FROM SAM Calagione, the exotic flavorings czar at Dogfish Head in Delaware, to Greg Koch, the “arrogant bastard” at Stone Brewing in California who dares you to choke down his intensely hopped ales, brewers can be a crazed bunch of characters.
This week, I stumbled across a brewer who has rocks in his head.
That would be Larry Horwitz, the soon-to-be-departing brewer at Manayunk Brewing Co.
Horwitz will be moving up the road to Iron Hill’s North Wales brewpub when it opens early next year. On the way out the door, he’s been cooking up a few over-the-top beers that he’d always wanted to tackle:
A framboise (raspberry) ale fermented with the famous, sour-tasting yeast from Belgium’s Rodenbach. A hugely hopped “super lager” that he’s hoping will remind drinkers of Swiss Samichlaus. A barrel-aged version of his hot-selling porter. A bottled version of barleywine (actually brewed by his predecessor) that’s been sitting in a Jack Daniel’s barrel for two years.
And then there’s those rocks – red-hot lava rocks – that are the secret ingredient in an Old World brew known as “stein beer.” That’s “stein,” as in the German word for “stone.” And, no, stone beer is not some fable from your twisted childhood.
Instead, the heated stones actually help cook the lager.
Yeah, I know, we’ve got microwaves and efficient, gas-fueled furnaces now. But in the old days, when the Coors twins weren’t even a sparkle in their daddy ‘s eye, brewers had to contend with the difficulty of heating huge wooden vats of liquid without burning the vat to the ground.
One method favored by some Bavarian brewers was hot rocks, which – judging by what went on one morning this week on the Manayunk riverside deck – won’t score any points with the inspectors from OSHA.
There was Horwitz stoking a blaze, raging with broken oak pallets. “I love fire,” he said, a suspicious, pyro gleam in his eye.
“We thought we’d invite the public and throw a party,” he continued, handing me one of the aforementioned bourbon-cured barleywines. “But instead we decided to try it out first and make sure we don’t have a disaster.”
Hell, that’s why I was there in the first place.
I’ve visited breweries where the whole process is automated, from mashing to filtration. It’s about as gripping as punching in an ATM transaction.
Stein beer, by contrast, sounded positively medievel.
“Plus,” Horwitz assured me, “there’s a very high chance of personal injury.”
Which no doubt explains why Horwitz let his assistants – Al Leonberger, Bill Young and Anuj Kale – do much of the work. Hell, he even dragged in Bob Davis, a former Weyerbacher brewer who’s headed to the Red Bell brewpub at the other end of Main Street.
Together, they were the first brewers to attempt a stein beer in Philadelphia ‘s storied brewing history.
(OK, I’m not certain about this claim to fame. My assumption is based on the following facts: 1. Stein beer is almost exclusively lager. 2. Lager was not brewed in Philadelphia till the 1840s. 3. By then, iron vats and copper tuns were widely available. 4. Only one modern-era American brewery, the Bosco’s brewpub chain in Memphis and Nashville, regularly brews stone beer.)
With the fire raging (did I mention the gleam in Horwitz’s eyes?), a bucket of rocks was lowered onto the coals. Horwitz had planned to use shale pulled from the nearby Schuylkill, but that brainstorm was canned when an early test showed those rocks tended to explode when heated. Instead, he bought a batch of lava rocks, like the ones that sizzle when you spit on ’em in the sauna.
The fire was hot enough to melt the aluminum, leading Davis to confidently pronounce that the heat was up to 500 degrees.
Nearby, a vat formerly used by Yards Brewing as an open fermenter (basically, a huge steel bathtub) was partially filled with a copper-colored Vienna lager mixture.
Horwitz manned one end of a levered pole, like a see-saw, and raised the bucket from the flames.
A stone or two dropped from a singed hole in the bottom. He quickly maneuvered the bucket to the vat and dunked it into the liquid.
A mass of steam rose, the smell of caramelized wort – a glorious aroma not unlike toasted marshmallows – filled the air.
The sun broke through the clouds. I think I heard angels sing.
I took another sip from my barleywine.
And the stein beer? Well, we won’t get a taste of that for another two or three months. Word is the caramelization should soften the taste of this lager.
Waiting for a taste seems like a pretty decent way to greet 2004.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of Victory Hop Wallop.