Weird ingredients are in the air. Literally! Wild yeasts and bacteria are floating around, hoping to land on some sugar to they can eat it and reproduce. But that’s not important right now. It may be because of the 92 pumpkin & spice beers that have hit the shelves in the last few weeks (not to mention the ever-punctual Deschutes Jubelale), but it’s time to have a style talk inspired by a beer on The Bier Stein’s taplist right now. This one is about a virtually unknown traditional style that originated in Poland in the 18th century, and survived by the skin of its teeth due to intrepid and curious brewers: Grodziskie, or Gratzer in German.
Generally the terms “smoked” and “sour” are kept separate, and for good reason; we’re accustomed to the bold flavors associated with these words. Smoked sausage and sauerkraut for dinner? Yes. Campfire and fruity barnyard in a glass? Not so much. But the Poles made a refreshing, light, drinkable ale using the nuances of smoked wheat and sour mash technique.
A brief section of beer history: Old-world malting involved wood fires that would invariably impart a level of smokiness to the finished product (beer). Today, the Rauchbiers of Bamberg, Germany are the archetype, and exhibit intense woody, almost bacony, smoke flavors and aromas. Pale malts were a later development in brewing history (early-mid 1800s), but quickly gained popular demand– wheat malt kilned to a very light color would take on much less smoke character than the Bamberg rauch malts. And on a more technical note, beers brewed using all pale malt have a slightly higher pH than is optimal for the enzymes to convert the starches in malt to fermentable sugars, so a sour mash would help reduce the amount of unfermentable sugars, and produce a drier beer.
Dr. Fritz Briem is a professor at Doemen’s University, the brewing university in Friesing, Germany (where Weihenstephan is located). He has brewed a few historical styles to great effect: the intensely tart 1809 Berliner Weisse and sprightly herbal Gruit. The Piwo Grodziskie is brewed with barley malt and beech smoked wheat and sour mashed, where a portion of the grist (grains to be mashed) is inoculated in advance with lactobacillus and kept around 110-120F until the pH drops to the desired level, then added into the main mash. This method allows a brewer to make sour beer without infecting any fermentors, and brings out a smoother, more stable tartness in the finished beer.
As our keg of the Grodziskie is close to empty, some tasting notes are in order:
It is not as smoky as one would think. Nor as sour. It pours pretty foamy, and some light phenol and lemon notes roll out, with an undertone of grain. The body is initially light, though a low aftershock of smoke lingers. It’s a very unique notion. The only other interpretation I’ve seen was brewed by Nate Sampson at Eugene City Brewery a couple years ago. He used 100% smoked wheat and bittered it to 40 IBU, but it was still light, shockingly light, and tingly. Get it while you can, if for nothing else than a one-of-a-kind experience.