Category Archives: Lager Beer Made in USA

Lager Beer Made In USA, Part 2: Goldfinger, History and Community

This is the second part in my series about some of the excellent lager beer that I had on our trip to the US in June 2024.

Goldfinger Brewing Company (Downers Grove, IL): History and Community

I had first been in touch with Tom Beckmann, the founder and brewer of Goldfinger Brewing Company, a few years ago, when they had first launched Danube Swabian, their interpretation of a historic Vienna Lager based on specs from my book about the beer style. I found that truly honouring, not just that somebody makes product decisions and takes a certain business risk based on things I like to write in my free time, but the extent to which Tom implemented it was better than I could have ever hoped.

Tom is a big proponent of decoction mashing, so that was of course an element of this beer, but I think what influenced the character of the beer even more was the decision to recreate a historic Vienna malt, in cooperation with Sugar Creek Malt in Lebanon, Indiana. Using Haná barley grown in Indiana and the description from my book of how Vienna malt used to be made historically (with some adjustments), they recreated a Vienna malt quite close to the historic original.

Downers Grove is an easy 50 minute train ride away from Chicago Union Station. Add 10 minutes of walking, and you’re at Goldfinger’s taproom. When we did our trip on a Saturday, it was quite rainy. Several people in Chicago later told me how the weather was “icky”, but I actually enjoyed that, and taking the commuter train through some of Chicago’s southwestern suburbs was surprisingly relaxing.

Tom had mentioned that he was at a “brewery of the month” event in a local market hall and that he was going to join us later, so we just sat down in the busy taproom and ordered beers. Goldfinger Original (a Helles) for Louise, their regular Vienna Lager (of course!) for me.

On the front right, a Tübinger glass with Vienna Lager. Behind it on the left, a Helles in a Tübinger glass. Both beers have a very dense, white head.

With a very recent impression of Dovetail’s excellent beers, these two were quite different. Well, as different as beers of the same respective styles could be. What I very much noticed about the Vienna Lager was a slight residual malt sweetness, and I was somehow immediately transported back to Czechia, but was also reminded of the historic example I had brewed years ago myself.

Yes, if Dovetail’s Vienna Lager is Franconian in its character, then Goldfinger’s Vienna Lager is very much Czech in the best way possible. This is not a judgment of relative quality, in my book both are equally excellent and without exaggeration some of the best Vienna Lagers I’ve ever had.

The beer was so good, I tried not to down it too quickly. Eventually, Tom arrived, and we got chatting, first and foremost about his brewery, his family history (Goldfinger brewery is named after Markus Goldfinger, a brewer and brewing equipment manufacturer from Kraków in modern-day Poland, and an ancestor of Tom), and of course about his beers.

Oh, yes, the beers: I tried all of them on the menu. I don’t remember all the details of all of them, but a lasting impression for me was that every single one of them was absolutely flawless, full of flavour, and so enticing that you would have wanted a second one of every single one of them. Goldfinger Original, Vienna Lager, German Pils, Mexican Lager, Heller Bock (it was the end of Maibock season, after all) and Hefeweizen were on tap, and all of them excellent examples of their respective styles. Not just excellent, but formulated and brewed to absolute precision.

Specifically for the German Pils, Tom told us that he was inspired by Tegernseer Pils when he spent time in Bavaria as part of his brewing education at World Brewing Academy (a cooperation of Siebel in Chicago and Doemens just outside of Munich). While it wasn’t an identical clone, I absolutely got the similarity. Bavarian Pils, whether it’s from Schönramer, Augustiner, Tegernseer or Hofbräuhaus Traunstein, is the best Pils in Germany in my book, and Goldfinger’s German Pils plays in the same league with its fine hop aroma and incredible drinkability.

Of course, no visit to a brewery is complete without a tour around the brewery facilities themselves.

Goldfinger’s brew kit.
The view from the steps of the brew kit towards at least 10 horizontal lagering tanks stacked on top of each other, as well as a cylindroconical tank and two homebrew-sized cylindroconcial tanks. In the background, parts of the brewery taproom can be seen.

You could tell by the size of everything that Tom has big plans for Goldfinger, and fortunately still lots of space to expand to.

While showing us around, he told us about some of the approaches he takes when it comes to ingredients. What I found interesting is that he uses domestic base malts from large producers such as Rahr, then local craft malts from Sugar Creek, and imported malts from e.g. Weyermann, and blends them as he sees fit.

We got to try a sample of Sugar Creek Pilsner malt, it was the most complex tasting Pilsner malt I’ve ever come across. Tom was really pleased with the malt, and I can totally understand why. In fact, I’d love to brew with malt like that myself.

