Heirloom Beers – Re-Discovering the Ancient Craft
A Little History
In medieval Europe – in most of the world back then – everything was local. Food, wine, architecture, agriculture, sculpture, pottery. The collection of artistry, industry, and culture the people experienced reflected and was limited by the local community where they lived. People weren’t mobile, and trade was limited. People spent literally a lifetime in the village where they were born. A traveler who was fortunate enough to move from village to village would genuinely feel as if he were moving from one world to another.
Beer was a critical part of this local life. If your village grew barley, that village probably also developed some really good barley beers. A few villages over someone threw a local weed into the mix, the villagers liked it, and hoppiness became the signature of that local beer. Across the mountain range, they grew rye not barley – and of course made rye beer. Wheat beer, corn beer, mead – locality after locality developed and perfected their beers, using the grains, sugars, flavors, and techniques available to them in their local world.
Roll the clock forward a thousand years or so and consider life today. All those thousands of villages are quickly merging into one world. Not only is this one world full of mobile people who can easily travel to any country and village anywhere, but the products themselves are mass produced, marketed, and distributed to every corner of this huge, new mega-world. In New York or New Delhi or Shanghai, Bud Light is on every shelf.
The explosion of craft beer is, at heart, a longing to return to the delightful uniqueness of an ancient way of life, to taste the fruits of countless villages.
Who We Are
At Front Royal Brewing Co., we are all about craft beer but with a keen eye to the history that precedes us. We like to experiment with blueberries, lemons, coffee, chocolate – all kinds of cool stuff. But, above all, we like to resurrect those old, old recipes and breathe new life into them. Here are some of our favorites and a little bit of their history. Come visit us this spring – we’ll be hosting heirloom beer tastings, featuring these ancient concoctions. https://frontroyalbrewing.com
In 1516, Bavarian noblemen passed Reinheitsbegot, a law requiring that only water, barley and hops could be used to brew beer (later yeast was added to the list of approved ingredients). The aim of the law was to prevent crops used to make bread from being “wasted” on brewing. The law applied only to Bavaria, not the whole of Germany, which is a major reason Bavarian beers are so distinctive today.
An upshot of this law, however, was that many local recipes from that period suddenly became extinct. One particular German locale, Kottbus, made a beer that included oats and sweeteners such as molasses or honey. The Kottbus brew – now called Kottbusser – essentially disappeared until some enterprising craft brewers resurrected it.
Within a month of our opening, we introduced our own Kottbusser, which we call Hauptstrasse (means “Main Street” in German – our brewery is nestled on Main Street, Front Royal in a century-old building, which by American standards is almost as old as the Reinheitsbegot itself).
Haupstrasse has become one of our customer favorites. Our Head Brewer, Tim Arndt, describes it this way:
“I had great fun researching this one because there were so many different theories on what it was and how to brew it. I settled on a grain bill of German Pilsner, Wheat, Flaked Oats and a slight bit of Carared. Then I added German Hallertau hops for a mild bitterness. The molasses gets added during the last 15 minutes of the boil, and the honey isn’t added until after primary fermentation. We found a fabulous local raw honey from Circe’s Run Farm out of Strasburg, VA. Honey makes the Kottbusser, I quickly learned, and boy does this one.“
Quite simply, it’s Rye Beer. Hundreds of years ago, Roggenbier was one of the most popular beer styles in medieval Bavaria, but just like the Kottbusser, Roggenbier was outlawed by the Reinheitsbegot, seemingly forever. Like all good things that become illegal, however, Roggenbier went underground rather than die. Home brewers and Roggenbier partisans kept the recipes alive for centuries despite the march of historical epochs, the chaos of world wars, and the dislocation of economic modernization.
Even today, commercial Roggenbier is hard to find. For starters, it’s a challenge to brew – Rye has no husk, causing it to absorb water during brewing, making a mash that’s gummy and thick. Very difficult to work with. Many brewers who use Rye go with a grain bill that’s round 25%. Few go higher, to the levels of 50% or more, common in traditional Roggenbiers.
Rye provides a fabulous spicy taste and aftertaste – think rye bread with pumpernickel – that some compare to hops. But after drinking the uber hoppy beers of today, Roggenbier will strike you as a mildly-spicy, delightful treat. We named our Roggenbier “Skeleton Tree.” Although spicy, the bitterness is very low. You’ll taste the classic weizen yeast flavors of clove and slight banana. Like most Roggenbiers, ours will also be cloudy or “turbid” and highly carbonated. Look forward to a taste of history when we release it in late to early March.
