Smylie Brothers head brewer Brad Pulver used grapefruit-size chunks of granite—heated to nearly 800 degrees—to make his Steinbier.
Smylie Brothers head brewer Brad Pulver used grapefruit-size chunks of granite—heated to nearly 800 degrees—to make his Steinbier. Credit: Brad Sillars

THE FOOD ISSUE: Ancient Methods, Modern Cuisine

Check out four spots for sampling age-old beer styles

Brewing beer is, in itself, an ancient technique. Garrett Oliver writes in The Oxford Companion to Beer that “the history of beer, quite literally, is the history of human civilization. Some anthropologists believe that man moved away from a hunter-gatherer existence to a settled agriculture-based existence largely to grow enough grain to brew large amounts of beer.”

The process has evolved in the millennia since then, and many once-common brewing ingredients and techniques were largely abandoned over time—until modern brewers began resurrecting old recipes. Since 1999 Dogfish Head has been collaborating with ancient-beverage expert Patrick McGovern on its Ancient Ales series (including one recipe based on a beer found in King Midas’s tomb and another with ingredients from Egyptian hieroglyphics), and last year Great Lakes Brewing and University of Chicago researchers produced a Sumerian beer using only equipment that would have existed 4,000 years ago. In Chicago, several local breweries are also focusing on making beers in mostly defunct styles. Below is an introduction to a few of them.

Marz Brewing: Smoke Wheat Everyday Grätzer

First brewed in 15th-century Poland in the town of Grodzisk, Grätzer (also known as Grodziskie) is a smoked wheat beer that nearly disappeared at the end of the 20th century. Home brewers kept the style alive, and it’s currently experiencing a small revival: it was added to the competition style guidelines for the Great American Beer Festival in 2013, and New Belgium recently brewed a Gratzer beer in collaboration with Three Floyds for its adventurous Lips of Faith series. Now the fledgling Marz Community Brewing in Bridgeport, which has been selling beer for less than three months, is paying tribute to the Polish heritage of both its community and its founders, Ed and Mike Marszewski, with Smoke Wheat Everyday Grätzer.

To make it, brewer Alex Robertson says, they use 100 percent smoked wheat malt and Saaz hops. They then combine three parts of the Grätzer with two parts of their Berliner Weisse (a sour beer style that also dates back several hundred years), which is brewed with a sour culture that Robertson developed himself. “When we tried the straight smoked beer we thought it was good, but the sour really brightened it up,” Roberson says. “It has a smoky quality kind of like bacon, then a sour-apple background note.” The beer is currently available on tap at Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar, Publican Quality Meats, and Dusek’s, and come spring will also be sold in bottles. —Julia Thiel

Off Color Brewing: Scurry

Scurry, Off Color’s Kottbusser-style beer, isn’t the brewery’s only flagship beer based on an ancient recipe—both its gose and farmhouse ale would fit that bill—but it is the most unusual. Kottbusser was brewed with honey and molasses in Cottbus, Germany, before the 16th-century enaction of the Reinheitsgebot—German and Bavarian purity laws that decreed beer could only contain barley, hops, and water—made it illegal (yeast hadn’t been discovered back then). Today the beer is so rare that it’s difficult even to find good information about it.

Off Color brewer John Laffler says starting with a blank slate made his job easier. “That gave us artistic license,” he says. “This is by no means a representation of what this beer tasted like when they were brewing it at Cottbus.” Laffler says the technical challenges of the brewing process drew him to the beer. When brewing with honey, retaining the aromatics is key to achieving honey flavor, because the honey itself ferments out almost entirely (Laffler adds the honey and molasses after boiling the wort). The result, Laffler says, is a beer that gives the impression of being full-bodied and sweet due to the honey and molasses aroma, but has a very dry finish. It’s available on draft at Kaiser Tiger, the Publican, and Xoco Wicker Park, and in bottles at Binny’s, Whole Foods, and many other liquor stores. —Julia Thiel

Spiteful Brewing: Prove It Gruit

Before hops were used to bitter beer, gruit—a mixture of herbs such as bog myrtle, yarrow, mugwort, horehound, and wild rosemary—filled that role. Between the 11th and 16th centuries hops gradually eclipsed gruit in popularity in Europe, in large part because the Catholic Church held a monopoly on the sale and taxation of gruit. Craft brewers have recently become more interested in gruit, and have declared February 1 International Gruit Day (“gruit” now refers to beer brewed with the herb mixture as well as the mix itself).

