Bierbrand — What do you get when you boil your beer?

October 13, 2009 at 9:23 am

Tom Keith

It came out of a happy confluence of mistake and geography. Doug and Tracy Hurst, of Metropolitan Brewing, had 30 barrels of their Dynamo Copper Lager that didn’t quite meet their standards. Rather than dump it, their next-door-neighbors in Ravenswood, Koval Distillery, agreed to take it.

As Metropolitan’s Tracy Hurst explains it, “The fact that we’re in the same building was purely coincidence. I walked by there one day and saw their fermentation tubs in there and I couldn’t believe my eyes. They came running out – ‘we’ve been waiting to meet you! We were kicking around the idea of doing beer brandy’ (which I guess is an Austrian style) … and we thought, ‘Oh, you know, that might be a cool idea.’

The “they” she was referring to are Sonat and Robert Birnecker, founders, master distillers, and full time baby-sitters for the true manager of the operation, Lion Birnecker.

Sonat, Lion (the boss) and Robert, in front of their custom-designed, handcrafted still from Kothe Destillationstechnik in Eislingen, Germany

Tracy adds, “One day we were testing a batch – one of our earliest batches of Dynamo, and it just was not up to snuff. It was thin, the yeast didn’t work on it properly, and there was no way we were going to package it and put it out there. So I just went next door and said, ‘Yknow, we’re about to dump 30 barrels of beer – do you want it?’ … So they said “Absolutely!’ … and they made Bierbrand.”


From Sonat’s perspective, “This just was really gratuitous. We were talking with them and we were telling them how great it would be to make a bierbrand. Just for fun. And we were always talking about it. And we were saying wouldn’t it be great if we could collaborate in some way. But there wasn’t an opportunity. Then when they had this beer that was undercarbonated … ‘Don’t throw it away!’ This is a great chance to actually turn it into something wonderful and unique that you really can’t find anywhere else.”

Sonat has a casual, easy-going style, even when chasing after the tennis ball that her 14-month old son Lion has thrown across the distillery.

Most people that I know – myself included – weren’t aware of the history of Bierbrand – essentially a spirit made by distilling beer. (Some call it a beer whiskey, but Sonat told me that it can’t be considered a whiskey unless it spends at least a few seconds in contact with wood.) It’s a minor specialty of Germany and Austria, but it’s not especially common even there.

Only 50 cases (300 bottles) were made. I asked the spirits buyer at Binny’s for it. “Yeah, I tried it at Whiskeyfest. It was really good, but we couldn’t get enough of it to stock it.” In Fine Spirits in Andersonville may have it, Andersonville Wine and Spirits might have it, and a few other independent retailers could have it. But it’s not easy to find. (Last minute newsflash: Bierbrand has been spotted at Binny’s, and is now listed on Binny’s website – so it’s likely to be in most Binnys stores, at least for the time being.)

Will Sonat and Robert be making more Bierbrand? “It’s a special item. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Right now, they [Metropolitan Brewing] are working at complete capacity [to make their own beers]. So right now, it’s get it while you can.” But once Metropolitan increases its capacity, another collaboration is likely.

So I owe extreme thanks to Jenna Mestan, the manager at Courtright’s Restaurant in Willow Springs, for getting me bottle #27 from batch #1.

Full disclosure: I’m not a spirits kind of guy. (Some may even say I have no spirit whatsoever.)

As anyone who’s been reading these Local Beet columns may know (that’s both of you), I like beer.

I also like wine, but I’m not a sufficiently pretentious wine snob to be willing to comment on it. (“It’s a supercilious little quagmire of a mélange, resting on its haunched laurels, yet still seeming to rise up out of the omnipresent crepuscular nimbo-cumulus skies in a muted middle-finger salute to the evaporative terroir.”)

I promise I will never write that sentence again.

But I’m not even remotely qualified to comment on anything that comes out of a distillery.

So, that said, I’ll comment on Koval’s Bierbrand. But first I’ll let others comment on it.

Metropolitan’s brewmaster, Doug Hurst: “I was surprised at how much of the beer characteristic came through. It’s not like drinking a beer; it ‘s like drinking a spirit, but there’s sort of a malty character, Dynamo-esque malty character it has to it, and I think somehow some of the hops came through, too.”

Tracy: “And in the aroma in particular, babe.”

Doug: “I was surprised, because I thought that all would be driven off [by the distillation process].”

A frequent tasting companion: “Wow. The beer’s in there, and you get that flavor up front, and then you get that alcohol taste at the end. I get that grain up front, then I get that burn. Still, it’s so mild.”

Personally, I thought I detected a slight hoppiness in the aroma. Sipping, I got a definite malty/grainy flavor, followed by the slight burn from the alcohol (after all, it is 80° proof). The flavors linger in the mouth a long time.

Then I remembered an old custom used when tasting Scotch Whisky. Adding a splash of water to the bierbrand mellowed out the taste considerably, and gave it a very round mouthfeel.

Chilling mitigates the alcohol burn somewhat; chilled with a splash of water is especially pleasant. Might be very good served over ice.

Of course, Bierbrand isn’t Koval’s only product. Sonat and Robert make an extensive line of interesting, unique spirits and liqueurs – all organic, and all Kosher. And they have great descriptions of some of their products.

Rye Vodka: “As they say in Russia, ‘Potato is for the peasants, Rye is for the czar.’”