Another peculiarity is that Tom is strictly sticking to lager brewing only, so only bottom-fermenting yeast will enter his brewery. You may have noticed earlier that I did drink a Hefeweizen. It was actually a collaboration with nearby Skeleton Key Brewery, where it was also produced (in my opinion, it was as good as some of the better Bavarian versions; in fact, it reminded me of Schneider Helle Weisse).

Similarly with another seasonal beer that I think has been released only a few weeks ago, the New Zealand Lager: when we told him that the first New Zealand Pilsner brewed at Emerson’s in Dunedin was actually just fermented with US-05 (a top-fermenting American ale yeast strain) at cool temperatures, Tom insisted that he’d only ever brew the style as a bottom-fermented beer.

To be completely honest, I can’t exactly remember whether we tried the NZ Lager from the tank because we tried so many beers that afternoon, but what we most definitely sampled was the Märzen and the Summer Beer. The Summer Beer was also released recently, and was inspired by Anchor Summer Beer. It’s not a clone, but Tom was apparently so impressed by the original, he took all the elements he liked so much about it and recreated them in this summerly 4.0% ABV beer.

The Märzen on the other is a completely different beast, at (IIRC) just over 6% ABV. It’s amber-coloured and has the right amount of malt flavour to make it taste distinctly like the style it’s supposed to be. I also remember a slight residual sweetness, but the beer itself was the opposite of cloying. I could see myself leisurely drinking a few Maß of that beer over the course of a long afternoon in a beer garden or a beer tent. And there was just something about it that very much reminded me of Ayinger’s Festbier of which I once had an unfiltered sample from the lagering tank.

Tom Beckmann squatting in front of one of the lagering tanks, pouring samples of Märzen straight from the tank’s Zwickel. In the background, the people in the taproom can be seen through a large window.

(when you have an Austrian go to a small brewery in Chicagoan suburbia, drink their beer and suddenly reminisce about all the great Bavarian beers it reminds him of, you know the brewery is doing something very right)

Lagering times are another area where Tom doesn’t compromise. No beer is rushed, and some styles are given even more time to condition and mature, like the Märzen which gets a full 6 months of lagering, much longer than what even contemporary Bavarian breweries would do.

We eventually had to catch our train back to Chicago, so just before we were about to leave, Tom surprised us with a four-pack of Danube Swabian as well as some Goldfinger merch. I had assumed that batch of beer was completely sold out and gone, but he had kept a few. What a fantastic gift!

A selfie of a very happy me with Tom Beckmann, holding said four-pack of Danube Swabian in my hand.

I managed to sample the beer when we were finally back in Berlin (at the time of writing, I still have 3 cans in my beer fridge), and there is definitely something special about it. It’s ever so slightly paler than a Vienna Lager made from modern Vienna malt would typically be, but it has a complex malt aroma and flavour that decidedly makes it not a Pilsner. To me, being able to drink that beer means so much, as I never would have thought 4 or 5 years ago when I still worked on my Vienna Lager book that it could inspire people around the world to do such meticulous collaborative work and create the most faithful reproduction of a historic Vienna Lager as of now.

(for the record, Westerham Brewery in Kent is a very close second, which got Crisp Maltings to produce a Haná Vienna malt; I unfortunately never got to actually try it).

Besides the beer and the brewery itself, there were things that particularly impressed me about Goldfinger after my visit: a deep understanding of their own history, and a great sense of community.

The History

While Goldfinger Brewing in Downers Grove, IL, was only founded in 2020, Tom’s family’s connection to brewing goes back to the 19th century, when his ancestor Markus Goldfinger had founded a brewery in Kraków in 1874. When you enter the brewery, the entrance area is basically a mini exhibition about Markus Goldfinger and his brewery and brewing equipment business. Tom even owns a historic Goldfinger-branded tap from the time period.

The close connection to this history absolutely resonated with me. Naturally, I was interested in how much I was able to find out about Markus Goldfinger myself. And it turns out, a few things:

Markus Goldfinger officially registered the firm “M. Goldfinger” on March 20, 1874 at the company register at the Imperial-Royal Regional Court in Kraków (source).

His son Samuel got married in Vienna on March 5, 1889 to Sidonie Silberstein, to which Gambrinus, one of the Austrian brewing and hop trade newspapers at the time, congratulated them. Markus Goldfinger is acknowledged as Brauherr (brewery owner) in Kraków (source).

In the following years, his name appears several times in guest lists of the Austria spa town of Baden bei Wien, e.g here. In later years, his profession is simply described as Kaufmann (i.e. merchant or business man), and I wonder whether it has to do with a shift towards his brewing equipment business.

What got me excited the most though was when I found Markus Goldfinger’s name in a short list of breweries of Kraków, in an index of breweries, distilleries and sugar factories in Austria-Hungary from 1880 (source).

