Grodziskie: Smoky, Hoppy, Mysterious, and so Much Fun to Drink

Brewers around the world continue to brew and improve upon a once largely forgotten style, and its combination of earthy and woody flavors is gaining new fans every day. Stan Hieronymus explores the world of Grodziskie.

Stan Hieronymus Jun 25, 2019 - 7 min read

Grodziskie: Smoky, Hoppy, Mysterious, and so Much Fun to Drink Primary Image

How do you describe a beer that drinkers struggle to pronounce?

Dusan Kwiatkowski, head brewer at Live Oak Brewing Company (Austin, Texas), doesn’t start by calling Grodziskie a wheat beer, even though technically it is the wheatiest of wheat beers.

“I talk about it being like a smoky Pilsner,” says Kwiatkowski, who, like the beer, is of Polish descent. “It’s hoppy first; then it’s smoky.”

The beer Live Oak named Grodziskie is brewed in the manner of the style known as Grodziskie, and alternatively Grätzerv (literally translated “beer from Grodzisk” or “beer from Grätz”), that has been brewed in the Polish town of Grodzisk for more than 500 years. Prussians renamed the town—located about halfway between Berlin and Warsaw—Grätz in the nineteenth century after Poland was partitioned for 123 years, which is why the style has also been produced and labeled as Grätzer.

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Effervescent, it has been called the “Polish champagne.” It doesn’t pour as bright as a brut IPA but is packaged with between 3.1 and 3.2 volumes of CO2. Although it is only 3.2 percent ABV, wheat malt provides the foundation for a body that easily supports a healthy dose of Czech hops aroma and bitterness (IBUs ranging in the low-to-mid 30s).

Wheat-centric beers have been brewed for centuries within a band between 51 and 53° latitude across northern Europe, stretching from Leuven in Belgium on the west to Grodzisk on the east and encompassing the German cities of Berlin and Leipzig. What made beers from Grodzisk different was they had none of the funk or sourness of beers from the other regions. They were smoky, and they were the only ones that were brewed with 100 percent wheat malt.

By the seventeenth century, brewers in Grodzisk were shipping their beer to nearby towns, where it sold for a premium compared to local beer. After German-trained brewers arrived in what was then called Grätz in the nineteenth century and built modern breweries, production boomed, reaching 100,000 hectoliters during the 1890s. Later, during the years between two World Wars, the last remaining brewery exported beer to thirty-seven countries, including the United States.

Sales shrunk after World War II when the Communist government nationalized brewing. The last brewery closed in 1993, 4 years after the end of Communism and return of private ownership in Poland. The beer might be only an oddity today, made occasionally by homebrewers or at small breweries, had the Polish Homebrewers Association not formed the Commission for the Revival of the Grätzer Beer. The commission played a key role in a series of events that made information about brewing the beer and key ingredients more readily available.

Even before the commission was formed, some of its members met in Germany with Shawn Scott, an avid homebrewer who works on special projects with Krebs Brewing Company (Krebs, Oklahoma). As a result, Krebs brewed a beer it called Signature Grätzer with one of the original yeast strains used to ferment a Grodziskie and a special small batch of oak-smoked malt from Weyermann Malting Company in Germany. Scott wrote about that beer, and included a recipe, in articles that appeared in New Brewer Magazine and Zymurgy.

Live Oak Brewing brewed its first Grodziskie in 2014, drawing on information from Scott and Krebs Brewmaster Michael Lalli. Live Oak produced about 300 barrels of Grodziskie in 2018 and packaged it for sale in cans for the first time in January 2018. It remains a niche beer, one other brewers are drawn to, and a work in progress.

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The batch released at the beginning of this year includes the same floor-malted wheat Browar Grodzisk—a twenty-first- century revival built where the shell of the last brewery stood—uses to brew its Piwo z Grodziska. Last October, Kwiatkowski and Live Oak Founder Chip McElroy visited Grodzisk as well as the Sladovna Bruntál malthouse 200 miles to the south in the Czech Republic where the malt is made to Browar Grodzisk’s specifications.  

“The malt is a little fruitier, like fruitwood, more delicate, and it has a wider smoke profile,” says Kwiatkowski, comparing it to the smoked-wheat malt from Weyermann that Live Oak used initially. The difference between oak-smoked malt and the beech-smoked malt used in German smoked beers, which can be more acrid and often remind drinkers of smoked meat, is even more obvious.

Records indicate that during the twentieth century, brewers fermented Grodziskie with two yeast strains, one more flocculent than the other. Scott acquired the one of the two that had been preserved, and it is now available to any interested American brewer. Live Oak uses that strain along with its house German lager yeast.

“We tried it different ways,” McElroy says. “We fermented them together, we fermented them apart and blended them.”

The ale yeast is basically neutral and—most importantly—Phenolic Off Flavor negative (POF-), meaning it creates none of the clove-like phenols associated with southern German weisse beers or Belgian abbey beers. Kwiatkowski is considering fermenting a batch of their Grodziskie with only lager yeast.

The hops are all Czech—Saaz, Sladek, and Kazbek. McElroy and Kwiatkowski met with Polish hops farmers while they were in Grodzsik and expect to begin using Polish-grown hops in 2020. Four-plus years and several iterations into brewing the beer, Kwiatkowski makes it sound simple. “It’s all about the malt and hops,” he says.

No matter how you pronounce it (which, by the way is “grodz is key”).

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