April 14-20, 2005
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Our intrepid reporter hauls hops and wrangles wort in attempt to brew a pre-Prohibition lager -- with the help of Victory Brewing, of course. Belly up to the bar and savor the results for yourself.
I'm standing, freezing, in the Victory Brewing hop cooler. Maneuvering between 4-foot-high bales of the tiny flowers that give beer its bitter taste, the pungent aroma is transcendent, intoxicating. It's not unlike being enveloped in the wafting smell of a joint on a summer evening. The hop plant, Bill Covaleski, one of the brewery's two heads, tells me, is a relative of cannabis. "Homebrewers have tried to push that line," he smiles, though at this point I'm drifting in and out of the conversation. Half of me is listening to Bill, a veritable font of knowledge in the art and craft of beer making. The other half is fighting the urge to step back, take a running start, and dive headfirst into the hop bales.
I keep my head. There's work to be done.
Covaleski and I are peeling chunks of pressed, dried hop flowers specifically, those of the Spalt and Hallertauer mittelfrueh varieties off of the bales. We rub the pressed chunks together over large rubber canisters to break the clumped flowers apart, removing twigs and branches as we go. Some breweries use processed hops in pellet form. The advantage of using whole flowers is that "all the oily yellow sticky globules," as Covaleski fondly describes them, end up in the brew. Occasionally we lug the canisters to the scale. According to a recipe derived by Covaleski and his partner in suds Ron Barchet, we need 9.5 kg of Spalt in one, 5 kg of the Hallertauer in a second, and another 1.5 kg of Spalt in a third. While all beer is made from essentially the same basic ingredients, hop selection is a step in the brewing process that differentiates a beer's character.
This process is ordinarily so much busywork, but today is not an ordinary day. I'm here to help create a beer from scratch. In honor of the Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America this week, where craft brewers from around the world will descend upon Philadelphia's Marriott downtown, Victory is trying something a little different.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Covaleski and Barchet are making a pre-Prohibition lager, a style of beer consumed in great volume in the United States in the early 20th century. Around World War I, with barley rationed to feed soldiers and Americans shunning most things Teutonic (traditional lager beers are very German), brewers turned to that most American of grains corn to fill out their beers' mash (aka the grain mixture). Pre-Prohibition lagers, according to most accounts, were light and refreshing but also tasty and could pack a substantial buzz. Your grandfather, or perhaps his father, downed a pint or three of these after a shift at the factory. But the style's heyday was cut short by the 18th Amendment in 1919, which ushered in a 13-year period when beer making in America all but disappeared (bootleggers favored liquor and its bigger bang for the buck).
So, in a way, this is something of an archaeological dig, a journey to a time when the American beerscape was not dominated by watered-down pilsners bottled by the millions in St. Louis and Milwaukee. Budweiser and its ilk are shadows of the hearty, chewy, corn-fed beer Victory is attempting to exhume.The Recipe
On a chilly February morning, Covaleski and I sit in a small conference room that serves as a passageway between his office and Barchet's. We're poring over two articles Covaleski has pulled from the Brewing Techniques magazine Web site.
We read "Explorations in Pre-Prohibition American Lagers," written by late math professor/homebrew legend George J. Fix, and Jeff Renner's "Reviving the Classic American Pilsner A Shamefully Neglected Style." Covaleski pinpoints three key decisions facing us:
Six-row barley vs. two-row barley: Six-row barley is more commonly used in America than in Europe, though Fix claims he's had his best results with two-row. The choice will influence the taste.
Flaked corn vs. corn grits: Unlike grits, flaked corn does not need to be boiled, which could simplify the process.
Hops: Fix simply calls for domestic and imported hops. Renner calls specifically for a mix of American clusters and British Styrian Goldings.