One of the other names appearing in this list is Johann Götz. He was a cousin of Anton Dreher, and was working as brewing foreman (basically head brewer) at Kleinschwechat where he helped invent and brew the very early Vienna Lager, until 1845, when he left Kleinschwechat and founded Okocim Brewery in what is nowadays Poland. While I don’t have definite, conclusive proof, I would say that it’s extremely likely that the few brewery owners of Kraków at the time must have all known each other. At least in Vienna and its suburbs, the brewers all had a Stammtisch where they met regularly. So quite likely, Markus Goldfinger hung out with Johann Götz, someone very closely connected with the invention of Vienna Lager, and discussed the latest innovations in the brewing world.

One of the things I have yet to find out more about is something Tom told me about: Markus Goldfinger apparently owned a number of patents on various brewing equipment he had developed. Unfortunately, in the Austrian Patent Office’s online archive of historic “privileges” (“Privileg” was the historic term for what is nowadays a patent), nothing seems to come up, so either it’s not been digitised yet or is simply not in the archive.

In any case, Tom’s interest in the history of brewing and how he connects it with his brewery was just astounding to me, and definitely showed to me how much thought he put into everything in and around the brewery.

The Community

But Tom isn’t just celebrating the history of brewing with Goldfinger, the brewery also seems to be very community-focused. I first noticed this when we visited the taproom. The weather was quite miserable, there weren’t that many cars parked outside, and yet, the taproom seemed almost full, at a brewery that only serves lager beer styles in a country with a beer scene that is now infamous for its obsession with IPAs. So very clearly, there must be something special about the brewery and the beer that attracts people to just go there (and I guess, quite a few people made it part of their Saturday afternoon walk, or even walked there despite the rain).

We were made really welcome already when we ordered our first beers, everyone of the staff were super friendly and explained everything they offered and did (when I first ordered my Vienna Lager, I asked for a “large” beer, assuming it would be small 0.3l and large 0.5l pours; no, the large option is indeed a Maßkrug, and I was kindly warned about this, LOL).

When you follow the brewery on Instagram (please do!), you will also notice that quite often, visiting food trucks are regularly being announced which also seems to attract quite a crowd. An even cooler event are the monthly tappings of Stichfässer every first Tuesday of the month, just a cask of gravity-poured beer, each time tapped by a different guest tapper from another local brewery. If I lived anywhere near Downers Grove, that alone would be a good reason for me to visit regularly. Most recently, an unfiltered, only briefly lagered version of their Pils was served (a true Keller-Pils), while the month before that, a sneak peek of the Märzen was served, when it still had 3 more months to lager.

The other aspect of community is how Tom interacts with everyone in the beer scene, whether it’s customers at the taproom, professional brewers or beer writers like me. I felt incredibly welcome, and Tom was just such a lovely and generous host that made my visit truly memorable. He also brings together brewers (like inviting guest tappers for the monthly Stichfass), and connected me with head brewer Dusan at Live Oak in Austin, TX (more about them in my next post) for which I’m really grateful. Also, my friend Colin who happened to visit the brewery with his family just a day before us seemed taken aback when he mentioned that he had spoken to Tom, and Tom had remembered him from his only other visit several years back.

So, yeah, Goldfinger Brewing in Downers Grove, Illinois is one of the top places in the US for amazing lager beers and to spend a great time in a vibrant and yet relaxed atmosphere. If you’re ever in Chicago, don’t miss out on their beers, and say hello to Tom if he’s there.

If you want to hear about all this from Tom himself, Craft Beer & Brewing have recorded a podcast with him last year, and if you want to brew one of their beers (and are a subscriber to Craft Beer & Brewing, which I really recommend #notanad), you can find the recipe for Smoked Helles (a collaboration with Fair State Brewing Cooperative) here.

Remember how rainy it was on Saturday, June 1, 2024 in Downers Grove, Illinois? Pepperidge Farm remembers.

Lager Beer Made In USA, Part 1: Dovetail, Franconian at Heart

My wife and I spent the first two weeks of June 2024 in the US for our holiday. I got this trip as a gift for my 40th birthday last year from my lovely wife (lucky me!): we started in Chicago, IL, then went to Austin, TX, and finished the trip with a few days in Boston, MA.

I could tell you all the details of my trip, and how absolutely amazing it was, but this is not a travel blog. I rather want to talk about beer. More specifically, about lager beer, because that’s what interests me, and that’s what I want to drink. So that’s what I did: lager beers of whatever style available was my first choice when ordering beer in the US. I had plenty of excellent ones, some good ones, some okay ones, and some bland and boring ones. So let me tell you about the outstanding ones, about 4 breweries that I was very much interested in from the start, and which did not disappoint. This is part 1 of a series of articles that I intend to publish in the next few weeks.

