Asheville, North Carolina, is a town of fewer than 100,000 people, but the town and its surrounding area are home to dozens of breweries, some of which are among the country’s best. So if you’re one of these small breweries looking to stand out when Asheville Beer Week rolls around, you have to get creative and try something no one else has done … like releasing a four-pack of “forgotten” beer styles that include an 1750s-era October beer; an Arctic ale circa 1880; a grodziskie; and a kotbusser.
“For us, it’s a way of us being apart from the 30 other breweries in Asheville,” says Zebulon Artisan Ales brewer and cofounder Mike Karnowski, who runs the brewery with his wife, Gabe. The brewery is located just outside Asheville in Weaverville, North Carolina. “At our heart, Zebulon is more of a Belgian farmhouse-style brewery, but we do try to have historical English beers on cask. I think they’re important.”
The four-packs of ancient styles, dubbed “RELICS! Lost and Forgotten Beer Styles,” debuted during this past Asheville Beer Week (May 26-June 3), though some remain for sale at the brewery. The project is a collaboration with British beer historian Ron Pattinson, author of “The Home Brewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer: Rediscovered Recipes for Classic Brews,” who also partnered with Karnowski on events including a lecture on the evolution of English milds at Karnowski’s former employer, Green Man Brewing.
Pattinson was responsible for much of the research that went into exploring these historic styles and their ingredients; Karnowski was then tasked with brewing four unfamiliar and demanding recipes.
“I just wanted all four beers to be ready at the same time,” he says. “If one beer wasn’t right, the whole four-pack would fall apart. We’re only a 1,400-square-foot brewery here, so logistically it was a real nightmare. The Arctic ale was a huge thorn in my side. I had to brew it twice because it’s a huge beer, and it just wouldn’t ferment properly. It didn’t carbonate in the bottle, so we had to uncork and uncage 400 bottles just a couple weeks before this thing’s coming out.”
In the end, all four beers did turn out the way Karnowski had intended, though he doesn’t have plans to make these strange creations permanent fixtures any time soon.
“I think they’re important, but I wouldn’t try to become a historical beer brewery. I don’t think there’s a market for that,” he says.
So will drinkers in 2017 actually enjoy these ancient styles, or are they more of a thought experiment?
“Most of these are one-and-done beers; I’m fine with that. They’re beers from the past, not modern beers. For me, being able to taste what an IPA tasted like 100 years ago is valid even if it doesn’t hold up as an IPA today,” Zarnowski says. “It’s like watching silent, black-and-white movies.”
Here, his breakdown of the specific beers in the RELICS! four-pack:
Arctic ale, circa 1880
“That was brewed for Arctic expeditions in the 1800s, and it was made really strong so it wouldn’t freeze. There are lots of fun descriptions from the captains of these Arctic ships about how they left the beer out at -40 degrees and it didn’t freeze for 12 hours. It was also a food source for them, so it was high-calorie. Ron had the fun opportunity to drink an actual 146-year-old Arctic ale and he said it held up pretty well. That’s intriguing to me, with beer’s shelf life these days being three to five weeks, to make beer that could last decades is a fun challenge. The Arctic ale is just a dark, really strong beer; it’s easier to think of it as a dark barleywine, but with no roasted malt, just dark sugar syrup. Because there’s no roast at all, that makes it really different than an imperial stout.”
DRAFT tasting notes: The nose leads with huge fig and grape jelly scents with hints of cocoa, dark rum, brown bread and perceptible alcohol. The same figgy, raisiny dark fruit character leads the sip, but with a subtly herbal bay leaf accent. The back end is all booze, as alcohol flavor and heat surge at the swallow. Scorched sugar bitterness settles in afterward. We can definitely see how it would be comforting on a subzero expedition.
October beer, circa 1750
“Back in the 1700s, there wasn’t much commercial brewing; it was all sort of estate brewing. There’s a lot of competition amongst these guys to make the strongest beer they could and age it for a long time. It wasn’t uncommon for them to be hanging out with fellow landowners and break out a beer that was 26 years old. In October, the new malt and hop crop would come out and they’d make the biggest beer they could. We know for a five-gallon batch, they used 50 pounds of malt, so they were just huge beers with tons of hops. Ours came to 188 IBU, and trying to get that out of just Golding hops was no fun. But then the beers aged for so long, the hops probably dropped off. They were barrel-aged and Brettanomyces would have definitely come into play. Brett chomps on the sugar and dries it out; ours spent eight months in wine barrels with Brett slowly chomping away with it. An October beer is so hard to pigeonhole. It’s giant like an imperial barleywine at 12% and really hoppy, which is OK for an American barleywine, but this is all English hops, and it’s funky and barrel-aged. I wouldn’t doubt that someone is making an imperial Brett barleywine and thinking it’s new but, nope, someone did it 300 years ago.”
DRAFT tasting notes: Brettanomyces’ footprint is all over this beer’s aroma: Pineapple and pear syrup swirl amid sweet lavender and a soft hint of balsamic vinegar are supported by a base of caramel and strawberries. Flavors are less clearly defined as pineapple, bread crust, dry hay and a hint of vinegary acidity swirl together. The alcohol is smooth and well hidden, but the finish is heavily, harshly bitter.
“A lot of historic beers are named after towns they’re from. Kotbusser is from a German town called Kotbuss, and it’s a relative of Berliner weisse. Back in the day, the Germans made weiss beer but it didn’t mean wheat beer, it meant low alcohol, light-colored beers as opposed to darker, sweeter beers. Regional variations in Kotbuss were made with oats and some honey, which was pretty unusual for the time. The oats add a cool mouthfeel to it to balance the tartness. Sometimes a Berliner weisse is just sour and that’s all there is to it; this nice oat mouthfeel and slight character of local honey we use adds complexity to an an otherwise tart wheat beer. It’s just a subtle variation.”
DRAFT tasting notes: This aroma’s nearly ciderlike, dominated by sliced red apples atop a cereal graininess and just a nudge of lactic twang. On the tongue, gentle fruit, like apple juice and pear, weave between dried wheat bread slices and a hint of sourdough. The tartness is mild, a pleasant snap that connects to the front fruitiness before a cucumber-water finish. It’s pleasantly sweet and light on the palate, probably our favorite of the four beers.
“This style is also known as Gratzer, depending on what the town it was from was known as at the time. Since it was right on the Polish border it would change hands between different countries. I think it’s an interesting style, and I’ve seen it done really badly. Sometimes I want to do something because everyone else isn’t doing it right. It should be a super refreshing, hoppy, very effervescent almost-a-pilsner, but with 100-percent smoked wheat malt. It’s a head-scratcher as you’re drinking it; we’re used to smoky porters and stouts, but a 3.5% smoky, hoppy beer? It’s a great summer quaffer. But smoke seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it flavor. I’m not surprised to see it be polarizing.”
DRAFT tasting notes: We love this aroma: It’s like ciabatta bread baked over a wood fire, emitting smooth but bold smoke character and supportive breadiness with hints of lemon and Red Delicious apple. The flavor has all of the aroma’s components, but in a much more mild dosage. Neither the smoke character nor the breadiness are anywhere near as prominent as they are in the nose, though the sliced apple note is still there.