Metropolitan Beer, Lager Evangelists

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August 14, 2009 at 8:45 am

Tom Keith

I’m sitting across a folding table from Doug and Tracy Hurst. Officially, Doug is the brewmaster at Metropolitan Brewing, and Tracy handles everything else. In truth, since it’s just the two of them, for the most part, they each do a little bit of everything. And they’re amazingly passionate about what they do.

It’s a large space. Large enough, even, to house one of last year’s most interesting theatrical events – Beer! – from one of city’s most creative theater groups – the Neo-Futurists. With temporary bleachers put inside the brewery, patrons got to watch a funny, creative, surprisingly well-researched, and tough-to-recreate show.

Most of you missed that show. Shame on you. How often do you get a chance to learn about the way beer is made, technically accurate, explained by singing and dancing puppets?

There are unfounded rumors that Beer! actually may be re-created. But you didn’t hear that here, on The Local Beet.

I was lucky enough to catch Doug and Tracy on a rare slow day at the brewery. We talked beer. And more beer. And they poured a Dynamo Copper Lager — along with Flywheel Bright Lager, it’s one of their signature brews.

They’re both lagers. So, why are they brewing lagers? After all, doesn’t Budweiser call itself “The Great American Lager?” And aren’t Miller Genuine Draft, Coors, PBR and most of the other mega-brews in this country all lagers? Who the hell needs more lagers?

You do.

According to Doug, the sole descriptive term “lager” in macrobrews really doesn’t mean much. “It’s been a disservice to brewing. They call their beers lagers. That’s it.” He compared it to the way you might see a vegetable side dish described on a restaurant menu. “It’s like … here’s a plant … an edible plant.”

“A lot of people get this impression that a lager is some sort of light flavored beer, and the mega-brewers are making [that style of] lager, that’s true.

“When I went to study brewing in Munich, drinking the great Munich breweries’ beers – the great, world-class beers, Hacker Pschorr, Hofbräu, Spaten, and the others, Augustiner … I was just realizing how much better they were there. We get a lot of those beers here, but by the time they get here, they’re not as good as they were there.

“Part of it is transit – they travel so far to get here, and the beer doesn’t hold up.

“Beer’s a fairly perishable product; it goes stale, and it’s best when it leaves the brewery. So if you’re buying beer closer to home, it’s going to be fresher and a lot tastier.

“There are all sorts of awesome craft beers being brewed here in the Midwest. But there aren’t that many people doing lagers.

“And lagers cost more. With ales, you can brew twice as much on the same equipment. So it’s going to cost more to produce, you have to keep it cooler, longer, and so on …

“But I think it’s worth having the variety and having something a little different.”

Tracy added, “People need to learn about lagers. And we’re here to do that job. Help people understand more about lagers and old-world style beers. There’s a whole gamut of colors and flavors to access.

“I would like to show people who are used to drinking macros what beer is supposed to taste like. We say we’re making lagers, and they compare it to Miller or whatever.

“Go ahead. Try them [macrobrews and craft-brewed lagers] next to each other. And you’re going to find that the [craft-brewed] quality is so much higher, and the flavors are so much better … Even the head buzz is better.

“I have visions myself – I can’t speak for Doug – but I have visions of being a gateway beer. Just like you get people off of McDonald’s hamburgers and into places like Kuma’s Corner, I want to get people off of the macro beers and discovering the world of craft beer.

“And you don’t even have to do a Double IPA Imperial Whatzit, to be into craft beer. I don’t drink those beers. But I love different lager styles. I just want to pull more people into the fold.

“And then the other side of that is, once we have ‘em, we have ‘em. You don’t get a craft beer drinker who, ten years later, decides, y’know, I’m going to go back to Bud Light. It just doesn’t happen.”

Time out. Lagers vs. ales.

A little Beer 101, which most of you, dear readers, can probably recite by heart, but for my little brother, who stocks his beer refrigerator with Bud Light, might be informative.

