Grätzer is actually indigenous to Poland, where it was known as grodziskie. Grätz was the German name for the town Grodzisk, which was, for a little over a hundred years, part of Prussia. But the beer style both pre- and post-dated Prussia, and was in fact still brewed in Poland until the 1990s. Grodzisk was a major center of brewing, and at the end of the 18th Century, boasted 53 brewers.
One of the famous local products in that old-school Beervana was a beer made entirely of smoked wheat malt. The indispensable scholar (and Grätz enthusiast) Ron Pattinson retrieved this information for our edification:
"Grätzer Bier, a rough, bitter beer, brewed from 100% wheat malt with an intense smoke and hop flavour. The green malt undergoes smoking during virtually the whole drying process, is highly dried and has a strong aroma in addition to the smoked flavour. An infusion mash is employed. Hopping rate: for 1 Zentner (100 kg) of malt, 3 kg hops. Gravity just 7º [Plato]. Fermentation is carried out in tuns at a temperature of 15 to 20º C."In brief, the passage highlights a few key points: in addition to being brewed entirely of smoked wheat, the beer is small (1.028; less than 3% ABV) and aggressively hoppy. Although it was fermented cool (60-68 degrees), it was an ale. Also interesting: the beer is hopped during the mash.
--“Bierbrauerei" by M. Krandauer, 1914, page 301.
Stan Hieronymus, writing in Brewing With Wheat, tracked down homebrewer Kristen England who, after chatting with Pattinson, brewed his own Grätzer. It became one of his favorites. England told Hieronymus, "The amount of smoke and hop in this very low-gravity beer is absolutely massive."
Fascinating stuff, and certainly something that should pique interest in more minds than just Ron Pattinson's. Aggressively hoppy, intense flavors--the style may date back 600 years, but it sounds pretty contemporary to me.
The greatest barrier to brewing Grätzers is not incidental: no one produces smoked wheat malt commercially. This means a brewery either has to smoke its own malt or improvise. Edmunds improvised, using regular smoked malt. In fact, his is an all-barley version, employing Munich and pilsner malt along with the smoked. (To head off howls from uber-geeks, he admits the obvious: "this is not an historical recreation of grätzer, but rather a re-imagination.")
Ben studied brewing in German, and when he consulted historical descriptions, found mention of an apple note. Instead of vibrant hopping, he decided to spice the beer to evoke that apple character, and added cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. He also blanched at the historically tiny OG and boosted it to 1.046--leaving a beer of relatively robust 4.4% abv.
The spice dominated the palate, which was light and quaffable, but only mildly smoky. Hops also fell back. It was actually quite a nice beer, but quite a bit different than my expectations.
A Grätzer Revival?
Given the difficulty smoking wheat malt, it's a bit hard to imagine grätzer emerging an even minor trend. Hieronymus cites a collaboration between Yards and Iron Hill where the brewers smoked some of their malt, but so far as I know, no one has made a fully traditional grätzer. Perhaps a nanobrewery will attempt it. In the meantime, it may be that the style remains solely the purview of homebrewers. I'll confess that after tasting Ben's version, I did a Google search to see how hard it is to smoke malt. At 1.028, we're only talking about five pounds--how hard can it be?