Smoky Brewday: Wonmisan Grätzer

Grätzer is one of those almost-extinct beer styles that people have started talking about again these days. The basic idea is that it’s a 100% smoked malt, low-ABV beer. We’re talking serious smoke, and seriously low ABV, like 3.5% or less.

Sounds good to me, so I decided to make some. Thing is, that’s a more involved proposition than I first imagined.

Thing is, there’s no smoked wheat malt on the market — definitely not in Korea, anyway. So if you want to make something like this, the only way to do it is to smoke your own. This sounds like a pain in the ass, but in fact, if I’ve learned anything while teaching, it’s that one should always try to see a pain in the ass as an opportunity. If you have to smoke malt yourself, it gives you the chance to set the level of smokiness wherever you prefer, to choose what kind of wood to use for the smoke (and thus what kind of flavor you’ll get) and so on… and it’s a way of learning how to smoke stuff at home.

For this purpose, I picked up a copy of Smoked Beers: History, Brewing Techniques, Recipes by Ray Daniels and Geoff Larson. While some of the books in that particular series have been less than useful to me, I have to say that Smoked Beers is outstanding — but I’ll try review it on its own later. I just wanted to note that I used the book in figuring out how to make this beer.

Note: there is a cheat, if you want to make a Gratzer without home-smoking, and apparently one used by Polish brewers too: that is, to simply make the beer with a portion of smoked barley. But if you’re not crazy about the beechwood smoke used in Weyermann malts, then home smoking sounds like a good option: you can choose other woodchips for the smoking. Why not try apple wood, or cherry, or hickory, or mesquite… or a blend? There are a ton of possibilities.

Originally, when I was planning this brew, I thought I’d try a single five-gallon batch of beer using one specific kind of smoked wheat malt, but when I started asking myself questions about specifics, I found myself torn. Hickory, I thought, would be tasty; so would mesquite. And what about apple wood?

Finally, I realized the thing to do would be to try a few different kinds, in series, which suggested that small batches might be the way to go. That decided, I was left with one small question: how to smoke the malt?

Well, after a little searching online, I found one possible solution: I could build myself a smoker out of a cardboard box. There’s a tutorial on how to do it over at Instructables.  While it’s probably not a great long-term solution, I do get the feeling that it’s not a bad way of gettin’ ‘er done for a small experimental batch of beer; something I could probably spend an afternoon using to smoke a few different kinds of wheat malt with a few different types (or blends) of wood chips.

I don’t have photos of the process right now, but it’s pretty simple, and next time I’ll make sure to get some and update this post with it. When I do this, I’ll try get photos of the whole process, so that others can see. I have a few little variations on the cardboard smoker box  design, since I want to smoke the malt as cool as possible. (Which is an  advantage of the cardboard smoker design: it’s not optimal for heat, and with a few adjustments should allow for relatively cool (or even slightly chilly) malt-smoking, if used in the winter.

One final note: for this first Gratzer, no matter how close I tried to get it to the traditional style, there was one barrier: the oak smoke! I haven’t seen oak-smoking chips available in Korea, though I did manage to get some compressed oak sawdust, a slow-burning smoking wood product available from Japan. The problem is that when the compressed sawdust burns, it burns very slowly, and produces only a relatively small amount of smoke. Combine this with the fact that I unwittingly used half of the one brick of the stuff I had smoking almonds for Christmas, and the fact that I realized (too late) that my ash screen was not letting enough smoke up into the grain, and what I was left was a bunch of very lightly smoky grain, and some other smoke woods, and a dilemma: which smoke to use?

I went with a blend of about 60% hickory, 40% mesquite, and then, in desperation, threw in a half of a stick of walnut sawdust when the grains still weren’t adequately smokey. In retrospect, I probably overdid it a little, but that’s fine, because I learned another lesson: unless you have really good grain screens, smoking grain is a lossy proposition. (I used baskets of wicker, which let through a lot more of the crushed grain than I expected.) I started out with 1.65 kilos of grain, but ended up with something closer to 1.2 kilos of the stuff… which means my Gratzer will only be about 70% smoked wheat, and 30% plain wheat malt…

That’s probably not a bad thing, though: of the wheat that got smoked, some of it got quite hot, and I’m worried the enzymes might have been denatured. And anyway, the malt is intensely smokey, so  I think this might help balance it a bit.

The recipe is simple:

  • 70% Smoked wheat malt
  • 30% Wheat Malt
  • Target OG: 1.035 | Target FG: 1.008
  • Mash schedule:
    • 30 minute rest at 50°C
    • 60 minute rest at 65°C
  • 60 Minute Boil:
    • Hopping:
      • Czech Saaz: ~30 IBUS at first wort
      • Czech Saaz: 5-6 grams at 15 minutes
  • Yeast: Kolsch, fermented at 16°C

Today, I’m making a ~12L batch, because that’s how much I can fit into my spare little square glass fermenter, and because it seems adequate for a test batch, and because, hey, why not?

UPDATE: 5 Feb 2012: Argh! I left the trubby beer-like stuff in the first fermenter after racking everything clear into the second one, thinking the trub had, after about four hours of chilling, settled as much as it would. More fool me — I came home to discover it had settled out amazingly, leaving probably another couple of liters of wort on top, clear as could be hoped for. But I’d left the lid on loose, since I’d vaguely thought of using the trubby wort as a medium for capturing wild yeast. Live and learn, I suppose.

(As an aside, the comment by Stan Hieronymous somewhere or other about how all-wheat beers can, potentially, clear out more quickly and easily since there’s more and heavier proteins comes to mind. This beer sat by a window, but the window was almost completely closed, and besides, it was on a warm floor — heated by ondol piping — and yet the proteins settled out anyway!)

Well, but on opening the container, it doesn’t smell skunky, and this beer is pretty highly hopped, so I’m willing to imagine that maybe it escaped the danger of skunking unscathed. I happen to have a small (1.5L) wine jug I’m not using, which will fit most of that extra wort, so… I suppose I’ll try racking it into a pot, boiling it for 15 minutes (and red-adding a little more Saaz at the beginning of the boil — just enough to add some flavor that would be lost) and then racking it into the jug with some other yeast — maybe a California ale yeast. If it’s a write-off, nothing lost to me; if it’s not, it’ll be fun to compare the results of the two yeasts.

UPDATE (11 April 2012): Well, I bottled this beer on 9 April. I also happened to put a sample into a measuring cup from the cupboard, just like I did everything else I bottled or kegged on that day, but I was too busy to take a gravity reading. Apparently, that measuring cup had some kind of acetic acid bacteria, because it had a weird whitish pellicle and stank like nail polish remover! However, nothing else I bottled that day was infected, and the beer wasn’t infected with any such thing when I opened the lid of the fermenter, so I’m pretty sure it’s not a problem with the beer itself. In any case, the Grätzer was bottled and I will try a bottle in a week. It wasn’t terribly smoky or hoppy when I took a sip from the original sample on bottling day, but I’m hoping the smoke and hops will come out a little more when it’s carbonated. If not, I’ll have to go for a more intensive grain-smoking regimen next time! (Which is something I intend to do anyway…)

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