When someone says they've re-created a recipe for a beer that dates back to the 15th century, it gets my attention. Leave it to Vintage Brewing Company brewmaster Scott Manning to reintroduce a beer style to the Madison area considered by many commercial brewers to be extinct: the Grätzer.
A Polish style of beer, the Grätzer is similar to a German hefeweizen, except that it's made with 100% oak-smoked malt. (Hefeweizens are at least 50% wheat malt, and have a much lower level of smokiness.) The style nearly vanished when the Grodziskie Brewery, known for making this beer, was sold to a competitor in the mid-1990s. Therefore, Manning's version of the brew has no contemporaries for comparison. Grätzer will surprise you with its firm, but light smoky character and dry hoppy finish. It's well suited to warm summer beer enjoyment, and is especially inviting on Vintage's new outdoor patio.
What is it? Grätzer from Vintage Brewing Company of Madison, Wisconsin.
Style: The Grätzer is an ale that can be traced back to the 1400s. Its name reflects its early beginnings in the town of Grodzisk (Grätz), which was then part of western Prussia. Made with smoked wheat malt, it has an assertive smoky aroma and flavor, and was a favorite in parts of northern Europe. Some historical references to the style suggest that originally it would have been amber-colored because of the techniques used to roast the wheat malt. It is a beer with low alcohol content (commonly less than 3% ABV).
Background: Scott Manning says he was encouraged by a college friend to make a Grätzer after the friend tasted several of Manning's unique brews, like Vintage's Sahti and Hibiscus Saison. Manning admits he was motivated by the challenge of making an obscure style of beer, including finding authentic ingredients. After locating oak-smoked wheat malt from the Weyermann malting company in Germany, he knew he would give it a try.
Manning would have liked to have used even more traditional raw materials, like Polish Marynka hops, but they were too difficult to acquire. Instead, he turned to Gorst Valley Hops in Mazomanie for advice about substituting English Northdown, German Tettnager and a touch of Czech Saaz. That combination of hops lends dryness, a hint of a spicy pepper-like quality, and an overall bitterness of about 38 IBUs. The beer is fermented with a Kölsch yeast strain, and it finishes around 4.4% ABV. Grätzer sells for $4.50/glass $10/growler (refill) at Vintage Brewing on the west side, and should be on tap for several weeks.
Vintage just opened up a new outside patio at its flagship west-side location that seats about 100 persons. And Manning is in the process of expanding his brewhaus with additional fermentation and cold storage, which should give him about 75% more production capacity.
- Aroma: The smokiness is light, but firm in the nose. There is just a hint of a grainy-maltiness, but this beer is ultimately all about the smoke.
- Appearance: A bright yellow-golden color, with a soft white head. It was first offered in early July and over a couple of weeks in the serving tanks it brightened and clarified.
- Texture: Light- to medium-bodied, crisp and bubbly. The dry flavor tones are complemented by a light, dry mouthfeel in the finish.
- Taste: Starts with sharp, crispy citrus tones, but it doesn't take long for the smokiness to take over.
- Finish/Aftertaste: The dryness stands out, accentuating the smokiness.
Glassware: Vintage serves Grätzer in a footed pilsner glass, which is a great way to enjoy its bright golden color and effervescence.
Pairs well with: Vintage waitstaff may encourage you to enjoy Grätzer with a German sausage like knackwurst, but I found a better companion in the corn chowder and a sandwich of pastrami on rye.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four).
The Verdict: Vintage Grätzer falls between the clean crispness of a Kölsch and the wheatiness of a Hefeweizen, all wrapped in smoke. The beer has smokiness throughout, like a campfire of aroma and flavor that's firm but not overwhelming. The smoke is central to the flavor profile, yet not overwhelming like some German Rauchbiers, which can leave the impression that the wort was filtered through an ashtray.
I enjoyed this beer because it has body from the wheat malt, a clean hint of fruitiness from the Kölsch yeast, and hoppy dryness in the finish. Smoky beers are not for everyone, and I'm one of those who shy away from them. However, this Grätzer brought me back to Vintage for a second and then a third visit because I appreciate a crisp beer with unique character and history -- simply smaczny (Polish, meaning delicious) on a summer day. So hoist one high and na zdrowie!