KREBS — If you want to revive a rare Polish beer that has been commercially extinct for nearly 20 years, it helps to have the right people on your brew team.
Especially an avid homebrewer who speaks German and just happens to make vacation plans for Warsaw, Poland.
It's that serendipity that set Oklahoma's Choc Beer Co. down the path to recreating a traditional Gratzer beer — once the national beer of Poland, now a relic last commercially brewed in 1994.
“There were a whole bunch of things that had to come together to make it happen,” Choc Brewmaster Michael Lalli said.
Most importantly was Lalli's friendship with William Shawn Scott, the aforementioned homebrewer who adopted the Krebs brewery as a second beer-brewing home and whose knowledge and contacts made the project fly.
‘This was meant to be'
Scott is not on the Choc payroll, but he's as much part of the brewing team as anyone who is. Ask Choc President Zach Prichard if the Gratzer project would be possible without Scott, and the answer is simple.
Scott moved to McAlester several years ago to take a job as a logistics management specialist at the local U.S. Army ammunition plant. A regular homebrewer, Scott sought out the Choc brewery in the neighboring town of Krebs when he moved to Oklahoma. He knew where there were other brewers, there would be friends.
When the fall of 2011 rolled around, Choc was looking to add a beer to its Signature Series — a line of beers more complex and robust than the brewery's regular lineup of six-pack offerings. They stumbled on Gratzer (pronounced GREAT-sir) in a book on brewing with wheat.
To brew the clear, smoky, golden wheat ale as authentically as possible, the recipe called for wheat malt smoked over oak. Such an ingredient was not available commercially anywhere in the world. It also called for a specific strain of yeast not available in the United States.
Enter Scott, known as “Scotty” around the brewery, who went to work researching the brew, playing detective by crashing Polish homebrew forums.
“I discovered someone making mention of the original yeast,” Scott said. “I sent them an email and they put me on to another gentleman. They said you have to contact this guy.”
The guy, it turns out, happened to have a couple test tubes of the yeast used to make Gratzer decades earlier.
“I sent him an email and asked, ‘I'm a homebrewer, we're interested in this type of beer, does this yeast still exist?'” Scott said.
“He said, ‘Yeah, as a matter of fact, I have a couple extra slants here, how do I get it to Oklahoma?'
“I said, ‘Well, where do you live?'
“He said, ‘I live in Warsaw.'
“I said, ‘Well, that's lucky, because I'm going to be in Warsaw in two weeks on Friday.'”
Scott had planned to take his wife to Poland on vacation. Now the trip had another purpose.
“I get the sense that this was meant to be,” Scott said. “So many things have just fallen into place. It's just like, every single thing.”
Scott met the yeast supplier and made arrangements to have the samples sent to Choc's yeast lab in Colorado. The samples were checked for purity and cultured. Choc was a step closer to creating a faithful version of Gratzer. Still, there remained the issue of using wheat malt that didn't exist.
‘The real problem'
Despite the fact Gratzer has not been brewed commercially since 1994, the spirit of the beer has been kept alive. A couple American brew pubs or craft brewers have attempted limited-edition versions of the beer. And a group of Polish homebrewers create their own imitations each year for a contest there.
But creating a true and authentic replica? That required the correct malt.
“The real problem with making a Gratzer was you need smoked wheat malt,” Scott said. “That's kind of a technical difficulty. Up until now, the brewers had to kind of cheat a little bit on the recipe.”
Scott said brewers either would use smoked barley malt, which is unfaithful, or attempt to smoke wheat themselves, which is just plan difficult to do in a large quantity.