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‘Not the Safest Thing’: With Stein Beer, Brewers Play with Fire

Walking through Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers, amid the stainless-steel vessels, sacks of raw ingredients and other modern brewing conveniences, you’ll pass a wooden pallet stacked with granite pavers. The rocks are not there for an upcoming patio project, but rather to be super-heated, added to a brew kettle and used to make stein beer.

The act of brewing with rocks is nothing new. The human fascination with fire has smoldered on for a mega-annum, using it for warmth, cooking, protection and waging war. The earliest brewers found that heating sweet liquid and allowing it to cool and be inoculated with natural yeast would create beer. Fire-heated rocks added to a pot allowed for the needed robust boil.

As brewing technologies and safety protocols have advanced, so-called stein beers fell out of fashion.

“It’s not the safest thing,” says Jack Hendler, the cofounder and brewer of Jack’s Abby, who is also writing a book about lager traditions. “We made a big fire that maybe shouldn’t have been started, but we did make some tasty beer.”

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In terms of style, stein beers fall into the historical category. That’s how Ryan Wibby, the president and brewer of Wibby Brewing in Longmont, Colorado, came to make them. A local homebrewer had suggested the arcane style as part of a collaboration, and it sent Wibby down a ring of fire. Now he brews it several times each year.

Granite and soapstone are the best rocks to use, as they can hold thermal energy without breaking apart. Soapstone can be expensive, but granite pavers can be found at just about any garden center for a reasonable price. Then it’s building and maintaining roaring fires in chambers to get the rocks to upwards of 1000°F and carefully transferring it to the wort in the brew kettle.

Brewing process at Wibby Brewing
Image Courtesy of Wibby Brewing

“You can hear the crackling of the malt and water on those rocks as you’re lowering them into the kettle and creates this wonderfully different smell that I’ve only experienced while we make this beer,” says Wibby.

Wibby has produced stein beer a few dozen times, including one collaboration batch with NASA scientists who provided a meteorite to heat up and use in the process. The inspiration is the Lucy project, which will visit the Trojan asteroids, thought to contain information on the origins of our solar system.

“There’s no real definition to what a stein beer should taste like,” says Wibby. “It could be because it can be dark, it can be light, could be fruity. And it’s more about the technique rather than an actual flavor profile.”

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However, beers incorporating darker malts are typically praised because the sugars they produce wind up getting a deeper layer of flavor and caramelization from the rock’s extreme heat that creates a fluffier, fuller mouthfeel. As such, brewers have embraced dunkels or bocks as a preferred style. Rauchbiers, which use smoked malts that can impart bacon and campfire aromas, are also popular.

Tomme Arthur of the Lost Abbey made a stein beer for the first time a dozen years ago and has made it several times since. There isn’t a strong constant consumer demand for the style, but previous batches have sold well and quickly, and there is certainly curiosity and appreciation for the hot and labor-intensive process. He sees it as an ideal seasonal offering, either for spring or as an autumn alternative to pumpkin beers.

“I don’t know many people are making them, but definitely would like to bring it back just because it’s fun to play with flame and fire and rocks.”

Why Are Beer Steins Called That?

“Stein” is German for “stone.” In this case, the style is named for the heated rocks, but the drinking vessel gets its name from the material they were originally made from—stoneware.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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