I went to a barbeque a couple of years ago. There was an older, courtly gentleman there, who spoke with great authority. He looked a bit like the late John Houseman.

Somehow, the conversation turned to beer. Specifically, the difference between ales and lagers.

“Ales are darker and stronger,” he said, with conviction.

He was completely wrong.

Technically (broad generalization here), ales are fermented with varieties of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, lagers with Saccharomyces uvarum (although there’s been some discussion about whether these really are separate strains – you ultra-beer-geeks, don’t spam me over that statement). It’s typically said that ales use a top-fermenting yeast, and lagers are made with bottom-fermenting yeasts. And ales are almost always fermented at warmer temperatures than lagers*. The warmer temperatures contribute to the occasionally fruity, estery notes in ales. In contrast, lagers are usually described as “cleaner” tasting, letting the pure flavors of the malts and hops come through. Strength and darkness can go either way, based on stylistic considerations and/or the brewer’s whim.

Back to Tracy and Doug. And their beers.

They’re all named after early-industrial-age machine parts … Flywheel, Dynamo, and the forthcoming Krank Shaft (a Kölsch-style beer – a beer style traditionally brewed only in Cologne, Germany, that straddles the line between an ale and a lager).

But, why are they called “Dynamo Copper Lager” and “Flywheel Bright Lager?” Those aren’t traditional beer styles.

Arguably, they could be considered a Märzen and a Pilsen-style lager, respectively.

According to Doug, “I don’t know that I want to brew according to what other people might consider to be the big style guidelines. I want to be more free than that.

“The first thing you think of when you see Märzen or Vienna-style is, oh, well, okay, how does it fit into those categories? Uh, this one doesn’t quite fit into those categories … it’s no good. Even though, on its own, it may be an awesome beer, but just it’s not stylistically accurate.

“[The designations ‘Copper Lager’ and ‘Bright Lager’] give us more leeway to do what we think is the right way to make these beers.”

“But, you’re doing a Kölsch,” I interrupted, rudely.

“That’s true. We’re breaking that rule right off the bat. With the Kölsch … Well, I just like Kölsch a whole lot.”

Tracy added, “I think people are excited about a good Kölsch, too, because it’s been attempted [in America], but it’s very rare.

“Some of the attempts fall a little short. I think the beer dorks and the non-beer dorks alike are looking forward to it, for interest and because it is such an easy-drinking beer, and it goes so well with lots of foods.

“And, in my mind, football season’s coming up. You’ve gotta have a good twelve-pack, or two six-packs of guzzling beer. Or is it just me?”

All their brews have that elusive combination of complexity and easy drinkability (i.e. one glass won’t blow away your palate). They’re still tweaking the recipes.

Doug’s beer recipe philosophy: “One of the ways I see beers should be made is with the ‘Keep it simple stupid’ strategy. Rather than using sixteen different kinds of malt, I only use a few.

“The malt we’re using in these beers is primarily North American, coming from Canada and the Northern US. There’s a very small portion that we’re using that comes from Germany, some of them are specialty malts.

“Dynamo is primarily Vienna malt, which accounts for the color and a lot of the toasty flavor. Then there’s some Pilsner, and a little bit of CaraPils [for body], and a secret ingredient malt.

Tracy: “Not so secret. We throw in a very small portion of roasted barley.”

“It’s funny, because it was it was Randy, when we were working on our initial graphics, he was over at our house, and we poured him a Copper Lager. He said, ‘Well, the first thing is, it should be copper colored.’ It wasn’t.

“Stating the obvious.”

Hence the addition of roasted barley. But, despite what Doug and Tracy were saying at the time, it’s not just for color. The roasted barley truly complexes up the beer. Tasting carefully, you’ll notice the slight roastiness in the back of the flavor.

Doug: “In Flywheel, it’s primarily Pilsner Malt. We’ve found Canada Malting makes a really nice pilsner malt, it’s very light. It’s also got a little bit of Cara Pils in it. That’s it. It’s a very simple product, really.

