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Smoke signals: Grodziskie is back

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The nearly extinct Grodziskie is slowly coming back, and it’s the brewer’s best guess at how it should taste.

Perhaps beer brewed in the manner of Grodziskie, a style also called Grätzer, should come with a disclaimer.

Sure, it pairs quite nicely with a smoked kielbasa, known as Polish sausage in America though there are hundreds of varieties in their home country. And sure, it was described as Polish Champagne when sold at premium prices in far-flung countries at the beginning of the 20th century. These beers are full of flavor, not particularly full of alcohol, refreshing and gentle on the palate because they are brewed with up to 100 percent wheat. However, that wheat is smoked during malting, and few flavors in beer are more polarizing than smoke.

“You have to get used to it,” says Andreas Richter, quality manager at Weyermann Specialty Malting Co. in Bamberg, Germany, the world’s largest supplier of smoked malt. Richter had never tasted a smoked beer himself before moving to Bamberg from Munich 16 years ago. “Most people decide, ‘I like it or I do not like it.’”

Grodziskie is one of several Northern European wheat-based beers that fell from favor or even disappeared during the second half of the 20th century and is being revived today, some in their native habitat and more in the United States. Unlike Berliner Weisse, Lichtenhainer and Gose, which were all sour, Grodziskie was always known for its oak-smoked aroma and flavor, and often for its hop character.

A German technical brewing book published in 1914 described it as a “rough, bitter beer… with an intense smoke and hop flavor.” The beer simply named Grätzer that is part of the Samuel Adams LongShot six-pack released in May is not quite that intimidating, but it is a reminder that most beers tasted of smoke before the invention of indirectly fired kilns just a few hundred years ago.

Breweries previously made their beers with malt dried over open fires, their flavors reflecting the type of wood used. In Bamberg that was beechwood, and in Grodzisk, oak. Two beers from Schlenkerla in Bamberg, which still dries its own malt over a wood fire, illustrate the difference. The brewery’s well-known Rauchbier Märzen is a bold expression of beechwood, often described as baconlike or hammy. Helles Bock, the only one it makes with oak-smoked barley malt, is just as obviously smoky, but leaves a sweeter, fruitier, less meaty impression.

The Grodziskie style is also known as Grätzer because the Prussians renamed the town of Grodzisk—located about halfway between Berlin and Warsaw—Grätz in the 19th century after Poland was partitioned, its independence lost for 123 years. The once-popular style languished during Soviet occupation following World War II, seemingly lost forever after the last brewery in Grodzisk closed in 1993. It might be only an oddity today, made occasionally by homebrewers or at small breweries, had the Polish Homebrewers Association not formed the Commission for the Revival of the Grätzer Beer. The commission played a key role in a series of events beginning in 2011 that made information about brewing the beer and key ingredients more readily available.

Homebrewer Cesar Marron tapped into that indirectly when he brewed a beer he called Grätzer, entering it in the 2013 Samuel Adams LongShot American Homebrew Contest. It was chosen to be one of three selections in the 2014 LongShot six-pack, exposing a single Grodziskie to its broadest audience since some time before World War II.

Marron’s recipe for a low-alcohol beer with apparent but not aggressive smoke and hop character perfectly matches the guidelines the commission for revival established. Brewing records from the late 19th century indicate Grodziskie may have been more bitter tasting at that time, but the commission chose to describe a beer former brewery workers could identify. “If we want to reconstruct Grodziskie, we have to rely on the beer produced 10 or 20 years before the brewery closed,” says Jan Szala, one of its members.

Brewers elsewhere haven’t necessarily taken the same approach. Professor Fritz Briem in Germany commissioned a Grodziskie that is made with beechwood-smoked malt and is intentionally sour, although no historical brewing records in Poland or Germany mention sour versions. Like other beers in New Belgium’s Lip of Faith Series, Grätzer Ale (made in collaboration with Three Floyds) finishes sour. The beer contains 4.5% alcohol, but Three Floyds head brewer Chris Boggess says the plan is to eventually brew an “imperial” variation at Three Floyds that might be twice as strong.

Drinkers aren’t always sure what to expect. Westbrook Brewing’s Gose is properly sour and one of its most popular beers. When the brewery released Grätzer, some customers thought it was meant to be a variation on the Gose, and were surprised to find smoke when they expected sour notes and a touch of coriander and salt.

Krzysztof Panek, one of the principals in a group renovating Grodzisk’s last brewery with plans to begin brewing by next spring, is philosophical about trying to pluck a beer from a single moment of its history. “Nobody knows exactly,” he says. “There is an image more than a reality.”

It would seem the commission for revival has accomplished its mission. Several new, small Polish breweries are making Grodziskie, and soon it will be brewed in Grodzisk itself. Quite honestly, beers with bigger and bolder flavors are the ones generating interest among a new wave of drinkers. Andrzej Sadownik, another member of the commission who’s sometimes referred to as the godfather of Polish homebrewing, says that it is understandable and appropriate.

“[Grodziskie] will increase the variety by only 2 percent,” he says. “But brewing it would be a matter of our national brewing pride.”

4 TO TRY: American Grodziskies are all smoky and sessionable, but that’s where the similarities end. White Birch First Sparrow exudes cigar smoke and perfume; ash and fruit ride a 3.8%-ABV, tight-bubbled swallow. At 3.4%-ABV, Westbrook Grätzer goes down easy, ornamenting lemony wheat with subtle must and a smoldering fireplace note. Samuel Adams LongShot Grätzer is equally drinkable, though with porklike smoke and a plumper ABV at 4.4%. Blind Bat Vlad the Inhaler is one of the few sour versions; oaky smoke in the finish clings to must and vinegary sourness.

 

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