This week, a beer unlike anything you’ve tasted before will start flowing from taps around San Francisco. It’s a light, crisp, slightly sour wheat ale saturated with the taste and aroma of smoked oak.
This unusual brew, born centuries ago in the Polish town of Grodzisk, has virtually disappeared from the world of beer. But Thirsty Bear Brewing, Southpaw BBQ, and BrewLab SF united to recreate the style. All thanks to a little foot pedal-powered printing press at a garage in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset neighborhood.
Dave Johnson and Mark Sarigianis of Sharp Teeth Press love beer, so they decided to publish a handmade book called Why Beer Matters, from an extraordinary essay by beer writer Evan Rail. The book is gorgeous, a real labor of love. When Mark and Dave showed it to their friends at BrewLab SF, a local homebrewers’ collective, they decided to do something special to help share this book with the city.
When reading the essay, the BrewLab SF community was struck by a passage where Rail writes about a recently extinct beer style. About 20 years ago, a small brewhouse in Poland stopped brewing the last known version of Grödziskie, aka Grätzer, a once popular style best known for its copious amounts of oak-smoked wheat. “Let’s brew a Grätzer!,” they thought! Homebrewers love excuses to make weird beers.
The homebrewers hit the books, and soon discovered that they weren’t the only ones trying to bring back the mighty Grätzer. The beer has made its way into official beer style guidelines in the past couple of years, and at least one other US brewery has tried their hand at brewing one.
The beer is not without controversy, however. Do a bit of googling and you’ll soon discover incredibly heated debates about the style. “Is it a sour beer? How much oak-smoked wheat should be used? What sort of yeast should you ferment with?” BrewLab was intrigued, and so was the rest of the SF beer community.
BrewLab SF talked to Jim Withee, founder of a tiny brewing yeast startup called GigaYeast, who after much sleuthing, managed to isolate a promising yeast sample from a bottle a Grätzer brewed by a historical beer enthusiast in Germany.
(Jim Withee – Story photos by Matt Smith)
Phil Cutti, brewmaster at South Paw BBQ, also took an interest in the project. “The Grätzer project highlights the collaborative spirit of the SF brewing community,” said Cutti, who helped smoke about 200 lbs of malted wheat over oak on South Paw BBQ’s massive smoker. “An idea from the pages of a book was transformed into beer in a glass.”
(Elizabeth Wells & Phil Cutti in front of Southpaw BBQ’s smoker)
Brenden Dobel, brewmaster at Thirsty Bear Brewing Company, jumped at the opportunity to brew the final beer on his system. “I once lived in Baumburg, Germany, the home of smoked beers, and so have always had a palate for them,” said Dobel. “I loved the challenge of recreating a historically accurate beer style for San Francisco drinkers.”
Armed with the yeast, the wheat, and the brewhouse, some questions remained. What makes an authentic Grätzer? What would taste good to modern beer fans? Could an organic version be made at ThirstyBear, an all-organic brewery?
The BrewLab SF community was very enthusiastic, digging up ancient treatises on Grätzer yeast, translating polish news articles from the 1970’s, and proposing a dizzying array of Grätzer experiments. They made twelve different Grätzer batches, playing around with ABV, fermentation temperature, grain ratios, hop varieties, and yeast strains. Then they let the people decide, by hosting a tasting at BrewLab SF’s headquarters to get feedback.
Grätzer #5 was a big hit. It was a slightly more alcoholic version, clocking in at 3.8% ABV, with a generous helping of hops and a touch of acidulated malt to add a crisp sourness to the beer. The recipe was adapted for a larger volume, and after a long and winding road, ThirstyBear brewed San Francisco’s first commercial batch of Grätzer several weeks ago, along with Southpaw BBQ and BrewLab SF.
(Yeast being pitched at ThirstyBear Brewing)
“The Grätzer Project,” as it’s known, is a refreshing summer beer that challenges the palate and offers you something new. Hopefully buried somewhere in that oaky smoky aroma is a little whiff of the passion, historical knowhow, camaraderie, and hard work that so many SF brewers and beer fans put into The Grätzer Project.
(Brenden Dobel with BrewLab SF members Matt Smith, Ross Halligan & Sam Gilbert)
Want to try The Grätzer Project or buy a copy of Why Beer Matters, the book that inspired it all?
The beer’s first tapping will be at Southpaw BBQ on Thursday, September 12th at 5pm. Then ThirstyBear Brewing is hosting a release party at 5pm on Friday, September 13th, to help celebrate their 17th Anniversary. Sharp Teeth Press will be on hand at both parties with copies of Why Beer Matters for sale.
Sam Gilbert is a software engineer, home brewer, and co-founder of BrewLab SF, a home brewers’ collective dedicated to supporting the local homebrew scene and connecting home brewers to beer fans. BrewLab SF hosts a hackspace where brewers can come learn about home brewing and contribute to beer-related projects: growing hops, barrel-aging beer, making brewing equipment, and inventing new beer tech. Sam currently lives in the Mission with his BrewLab co-conspirator Matt Smith and their terminally apathetic cat, Porter.