Midwest Wheat Spirits: “It has a refined entry and satisfying finish, like a really good date.”

American Oat Spirits: “Adds character to any cocktail when used instead of vodka, like a powder blue Jaguar XKE 1966 convertible vs. a midsized sedan.”

Levant Spelt Spirits: “Smooth as a silk robe worn on a balcony with a view to a spectacular sunrise.”

Other sprits are made from grains like Rye and Millet.

Not to mention a number of unusual, interesting liqueurs, like Rose Hip, Ginger, Walnut, Coffee, Hibiscus, and Chrysanthemum Honey.

And all their products are organic, Kosher, and as much as practical, locally sourced.

All their grains are from Midwestern farms. “We try to get as many ingredients as possible locally. Obviously, some ingredients, like for our Ginger liqueur … Ginger does not grow in the Midwest. We’re doing a jasmine liqueur, and our jasmine comes from Japan, and our coffee comes from Brazil. We sourced it there because they have a totally green – it’s not only organic – they are a completely green plant. It’s a zero-emissions plant … free trade coffee … We figured it was as good as we can get.

“Our honey [for Chrysanthemum Honey Liqueur], we get from just over the border in Wisconsin. So there’s a lot of stuff we source locally.” They wanted to use Chicago rooftop honey, but couldn’t get it in the quantities they needed. And the bees wouldn’t guarantee that the nectar they collected was strictly organic.

So, how did Sonat and Robert get started in the artisanal distilling business?

Sonat: “Robert’s grandfather is a distiller in Austria, and every time we’d go to Austria we would talk about the wonderful spirits, and wish that they had similar things in the US. They don’t, really, and are very hard to find. So then what happened was, we were trying to figure out what to do with our lives, when I was pregnant with him and we were trying to figure out what kind of lifestyle we wanted to have.

“We realized we did not like living in Washington DC. I did not like commuting an hour.

“And even being a professor [of Jewish Studies and German literature of the 20th Century], it does not provide you with a lot of time to be with your family. When you’re not teaching, you’re writing. And I was writing a lot. I worked on three books, and had never really had a vacation. Because every vacation, I had deadlines, and things I was working on. So I realized that was going to continue if I stayed there – even though I was tenured. Robert commuted as well, about 25 minutes, I commuted an hour even though I didn’t have to go in every day. An hour up and back to Baltimore.

“It was too much. So we wanted to have a quality of life change. Live in a city we love, raise a family, be able to spend as much time with him as we wanted. It would require starting our own business. There’s no other way to do that. There aren’t many companies that let you bring your kid into work every day.

“Well, what kind of business would we want to start? We decided to go with what we know, which is distilling. Robert grew up with it, he has all sorts of people that want to help him, and give him tips and advice. He already knew a lot going into it.

“We had a real advantage over a lot of people starting distilleries, who get into it, but don’t really have a background in it. They might be investment bankers, doctors or lawyers, also wanting a lifestyle change, but they have to learn everything from scratch. Whereas we didn’t, which was lovely. So then we decided to start this distillery. We’re really, really happy we did.

“It’s been a lot of work. Also, having a one year old with you every single day while you’re working means that your whole day 30% longer.

“We also wanted to produce something. We thought that manufacturing was something that made America great.

This whole corridor in Ravenswood used to be manufacturing. Now if you look at it … lots of condos. We thought it’d be nice to actually produce something. In a city we love, really high quality. And go from there.

“We figured we were going to do everything from scratch, and just make a lot of different things we like.

“Most distillers buy their base alcohol already finished from a factory. So they just get what they get – they’re not going to be able to start from a pure source.

In contrast: “We mash everything in house. I don’t believe a lot of people do that. It’s kind of insane – it’d be a lot cheaper for us not to do that. In fact, we’d make about $8 more a bottle, if we didn’t mash in house.

“But if we were going to do it, we were going to do it the way his family’s been doing it for generations. Really traditional. You can follow the quality, you can follow the process then from the very beginning. In a way you can’t if you get some finished product in drums brought to your door.

“And it’s a lot of fun. Each grain is very different to mash, too. Millet looks like a creamy vanilla frosting, whereas the rye is very sticky.”

I didn’t ask what the mash for the bierbrand looked like (although I could guess, from my own brewing experience).

Clay Risen, a writer for The Atlantic magazine, stumbled upon a bierbrand in Munich. An excerpt from his thoughts:

“… poking around the Munich airport recently, my eyes seized on a bottle of König Ludwig Bierbrand. Though not a true schnapps — it’s made with beer, not fruit — it was similar enough, and strange enough, to draw my attention. In this case, the Lantenhammer Destillerie, located in Schliersee, Bavaria (about an hour southeast of Munich), has distilled König Ludwig Dunkelbier, then aged it a bit in oak barrels. Who would’ve thought?

“The operative question, though, is why? As anyone who’s done hard time will attest, you can distill anything. But with all the options, why beer? Because the result is not at all pleasant. König Ludwig is a good beer, but it’s hard to discern quality from its distillation. It has a hint of sweetness, but the character of the beer is gone, leaving behind just a gustatory shadow, with a horrible aftertaste — like a generic light beer, but with a heavy alcohol burn. König Ludwig isn’t the only Bierbrand out there, so the style must have its followers.”

I’m betting Clay hasn’t tried Koval’s Bierbrand.