The Path to Grodziskie

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I had a few beers late last year with Todd and Jason Alstrom from Beer Advocate and talk turned to the Extreme Beer Fest (EBF). Todd spoke about Extreme Session Beer as the theme for 2011, where beers would be made with innovative /unique processes or ingredients AND be under 5% ABV.  Needless to say I was very happy that some love and attention was being shown for the much maligned session beer.

Well cool, I’m all in for this extreme session beer challenge. I go on to talk with the Alstroms about a true Berliner Weisse beer where no boil is used, thereby allowing the lactobacillus present on the malt to do it’s thing in the fermenter. Seems pretty extreme in process to me, and a nice creative and technical challenge to keep me up at night. I get excited, I want in on this EBF thing.

But in the days after this meeting, I got thinking about another style – a dormant beer style from Poland named after the town of Grodzisk and not brewed since the mid 1990’s. Some know this style from the German occupation name of Gratz (hence Gratzer beer), but let’s not reward the Germans. This beer is Polish and I’m Polish – so it’s Grodziskie. Grodziskie is a beer made from 100% smoked wheat malt, very low ABV, very high hop character, fermented with an ale yeast, and served unfiltered yet with out yeast turbidity. All of this was in my brewing capabilities – except the smoked wheat malt. I realize the path will not be a straight line.

I discovered that the smoked wheat malt is not commercially available from any malt house in the world. True Grodziskie involves oak smoking green wheat (steeped and germinated wheat) while being dried and kilned. Some brewers have taken a shot at this style, substituting smoked barley malt for the wheat, or smoking wheat malt in a BBQ. While I salute the effort due to lack of options, I really wanted to do this in an authentic and traditional manner. Maybe it’s my reverence for low gravity beers, but it’s really based on trying to revive a style indigenous to Poland that has me on the authenticity path. I thought it may be impossible to capture the real Grodziskie, and then I stumbled on Valley Malt when I heard Wormtown Brewing was using their grain.

Valley Malt began its malting operations last year in Hadley, Massachusetts. The owners are appropriately situated in the Pioneer Valley, because they are truly doing something new and unique. In a small barn, the operation has been malting locally grown organic barley, wheat, spelt, triticale and other grains from area farms. And after a few discussion with Andrea Stanley about the possibility of smoking wheat malt, they were all in. I just so happened to find a kindred spirit with Polish ancestry to help me on this path to Grodziskie.

Some challenges would need to be overcome. Valley Malt had not yet set up smoking equipment capable of providing the amount of malt I would require, nor had they ever smoked any type of malt which would be used as a base malt. But that did not stop them. Just after Christmas last year I got an email from Andrea that read “…just went out to Lee today a bought a stainless tank off of some guy and Christian worked out the design on this smoker unit last night.” I knew these were the type of people I wanted to support. I was all in for this highly fun project, but success or completion was uncertain.

And then the email came regarding Extreme Beer Fest. I was not on the invite list for participating brewers, as invites go to “brewers known for brewing extreme beers.” And it didn’t surprise me, as I understand I am the new kid on the block (at the same time being from the old school). We built our reputation at the Tremont Brewery on well balanced beers and were quick to call out extreme beers as gimmicks. So I had this coming to me. But I was too far down the path to Grodziskie to turn back.

So a test malting / smoking happened in January, and I drove to Hadley on a Friday to pick-up the smoked wheat malt and tour the malt house. I learned much about the challenge of holding the correct temperature while smoking the wheat, ensuring enzymes will be present and the malt has adequate diastatic power. I also told Andrea that I never knew that barley was grown in the Connecticut River Valley. She replied that as of recently it hadn’t been. They found farmers willing to grow it, bought the seed for them, and then worked with them to grow it – organically. Think about that for a little bit, and ponder what one malt house supplying local brewers can do for Massachusetts agriculture. Valley Malt is the real deal.

Driving back from Valley Malt into Boston for a promotion later that night, my car was filled with smoked wheat goodness. That Sunday I gathered up a local homebrew contingent (who all volunteer for NERAX) and tested this malt out. There was much to discover – diastatic power, yield, crush, runoff issues – and maybe the most important, how does Grodziskie taste? Is it in the dustbin of history for a reason? Well, it’s been one week in the fermenter, and I should have some sense of what this beer tastes like in another week. And then I can make the decision if this beer can scale to a commercial brewery, with commercial potential. With no captive audience to rely on at EBF, this beer will need to be sold to bars, and willingly purchased by craft beer fans. Something to ponder while I  gear up for the bottle release of Session Ale and Pils later this month. Sleepless nights are becoming common.

The Path to Grodziskie – to be continued. You can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook (click the buttons below) for more frequent Grodziskie tales.

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