Covaleski knows almost immediately that he wants to avoid Clusters, and he's already leaning toward two-row barley. "We wanted to use the skeleton of an existing style and we wanted to hang as little flesh on it as possible. We wanted to stay pretty true to it," he explains later of his initial impressions of the recipes. "We just wanted to avoid things that would make it not good: the six-row malt and the use of the Clusters hops." The only advantage of these ingredients, says Covaleski, is that they are cheap.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Of course, corn is also considered a cheap-course ingredient, at least when it comprises a high percentage of the mash. The key is to use enough to get the flavor, but not so much as to dilute the beer.
The final recipe will be batted around by Victory's bosses over the coming weeks. (There will be no test batches; Covaleski and Barchet will rely entirely on their instincts.) Covaleski and I spend the afternoon theorizing about why America morphed from a culture that valued flavorful brews into one that regarded flavor in beer as a detriment.
"I think the culture in the '50s had a lot to do with fitting in," figures Covaleski. Between the onset of full-fledged industrialization and the fact that we were coming out of a war with "people who looked the same as us but wanted to kill us," no one was particularly interested in rocking the boat. "This is when the concept of McDonald's, where you could go anywhere and it would taste the same, arose. Standardization was good. And marketers with big product lines dovetailed nicely into that mentality."
During this process, he says, "flavor became literally removed from the equation."
For Covaleski, this experiment is more than an historical jaunt. "It's about pyrotechnics versus pure pleasure," he says. "Many brewers are caught up in double IPAs and flavored beers. We have our share of big-flavor beers as well, no doubt. [But] to the consumer, two pints of some of these wilder experiments and they are done for the evening."
It's a little odd to hear a pitch for easy-drinking beer from one of the minds behind such brain-bending brews as Golden Monkey and Old Horizontal.
"There was a time I was completely into the flavor of beer," Covaleski explains. "As I got closer to business involvement I didn't enjoy drinking beer as much at that point. I was overanalyzing too much. And now I've gotten back to the point of appreciating beer not only for the flavor but for the social effects. And that's easy to misconstrue, it's like, "Oh, he likes to get drunk.'"
In other words, Covaleski's aiming to create a beer that tastes good but that won't necessarily get you completely hammered. So could this beer, along with being a bridge to the past, be a bridge between "better beer" snobs and Busch Light loyalists?
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
"It would be interesting if a common microbrewery could create a beer that served two audiences," Covaleski muses. "It's not what I'm hoping to accomplish. But it would be interesting."Do The Brew
In due time, Covaleski and Barchet had hammered out a recipe they were happy with:
A mash of Durst Pils (a two-row barley malt) and flaked corn
The Spalt and Hallertauer Mittelfrueh hops
"I have a surprise on the yeast front," says Covaleski when I arrive a couple weeks later for brewing day.
The subject of yeast (the micro-organism that converts the sugars of the malt into alcohol) had not been broached in our first meeting. Covaleski brings me to the lab to meet Rob Cassel, the brewery's quality assurance whiz. He tracked down a yeast strain sold by an Oregon lab that is the same variety used by Schmidt's once upon a time in Northern Liberties.
"It was not promoted as being from Schmidt's," Covaleski says. "It's something that Rob had uncovered."
"Everybody shares information in a back-channel kind of way," explains Cassel. Evidently, there is an underground yeast information network that stretches all the way to my back yard.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
So as well as being a link to America's past, Victory's pre-Prohibition lager will be a link to Philadelphia history.
Over in the brewhouse, the mash is already underway. The 965 kg of barley and 31.1 gallons of water are in the mash tun (those big, copper-colored vats you see in beer commercial "inside the brewery" shots; Victory's are made of stainless steel). Covaleski and I start hauling 25-pound bags of flaked corn sadly, it looks nothing like breakfast cereal and more like chunky cornmeal and slicing them open with a short, blunt knife.
"This is our hara-kiri knife in case anything goes wrong," laughs Covaleski.
One by one, we dump the bags of corn, 225 kg in all, into the mash tun. Brian Hollinger, Victory's operations manager, reaches into the mash tun with a long, rake-like contraption to break up any large lumps. When the corn is completely mixed with the barley and water, the mash is decocted. During the decoction process, part of the mash (here one third of the mixture) is siphoned into a separate tun and boiled while the rest of the mixture is kept at 72 degrees.