“And the Kölsch is also simple. We put the ingredients on the label. It’s about 15% wheat, and the rest is Pilsner malt. Really gives it a great soft mouthfeel.

In terms of hops, “We’re crossing over to the North American varieties.” (2008 was a particularly bad year for the hops crop, and brewers had to scramble a bit to find hops wherever they could.)

“Dynamo has Perle, Halltertau and Vanguard in it. And Flywheel has Horizon, and it did have Perle, but it doesn’t any more, Sterling and Saaz and Hallertau, and will have Liberty.”

Take that, you damn Miller Lite, with your “triple-hopped” claims – as if that’s something special.

Tracy: “When it comes to our industry, same continent counts as local. Wisconsin used to be a major hop-growing region years ago. It would be really cool if it were now. It would be neat to drive our Subaru up to get our hops, instead of paying for shipping.

Things you may not know about Metropolitan Brewery, that you won’t find out by reading typical reviews of their beers:

1. Doug and Tracy are Trekkies. Each of their fermentation tanks is named after a guest character on the first incarnation of Star Trek.
Tanks
Doug is standing in front of the Zefram Cochrane tank, named after the first human to invent warp drive.

2. All Metropolitan beers are vegan. Some beers use isinglass (fish bladders) or gelatin (usually made from animal skin and bones) to help clarify their beers. While those ingredients settle out, so they’re not actually in the finished beers, some vegans prefer beers that don’t use animal products in their processes. Metropolitan uses a coarse Diatomaceous Earth filtering system, which takes out the yeast once it’s done its job, but leaves in all the flavor elements. No animals are involved in the process. And no super-filtration, ala Miller Genuine Draft.

3. Tracy got her tattoo, featuring hops and a Flywheel from their beer labels, well before the first keg was ever released.
Arm
Tracy: “This was before we opened up … it was a year ago, May … and I said I’m going to get part of our logo tattooed as part of my sleeve. And we had a friend say ‘You should wait until you’re successful first.’ And I said, ‘What you just said, tells me two things. You don’t understand tattoos, and you don’t understand opening a business.’ ”

4. Originally, the name was going to be Alchemy Brewing.

Doug explains. “Alchemy Brewing Company was sort of the original idea. That was the working name for a long time. But once we got to the marketing and the beer names, it kind of came to a dead end. It just wasn’t flowing.

“So we sat down with a blank piece of paper – and some beer – and brainstormed. What we were talking about … our concept for the image of the brewery … and what we wanted it to be, what we wanted it to portray. We came up with Metropolitan.

“One of the original visions of what we wanted to do was to be a Chicago brewery. If we were out in the suburbs, some suburban commercial zone, it would be much less expensive.”

Tracy: “But it wouldn’t suit our personality. We’re very much urban center types.

“Metropolitan can’t be in Warrenville. Plus, there’s already an awesome brewery in Warrenville [Two Brothers].

“Doug also wanted to keep an element of Art Nouveau, of flow, and organic, and growth.

“To us, that’s what urban life, especially in Chicago, is about. It’s very mechanical, very steel and glass and rivets, but it’s also parks everywhere, and the river, and the lake, and trees, and people.

“All of our packaging, thanks exclusively to Randy, jumps off the shelf at you. I just love it.

Nick Floyd could pull off an Alchemy Brewing. New Holland could pull off an Alchemy Brewing. But Doug and Tracy seem a bit more disciplined and studious. Not that they couldn’t make some sort of a wild and wacky beer – it’s just that their personalities seem to be more oriented toward quaffable beers with subtle complexity. Metropolitan suits them well.

5. All Metropolitan operations are supervised by the all-seeing, all-knowing See-Bull.See-Bull
A remnant of the Neo-Futurists’ Beer! Performance, the great See-Bull peers out over all of Metropolitan’s operations, and is a respectful nod to the acclaimed Siebel Institute of Technology, a Chicago-based institution that, since 1868, has taught many of the finest brewers from all over the world.

