Metropolitan brews a ruthlessly fresh summer lager: Zwickel Flywheel

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I've been a fan of Metropolitan Brewing for almost five years. When I was first getting into craft beer (and still intimidated by the terra incognita of traditional German styles), "lager" to me meant the watery 30-pack swill I drank in grad school when I wanted to nerve myself up to light my arm on fire with grain alcohol for a laugh. Metropolitan, who make nothing but lagers, changed all that for me.

The brewery's core lineup was established so early and has changed so little, though, that in the nine months I've been doing this column I haven't been able to find a good opportunity to write about it. ("Check out this beer that's been all over Chicago for four years!" is a tough sell.) I got my chance this weekend with the first full-scale release of the tap-only zwickelbier version of Metropolitan's Flywheel Bright Lager.

Strictly speaking, a zwickelbier is a specific lager style—an efferverscent kellerbier, according to the German Beer Institute. (I know, that helps a lot!) It's unpasteurized (the norm for craft beer) and unfiltered (somewhat more unusual), which gives it a cloudy look. Kellerbiers are matured in unsealed vessels, often oak casks, which allows the gases created by fermentation to escape; zwickelbiers finish their fermentation in sealed vessels, which forces that gas to dissolve in the beer.

The presence of yeast that would usually be filtered out changes the flavor of the final product dramatically (and provides a nice shot of B vitamins), but because zwickelbiers aren't aged like kellerbiers but rather served or packaged as soon as they're done fermenting, they're less stable in bottles or kegs and thus don't often get shipped to distant markets; the GBI notes that zwickelbier is generally not available in North America. The yeast in such "raw beer" is rendered dormant by low temperatures during carbonation, but given enough time in uncontrolled conditions it can nonetheless cause unpredictable things to happen. Tracy Hurst at Metropolitan figures nothing will go wrong with their kegs of Zwickel Flywheel for at least four to six weeks, but that's probably a moot point—at this rate folks will drink their way through the whole batch long before then.

Zwickel Flywheel doesn't attempt to duplicate a traditional zwickelbier or kellerbier—it's precisely the same recipe as ordinary off-the-shelf Flywheel, except kegged zwickel style, unfiltered and ruthlessly fresh. (Hurst says it's the only regular-rotation Metropolitan beer whose flavor benefits from leaving in the lager yeast.) It made the trip from fermentation vessel to bright tank the morning of Tuesday, July 30, and the kegs went onto the truck that evening. The beer I had on Friday was three days old, and if you take my advice and seek some out tonight, it'll be just six days out of the tank.

Zwickel Flywheel in the Hopleaf beer garden = perfect
  • Zwickel Flywheel in the Hopleaf beer garden = perfect

So then. Enough talk! Let's get to the damn beer.

Zwickel Flywheel is a bright straw color, with a modest but persistent pillowy-white head (unfiltered beers contain more of the proteins that aid in head retention), and if sunlight hits it at just the right angle its cloudiness makes it seem to glow from within. It smells of fresh sourdough toast and Meyer lemon, with a bit of hay or grass and something mellow, fruity, and floral that combines rose, violet, peach, and honeydew melon.

Sweetly bready malts and clean noble hops dominate the flavor, and the beer is light, creamy, and effervescent. The bitter, peppery finish reminds me a bit of rye and a bit of genmaicha, that variety of Japanese green tea made with roasted rice. I pick up a faint minerality like wet slate, and as the beer warms, subtle notes of fruit and flowers come forward again, underneath the lemon—cantaloupe and white grape, plus more rose and peach. These delicate flavors come from the yeast, I assume, because I can't find them in ordinary bottled Flywheel.

The Metropolitan folks have been making Zwickel Flywheel intermittently since 2011, but till now they've filled only the occasional keg for the Bavarian Lodge in Lisle or for a festival—this beer won the Cellarmen's Award, also called the Golden Tut, at the 2013 Day and Night of the Living Ales. The current rollout extends to at least 50 bars in Chicago and the suburbs, and I've personally verified that Acre, the Hopleaf, Jerry's Sandwiches in Wicker Park, Fountainhead, Small Bar Division, and Headquarters Beercade are pouring it now. The brewery has assembled a handy Google Map that includes every place that's received at least one keg.

Once it's gone, Zwickel Flywheel won't appear again (at least not on so wide a scale) till next August. But the Metropolitan crew have plenty of other plans—this week, for instance, they're working with the Chicago Diner on a small-batch rauchbier, probably destined for the restaurant's Logan Square location.

Metropolitan's new, bigger brewery is still just a twinkle in their eyes, but they recently expanded their current facility; along with the retirement of Iron Works as a year-round beer, this has allowed them to add a seasonal to their regular rotation. An Oktoberfest arrives in September, and a schwarzbier is on deck for the holidays. (Iron Works has become a spring seasonal.) Even better, Metro's fabulous doppelbock, Generator, will be bottled for the first time in January. I plan to stock up.

I won't belabor the metal portion of this post. Here's my favorite Baroness song, "Isak." I don't have a good reason for choosing Baroness, except that Tracy Hurst was headed to their show on Saturday when she replied to my text looking for info about this beer. Whose song was I supposed to use? It's not like there's a metal band with "Flywheel" in its name.

Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.

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