A decoction tun is a luxury for a brewery the size of 9-year-old Victory even its new computer-run 50-barrel brewhouse, upgraded in October from 25 barrels, is dwarfed by the operations of the Budweisers and Yuenglings of the world. Covaleski and Barchet splurged for this device because many of the beers they like require it. "Our taste buds were telling us there's something to it," explains Covaleski. But for the purpose of converting the starches into simple sugars, decoction "is of the utmost importance with the corn."
After a half-hour of decoction, the mash and decocted mash are reunited (the decocted portion has become substantially darker) and shipped to the lauter tun, which looks like a gigantic flour sifter. Here the spent grain husks are separated from the liquid, which is now called wort.
Brewer Christine Bump and Covaleski occasionally check a glass tube through which the wort circulates. We're waiting for it to run clear, which takes a while, though Bump later notes that it "cleared up much quicker than anything else we brew." When it is clear, Bump ships the wort to yet another tun. When the wort reaches boiling, we dump in 9.5 kg of Spalt hops. A half-hour later, we add 5 kg of Hallertauer mittelfrueh and the remaining 1.5 kg of Spalt. The boil lasts for a full hour, during which any bacteria are killed and the wort soaks up the hops' flavor. The hops are then strained out of the wort, which is cooled so it can be tested for taste and specific gravity.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Bump and fellow brewer Luke Lindsey fill a stainless steel tube with the wort and drop a hydrometer into it to measure the specific gravity. This reading will figure into the eventual alcohol content of the beer. Specific gravity measures the level of sugar in wort the more sugar, the more food for the yeast to convert to alcohol. Covaleski has estimated the wort will have a specific gravity between 13.5 and 13.7 degrees Plato. The reading on the hydrometer is 14.5, higher than anticipated. A decision is made. To avoid ending up with a too-strong beer, a calculated amount of water is added to the wort, essentially to dilute it, before the brewers ship it across the facility through a complex maze of tubing to the fermentation tank.
A specific gravity reading taken in the fermentation tank, however, reveals that something has gone awry. Waiting in the fermentation tank was a "yeast slurry with already-fermented, very low-gravity beer," explains Covaleski. This has dropped the gravity below Covaleski's mid-13 guesstimate.
The young beer's future has become uncertain.
"We encounter this from time to time," admits Covaleski. "Brewing is a mix of science and magic."
The worst-case scenario, he explains, is that they'll have to dump the batch and start over. In the meantime, that old Schmidt's yeast, a yeast known for aggressively turning sugars to alcohol, will be allowed to work its magic.Sneak Preview
About a week later, we find out if the magic happened. Covaleski, Barchet and I enter the fermentation room, pint glasses in hand. Covaleski fills each glass, and he and Barchet prepare to sip the fermenting liquid. Old pros, they know exactly what they're looking for.
"I don't want a flavor like butterscotch," says Barchet, "which is caused by a compound called diacetyl," a natural byproduct of fermentation. Too much of it, and the beer will need to be fermented longer and at higher temperatures to allow the yeast to reabsorb the flavor.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
"We're not looking for it to taste good," says Covaleski.
"We're just looking for flavor aspects," continues Barchet. "No beer would taste good at this point."
Though fermentation is where the alcohol is created, the way a beer is aged does a lot to determine its eventual character. If they taste butterscotch in the liquid, they'll raise the temperature as fermentation concludes. If not, they'll begin aging the beer.
They swirl the liquid in glasses. They waft.
"Sulfury smells are typical," says Barchet. "It should be exhibiting sulfur at this point."
"It has a hoppy nose," says Covaleski.
"It's got a nice fermentation smell," says Barchet. "Fruitiness is also typical."
Finally, they sip.
Barchet notes its sweetness.
"It's got a lighter mouth feel, which is part of the profile we wanted," says Covaleski.