Our Head Brewer, Tim Arndt, is a rye aficionado. “I absolutely love the taste of rye. Not only in beer but also whiskey. I’ve done a Rye IPA – Major’s Rye – but wanted to perfect a real, authentic Roggenbier. I plan a grain bill that’s 33% Rye. I’m going with dark Munich and melanoiden malts for an enhanced roasty flavor, a nice coppery brown color, and rocky off-white head. The Hefeweizen yeast I’m using gives it that authentic Roggenbier spice character of clove and banana. Skeleton Tree will stand at 6.1% ABV.”
For those of you who like 14th century English literature, you may know Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale. “This millere into toun his dogther sende, For ale and breeed, and rosted hem a goos.” Let’s talk for a minute about that ale Chaucer mentions. The English probably started making Ale about 9,000 years ago. Ale was made simply from water, malt and yeast. Hops were introduced around the 15th century from the continent, but ale with hops was called beer not ale. In medieval times, ale was a more common drink than water, in part because it didn’t carry the harmful bacteria often found in water. Simpler, cheaper Ales were cloudy and dreggy, leaving all kinds of cool stuff behind at the bottom of the glass. But the older the ale, the better and more expensive it was. “Good, stale ale,” they called it. Ales were frequently mixed with other ingredients, often on-site at the ale house, sort of like a modern day cocktail. One variety, called a “Poset” ale, was mixed with hot milk. But others might be mixed with a range of herbs or sweeteners.
Which leads us to the Braggot. Braggot (also Bracket, Bragot, Brakkatt or Brackett) was a popular, and more expensive, medieval ale that could be one of three things: an ale wort fermented with honey, ale blended with fully fermented mead, or an ale laced with honey and spices. Later, as hops were introduced to the British Isles, some Bragots were hopped. For a very simple formula, think of Braggot as a mix of Mead and Beer.
Tim Arndt: “I’ll start with a very low level of alpha hops like English Fuggles or Goldings to provide a beer-like character. Then I’m going for a mix of amber and pale malt for the base of the grain bill. A healthy amount of honey comes at the end of the boil. The fun and interesting part is the spice mix that gets steeped: cloves, black pepper, cinnamon and more. This brew clocks in at a whopping 10% ABV, so hold on to your ale cup. Look for an April or May release.”
Now we’ll travel east to Poland, so keep an open palate. You probably haven’t tasted this before, and you may need to grow into it. In the old days, beer was made from malt dried over open fires, so it was inevitably smoky. In later years, indirectly-fired kilns were invented. Malt could now be dried sans the smoke, and smoky beers died a quick death. But in various Polish villages, the tradition remained. Different villages used different woods for smoking – beechwood and oak being the most common. The Grodisk oak is the Grodziskie’s namesake. Some smoky beers can taste like bacon, but the oaky Grodziskie has a sweeter, fruitier taste, more like a Chardonnay.
If all this sounds a bit exotic, just remember the current sour beer rage grew out of a Polish beer revival that rediscovered the old sours of central Europe. Can the Grodziskie be far behind?
Here’s the Grodziskie Tim has planned for us: “The big question with a Grodziske is whether to use 100% oak smoked wheat. You can bring down the smoke level by adding in some pilsner malt to make it more subtle. I’m going to be more of a traditionalist and go all the way on smoke – 100% oak smoked wheat. If we find that it’s too much smoke, we’ll adjust and try again. I’m going with a grain bill that should come in at 2.5% to 3% ABV. Once I get the smokiness right the next challenge is to bring out the Champaign character in the mash – a full body and large billowy head and lacing. I’m adding a Czech Saaz hop and shooting for 30 to 35 IBU’s to get a spicy crisp freshness. I’ll go with the clean fermentation of German ale yeast. To close it out, I’ll condition it till it’s nice and clear then carbonate it to around 3.5 Volumes of Co2. A smoky beer like this really pushes my comfort zone, so I’m psyched for the challenge. A great Grodziskie is a light, carbonated, very refreshing beer with the surprise of smoke, perfect for late spring, when we’re planning our release.”
Check it Out
If we’ve whetted your appetite for new (old) beers, stop by and check us out. We’re all in on heirlooms. Tim is growing his heirloom repertoire by the day, so there should always be some history on tap. Try a tasting or quaff a mug. Pair it with a Chaucerian “rosted goos” if you like. Hope to see you very soon. https://frontroyalbrewing.com