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.
“For a time we thought about building a giant smokehouse out here to do it ourselves,” Scott said, chuckling.
Thankfully, Lalli has a solid relationship with the Weyermann malting company in Bamburg, Germany. The brewmaster emailed his contacts there with a request.
“As it happened, they were having a meeting about new product lines and things like that,” Scott said. “They replied right away, ‘Yeah, that's a great idea. It'll be on its way.'”
With yeast and malt in hand, the project was a full go.
“You can't do anything more to lend authenticity than get the yeast that's not available here in the states,” Scott said. “So we got the grain that's not available, the yeast's that's not available.”
Choc did not stop there. They profiled the water found in wells around the defunct brewery that produced Gratzer in the western Poland town of Grodzisk. (In the early 20th century, Grodzisk was referred to by the German name Gratz. The beer was called Gratzer, meaning “from Gratz.”)
As it turns out, Scott said, the water in Krebs is “relatively similar.” After a few small adjustments and mineral additions, Choc had the water.
The last of the four major beer ingredients, the hops, were a little easier to deal with. The traditional hop variety in Gratzer was called Nowotomyski. It was developed in the mid-1800s, but now “is not readily available on the world market,” Scott said. He selected Polish Lubliner hops based on their common ancestry and extended lineage.
The team even went so far as to meet Polish homebrewers after a brewing trade show in Germany. One of the homebrewers had interviewed an 85-year-old former Grodzisk brewery employee and was able to relay the production schedule for the beer. All that was left was actually brewing the Gratzer.
‘An unlikely scenario'
Watching Gratzer bubble and boil in a brew kettle, a thought occurs: If Gratzer's so great, why aren't they brewing it in Poland? Why is Choc doing it?
The answers are complicated and simple: The fall of the Iron Curtain, and it's just pretty cool to do something no one else is doing, respectively.
Scott combed over countless brewing texts and historical documents, translating from German to English to gain a complete understanding of the beer and its history.
“A hundred years ago, it was at the height of its fame,” he said. “It was exported to other countries and it was quite famous.
“After World War II, Poland fell into the Soviet sphere of influence,” Scott said. “After the wall fell … they associated the beer with the old regime. Everybody was looking forward and looking to things Western. The sales had been dropping down over some time, but that was sort of the final nail.”
In 1994, the Grodzisk brewery was bought by a competitor and closed.
Choc, meanwhile, is developing a reputation for reviving rare European beers. In 2011, they rolled out an obscure salty and tart German wheat beer called Gose (pronounce GOES-ah). Gratzer fit the profile of a unique challenge for the brew team.
“You can kind of get bogged down in your normal production routine,” Prichard, the brewery president, said. “So it's really important to try to create new beers, or try to revive beers, or just do different things that are a challenge for us technically — so we stay fresh and stay really interested in the process.”
Prichard said sales of the beer, which was released earlier this year, have been “great.”
“We are very pleased with the sales and quality,” he said. “If anything, it has exceeded our expectations.”
Lalli summed up the Gratzer mission succinctly.
“If you can put it together,” he said, “how can you not do stuff like that?”
Scott takes an altruistic view.
“We've inherited other rich brewing traditions,” he said. “It's been passed on by people whose names have been lost to history. A lot of those people have handed on and kept things for us to enjoy.
“So if you have the opportunity, why not do the same thing and pass it on to the next group of brewers and consumers.”
And what about the fact that a craft brewery in rural southeast Oklahoma could be responsible for the rebirth of a beer?
“It's an unlikely scenario,” Scott said. “But it doesn't really matter where, as long as it happens somewhere.”