With no warning signs of diacetyl and flavor aspects along the lines of what they'd expected, they decide to keep the fermenting wort at its present temperature of 56 degrees for another day or two until the yeast has exhausted the available sugars. From there, it will be crash-cooled, causing the yeast to precipitate to the bottom, before spending six weeks at around 33 degrees in a lagering, or aging, tank. Lagering is a mellowing process. The sweetness of the malt and the bitterness of the hops meld into a unified flavor. This is one of the main differences between lager beers and ales, which typically don't age for lengthy periods.
"I doubt Schmidt's was giving it six weeks," laughs Barchet.The Big Taste
April 5 is reckoning day. The beer is now, well, beer. Steve Zwier is loading empty kegs onto the conveyor belt where they will be rinsed, sanitized and filled with carbon dioxide, which will then be replaced with pre-Prohibition lager. There is no turning back. While this happens, Covaleski kneels before the holding tank and, from a small, spiraling chrome spigot, fills four glasses of foamy, pale yellow elixir.
As bottles of Victory's Hop Devil India Pale Ale whir by on another machine yes, we've stepped into a scene from Laverne & Shirley Covaleski, City Paper photographer Michael T. Regan, art director Jessica Weber and I raise a toast to Throwback Lager. (The new beer's name was offered by Lindsey during the brewing process.) Though Covaleski and others at Victory have already tasted the stuff, this is the first time outsiders have imbibed.
We hold our glasses up to the light and peer at each other through the glasses. Sips are taken. Contemplative faces are made. Second swigs are downed. Then thirds. It's a hit. Throwback Lager has a subtle hop flavor on the front of the tongue and a sweet, almost chewy corn character as it goes down. It's a beer you could easily drink two of, and, even though it's noon, we do.
Covaleski later describes this moment as "like we had just opened King Tut's tomb together and were experiencing history in the light of day."
People "obviously loved it," theorizes Covaleski of this style's heyday. "And it was fairly strong, at 5 or 6 percent alcohol by volume. It still has flavor. And at the same time it was relatively light. We all didn't drive back then. So people would go to these beer halls and get totally polluted, walk home, and it was the culture."
Later in the day, sitting at the Victory brew pub's enormous wooden bar, the buzz from the morning's consumption still whirling, Covaleski expounds on the new creation.
"It reminded me of Carling Black Label," says Covaleski. "I have good memories of that because that's like the first [beer] that I encountered as a kid. That's the one that my dad had all the time, and on hot summer family picnics, that was one he would open and I would have a sip of it and I would go "Oooh, that's terrible.' Of course, I had no appreciation for what beer was."
For Covaleski, that trigger is important. He wonders aloud whether it was really memory, not taste buds, that drove him to this experiment. "To me, it makes me feel like we've achieved a measure of success when the beer reminds me of my earliest I go back 41 years, and that was the flavor I remember beer being. That tells me we're in the ballpark. We've made something that may be historically accurate."
Covaleski would love to find someone who actually remembers tasting pre-Prohibition lager. "Somebody who might be able to say, "Yeah y'know what, this is how I remember it.' But geez, they would have had to have been born at the turn of the century," says Covaleski. Then, in his best Grandpa Simpson voice, he croons, "I remember this beer. It was WET!"
Try It Yourself
According to Victory's Bill Covaleski, the following area bars and restaurants will be tapping kegs of Throwback Lager. Get out there and, uh, throw one back.
Baggataway Tavern, 31 N. Front St., West Conshohocken
Brigid's, 726 N. 24th St.
The Drafting Room, 900 N. Bethlehem Pike, Spring House
Flanigan's Boathouse, 16 Great Valley Parkway, Malvern and 113 Fayette St., Conshohocken
Gullifty's, 1149 Lancaster Ave., Rosemont
Johnny Brenda's, 1201 Frankford Ave.
O'Neals, 611 S. Third St.
Standard Tap, 901 N. Second St.
Ten Stone, 21st and South sts.
TGI Fridays, 301 N. Pottstown Pike, Exton
Tir Na Nog, 1600 Arch St.
The Ugly Moose, 443 Shurs Lane, Manayunk