Spiteful brewed its first and only batch of gruit in June, but brewers Jason Klein and Calvin Fredrickson say it’s an idea they’ve been tossing around for a while. “There’s no real right or wrong way to make one, because no one really knows what they did in the Middle Ages,” Klein says. They settled on using bog myrtle, mugwort, and lemon verbena, then steeped each herb in hot water and tasted the result to determine what proportion of each would go into the beer. He describes the malt bill as fairly simple, with wheat and light malts; they didn’t use dark grains because the roasting process 500-plus years ago would have also imparted smoky flavors, which they didn’t want.

In pursuit of authenticity, the brewers also chose not to treat the herbs in order to kill any wild yeast growing on them: that yeast grew in the beer, giving it a touch of acidity. Spiteful’s gruit is light, lemony, and tart, more refreshing than truly sour. Klein says the lemon verbena imparts citrus notes different than anything he’s ever tasted in a hopped beer. Fredrickson says he’s eager to brew another gruit, especially because it’s such an unpredictable process. “We can do the tinctures and say, this is the winner. But once it’s in the fermenter . . . that beer’s going to have a mind of its own.”

Most of the Prove It Gruit has already been sold, but at press time bottles were still available at Binny’s downtown, Lincoln Park, South Loop, and several suburban locations. —Julia Thiel

Credit: Philip Montoro

Smylie Brothers Brewing Company: Steinbier

Steinbier is more a method than a style, and as a method it dates back millennia—basically you drop screaming-hot stones directly into your future beer, rather than applying heat to the brewing vessel. When such vessels were made of wood this was a handy way to avoid setting them on fire, but the technique persisted as technology advanced—especially among farmers in Germany and Austria. When that part of Europe discovered lagering, most Steinbiers became lagers as well.

When I visited Smylie Brothers in Evanston this summer, head brewer Brad Pulver told me he planned to make a Steinbier, and since then he has—twice, in fact. His version is a rustic Vienna lager, brewed with German Polaris and Tettnang hops and fermented with a San Francisco lager yeast.

The six grapefruit-size chunks of granite Pulver used, looped with stainless-steel wire so he could carry them to the brew kettle, reached almost 800 degrees Fahrenheit in the restaurant’s brick pizza oven—he had to put on heavy leather work gloves over the elbow-length nitrile gloves he always wears. Still, he didn’t boil the wort with just the stones, like a brewer would have back in the day—the kettle’s steam jacket did most of the work. Traditionally the stones would be transferred to the fermenter, to let their burnt shells of malt sugar diffuse into the beer over time. Pulver instead left them in the kettle for the whole boil: “The caramel coating on the stones dissolved into the wort,” he says, “like deglazing a pan.”

Smylie Brothers’ Steinbier is a lovely chestnut color, on the dark side for a Vienna lager; the flavor is toasty and nutty, rounded out by toffee and creme brulee. It’s fruitier than you might expect from the style, with a touch of baked pear and red plum—Pulver fermented it warmer than a typical lager. The burnt sugar cuts through the creamy mouthfeel with a faint, almost smoky astringency—it reminds me of the crisp black skin on a campout marshmallow that’s briefly caught fire, and it dovetails nicely with the soft herbal bitterness of the noble hops. The Steinbier will almost certainly be gone by the time you read this, but Pulver plans to brew it again—and double the number of stones. —Philip Montoro

Philip Montoro

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.