incredibly dense).

I was left with whole logs and a distinct worry that there would not be enough smoke flavor in this beer. The goal was always for overall balance, but I was unsure if the smoked malt would overpower the delicate, herbal, campfire-esque aromas that the wood provided.

The brew day arrived. It was a typical January morning under the Golden Gate Bridge — cold and overcast with a blanket of fog surrounding us. My favorite brewing weather. We charred the logs over a fire at the picnic area by the pier, and at the end of the boil, lowered eight of them into the kettle. As soon as they hit the wort, the brew deck was filled with this amazingly sweet campfire aroma. It turned out that the logs were just the right size: anything more would have pushed the balance the other way.

After two weeks of relatively cool fermentation, the beer was finished. It was dry, with a clean malt flavor — slightly roasty, slightly smoky. The smoke flavor was a mix of savory barbeque and piney, perfumey campfire. I thought we really hit the balance. A lot of rauchbiers can come off as intense and cloying if you haven’t had them before. One of the goals in brewing Manzanita was to make an accessible smoked beer — something that would hopefully encourage people to explore the style.

Manzanita brew day is one of my favorite times to be in the brewery. The smell is incredible, and all that wood charring is the perfect excuse for a barbeque lunch. Even as the brewery grows, machines break, and the business becomes more complicated than ever, that smoky aroma reminds me why I got into all this in the first place.


Mike Schnebeck is the head brewer at Fort Point Beer Company.

Curious about the origin of our other beers? Read about how KSA came to be in our blog post here, or the story of another of our seasonal beers, Resonance, here.