I left thinking “these are great, fun people … exactly the types I’d like to sit down and have a beer with.”

Oh, wait. I did just sit down and have a beer with them.

I’m hoping it won’t be the last.

*To confuse things even more, there’s a beer that seems like an ale, made with lager yeasts, but fermented at ale temperatures. If anyone deigns to call it a “Steam Beer,” he/she should be prepared for a lawsuit from the litigious scion of a certain washing machine company. And don’t even think about associating it with an image of that heavy thing that holds your boat in place by sitting on the bottom of the lake.

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6 Comments

  1. Peter Daane says:

    Tom-

    I have been enjoying your beer articles. On our way North to Wisconsin I printed the greater Milwaukee article and Metropolitan… I was miffed the Metro article did not have any addresses, until I realized it was probably linked. Funny, it’s about 6-blocks from my house. Anyway, I purchased a 6-pak from Sam’s on Sunday; I can’t wait to try it. Also, since the brewery is on my way to CSA box pickup, I might just look around to see if I spot any activity when I am over there. Again, thanks for the pleasurable reading.

    • Tom says:

      Metropolitan’s address is in the link to the metrobrewing.com website. But for the link-averse, they’re located at 5121 N Ravenswood Ave, @ Winona – Chicago, IL – next door to Koval Distillery (which could be an entire other story). But I’m not sure how useful the address would be. They don’t do regular brewery tours, and they’re strictly a brewery – not a brewpub or a retailer. So if you want to try their stuff, check their site for package or on-premise distribution.

      Thanks for the compliments. Where did you try in Wisconsin?

  2. Peter says:

    Tom-

    My earlier comment left out salient points. Yes, the address is not very helpful because they do not have a public space or visiting hours… I guess I just assume these things as part of the craft-producer marketing experience. However, from your article, these folks seem like they would have plenty of pride in their craft to show off if one is passing by and sees them milling about… you can send an email for an appointment according to their website, NO guaranty you are going to get one.

    I have been jonesing for a stop at Silver Creek in Cedarburg, since I read about it in your article. Twice now, our schedule has prevented the stop. We always seem to have plenty to do on our way North to Oostburg. Now, if you know any good stops along I-80 to Galesburg/Macomb, that would be helpful.

    I also read the information on Metropolitan website about Koval. Have you tried any their products?

    Finally, Metropolitan was on tap at Durty Nellies, near the train station in Paletine…lots of interesting beers on tap.

  3. Tom says:

    Peter,

    You might this little clip from the interview interesting.

    Tracy: “Eventually, we need to be able to sell package products from here. But that’s so far in the future, it’s not even on the radar yet.

    “And that’s really the vision behind doing package sales. Because, y’know, pre-Prohibition you had your neighborhood brewery. And you’d get off the train from being downtown, and you’d have your empty growler, and you’d take it to your brewery, and get it filled up, and you’d have beer for the night – for dinner.

    “That would be so great, to resurrect that. I can’t count how many neighbors come by here and say ‘If I bring you a growler, will you fill it up for me?’

    “There’s something so romantic about that. That’s ultimately why I’d like to do package sales here. Keep the neighbors happy. And slightly buzzed.”

    But, as Tracy said, it’s just a dream … at best, something that might happen in the far-distant future.

  4. Christy says:

    Please let me know the name of the tanks. I will find and try this beer just because of the honor done to the original series.

  5. Tom Keith says:

    In addition to Zephram Cochrane, a few of the other tanks are named after:

    Edith Keeler, a human social worker whose life was saved by McCoy, triggering the victory of the Axis Powers in WWII.

    Dr. Richard Daystrom, a brilliant 23rd-century computer scientist, and inventor of the comptronic and duotronic systems.

    T’Pau, one of Vulcan’s most revered leaders, the only person ever to turn down a seat on the Federation Council.

    (Thanks to StarTrek.com for the descriptions)

    For more info, try e-mailing Doug and Tracy at minion@metrobrewing.com

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