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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Flat Tail Goes the Full Grätzer

Post Updated with exciting new info--see below.

Over the weekend, I made a trek down to Corvallis--a relatively short jaunt for the average person, but an enormous odyssey for someone who finds even cross-town travel a trial.
My target: the first fully-authentic grätzer brewed by an American craft brewery (or anyway, one near enough to me to know about).  We have seen evocations of the extinct style around town--Ben Edmunds and Jason McAdam have made smoky wheat beers.  But a real grätzer?  They're a bit more radical:
"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."
There were two reasons no one had made this style of beer before: 1) it sounds crazy to make "a rough, bitter beer  with an intense smoke and hop flavour" that had died out, obviously for lack of love, and also 2) smoked wheat malt has not been commercially available.  Well, a few weeks back, Weyermann rectified issue two, releasing oak-smoked wheat, and Flat Tail's experimental brewer Dave Marliave decided to go all-in.  (Indeed, he got in so early he paid some crazy amount of money for the first lots Weyermann released, only to see the price of smoked wheat plummet after he placed his order.  Punished for his enthusiasm--terrible.)

Dave's Grätzer uses 96% of that smoked wheat and Hallertauer hops, finished with a clean kolsch yeast strain--all in service of a 5% wheat beer that runs a pretty stiff 28 IBUs or so.  Dave's one cheat, if you can call it that, is the inclusion of 4% acidulated malt to give the beer a snap at the finish.  (Which is actually a fair snap: acidulated malt reduces the pH by .1% for every 1% used, and Weyermann recommends just 8% in a Berliner Weisse--itself a damn snappy beer.)

Verdict?  Strange and delicious.  There really is something interesting about balancing smoke and hops at a higher intensity.  To my palate, smoke is a deeper flavor, sometimes sweet, sometimes almost musty, while hops give high and bright notes.  Where smoked beers get weird is when they make a beer meaty and heavy (smoke can fool the brain into thinking meat--hickory makes us think of ham, alder of salmon).  The hops raise up the smokiness so that it doesn't wear on the palate.  That acid balancing note is also a great call, even if it's not traditional (and I'm agnostic on the point).  It lightens the beer even more, so that it becomes a wonderful warm-weather session.  By the end of my pint, I was honestly no longer registering the huge levels of smokiness.  I could enjoy an entire session with that grätzer.

Update.  Thanks to a tip from Stan Hieronymus, I want to direct you to this amazing story of how that yeast came to be.  It started with Choc Brewery in Oklahoma and the friendship between brewer Michael Lalli and a local homebrewer with contacts in Poland, where the style originates.  Those connections led back to a yeast slant taken from the last brewery who made grätzer and a request to Weyermann to make the smoked wheat malt Dave used in his beer.  If you're at all interested in this style, follow that link and go read the story.

Flat Tail
It was also my first visit to Flat Tail, which has the appearance of a wildly successful pub.  It's right on the Willamette River, and has a large sidewalk seating area overlooking same.  Inside, it's a Beavers sports bar, festooned with Beavs paraphernalia.  (I find it odd that there aren't more of these kinds of places in Corvallis, a Pac 12 school.  The city really punches under its weight in terms of Beavs boosterism compared to other cities.  Dave and Co. were wise to fill that niche.)

The food is pretty standard pub fare, though the menu is a big one.  It's hearty and there are some decent vegetarian selections.  Dave's beers are the real treat, though.  When I visited, he had something like 15 beers on tap.  He paired a regular wheat with the grätzer to illustrate the difference in the smoked malt (the non-smoked was also really nice), had a classic English pale on, an IPA with Zythos hops, three sours, a roggenbier, two Baltic porters (one bourbon-aged), a hibiscus beer, and a chocolate chile stout--among others.  Dave is one of those brewers who likes to experiment, but he also likes to brew traditional styles traditionally.  I think my fave of the bunch turned out to be the grätzer, but I also really liked the minty, spicy robbenbier and the balanced, homey pale.

Dave's been getting a lot of notice for his beers, and he deserves it.  Corvallis went from having very little going on to being a must-stop location with Flat Tail and Block 15.  Or, in my case, a must-visit.  I stopped in and saw what Nick was up to at Block 15, and I'll get to that post as soon as I can.

More pics below the fold...


  1. Great post, Jeff. Not having any prior experience with the style I really didn't know what to expect but I think "strange and delicious" sums it up pretty well. I always thought Corvallis needed a place like Flat Tail when I was in college there, but I think they have far exceeded even optimistic expectations as a brewery and restaurant.

  2. I keep learning more about this "style" - a little frustrating since once a book is a book . . .

    This version takes it a step further, with the inclusion of yeast from Poland:

    I've had the beer, and Smitty's homebrewed version as well. Both excellent. Still more to be learning about bitterness levels.

  3. Given OSU's longstanding involvement in hops research and fermentation education, it's fairly surprising there isn't more going on there in terms of breweries. I suspect that will change in coming years.

    Nice review.

  4. Very nice review. I have always been fascinated with them after enjoying their sours at Puckerfest and discussing them... with them.

    I never make it down there (At least since my Sister finished OSU over a decade ago, which at that time, Rogue beers were everywhere, and plenty)and don't really plan on it either. I hope to perhaps see more specialty bottles etc show up at my favorite little bottle shops around town.

    Cool to see a beer review !

  5. "fully-authentic"? And this comment is based on what?

  6. Well, just that it's made both hoppy and with all smoked wheat--two features that appear to define the style. We can argue what authentic means, but if you're using smoked barley malt and hopping the beer lightly, it's not really an example of style.

  7. Big fan of Flat Tail and all their beers. Looks like I have reason to get down there soon . Their Kolsch is one of my current favorites. Glad to see that Dave and his crew are getting some recognition. They certainly deserve it.

  8. Jeff, when I was in university, many years ago, my English professor used to say: "If my grandmother wore roller skates would that make her a motorcycle?"

    I'm not saying it isn't a good beer, but calling it "fully authentic" - see above.

  9. Mike, what would qualify as authentic in your mind? (The example you give, a comic exaggeration, does not clarify matters.)

  10. A surprising question, Jeff. What about comparing it with the original? It's not made any more? If they stopped in 1994, there must be many local people who had drunk it. Does that clarify my point?