Dovetail (Chicago): Franconian at Heart

I had heard about Dovetail quite a few years ago, everyone I know who had visited there had told me that their beers were excellent, so naturally, I just had to go there as well. As I had previously communicated with them by email, I mentioned my intention to visit and say hello, and was invited for a tour around the brewery.

On our first full day in Chicago, our plan was to watch a baseball game (Cubs v Phillies) and then to visit the brewery for a few beers afterwards (Dovetail isn’t far away from Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ gorgeous historic stadium), which is exactly what we did. After ordering our beers (Vienna Lager for me, of course), we were greeted by Jenny Pfäfflin (one of Dovetail’s employees who I’ve known on social media for years) and Hagen Dost and Bill Wesselink, the brewery founders. We were chatting and trying out the beers. By coincidence, another group of people from Canada also visited the brewery to meet Hagen et al, so we also got to say hello to them. It was a pleasant surprise to discover Jordan St. John in the group, who I had followed online for years. The beer world seems so small when something like that happens.

We were eventually shown around by Hagen and Jenny in a private tour of the brewery. Dovetail’s brew kit is very German: a mash tun, a lauter tun, a kettle, and a holding vessel.

Dovetail’s brewing system. From left to right: holding vessel, kettle, mash tun, lauter tun. They are accessible through a gallery via stairs. On the front, a computer panel is installed. Next to the stairs is a small standing desk with lab equipment and documents.

Following a rather traditional vibe, the brew kit is accompanied by a coolship located upstairs, into which wort is pumped after boiling and left to cool there until it’s dropped to 75°C (167F) after which it’s pumped through a plate chiller and into open fermenters (accomplishing the traditional vibe).

As Hagen had to leave but we had so much more to talk about, he invited me to come around another day for me to witness some of their brewing. And that was truly exciting: sure, I got to see somebody brewing on the kit, but most excitingly, I witnessed wort being cooled in the coolship!

A happy looking Hagen Dost leaning against the side of the coolship which is getting filled with wort of the day’s first turn of Hefeweizen, while the room fills with steam.

In my conversation with Hagen, what became clear to me is how well he understands Bavarian and Franconian beer culture, and how much he’s done to discover some great breweries off the beaten path. He then showed us how a coolship was part of the plan when he was brewing with Bill before they had even founded Dovetail: on one side of the room, a small rectangular metal vat was leaning against the wall, which is what they used as a coolship when they still test-brewed on essentially home-brew scale.

But Dovetail isn’t just a German-style brewery: they will brew the classic Central European styles, whether they’re from Germany, Austria, Czechia or Poland, but also do spontaneously fermented beers in the style of Belgian Lambic (they don’t call it that, though). I didn’t try any of the sour beers, but I tried plenty of the others: Helles, Dunkles, Vienna Lager, Lager (their idea of a Franconian Landbier), Sticke (a slightly stronger Altbier), Kölsch, Rauchbier, and Grodziskie. Honestly, I couldn’t fault any of them.

The Vienna Lager is straight to the point: just Vienna malt and Styrian Golding hops. According to Jenny, they occasionally get people complaining how it’s not adherent to the BJCP style guidelines, and they’re right. But neither would have been historic Vienna Lager, and the BJCP is meant for competitions. Dovetail’s Vienna Lager has a certain minimalism about it that just makes it an easy-drinking, uncomplicated beer with the right amount of malt complexity to make it exciting and a beer I could’ve been drinking the whole afternoon/evening (if I hadn’t wanted to try many/most/all of their beers).

The Dunkles was equally good, and exactly what I’d expect in a Bavarian brewery. Hagen later told me it had been inspired by Kloster Weltenburg’s Dunkel. Their Lager was a kind of Helles, similar but different from their regular Helles, and definitely something I’d expect in a small Franconian brewery served as the #1 beer consumed in large quantities by most of the village. Sticke and Kölsch tasted like the Rhineland, the Rauchbier would probably be well-received in Bamberg (personally, it reminded me more of Spezial than of Schlenkerla), and the Grodziskie wasn’t very different from the one I tried a few months ago.

But most importantly, all of the beers had character. They weren’t just very good, clean examples of their respective styles, they all had something about them that made them truly exciting to drink. Some cleaner, some maybe a bit rustic, but all of them with something that just screamed “this is the style in which we brew our beers, and we like it like that” to me.

That’s when I realised that there is something very Franconian about Dovetail, not just in the aspects of traditional brewing (like the coolship and the open fermentation), but also the “house style” that goes into them. At the same time, Hagen is very technically minded: he spoke to me about how they are very specific about certain temperature rests during mashing, such as alpha amylase rest (a mash rest at a temperature range that promotes the activity of alpha amylase, an enzyme that chops down chains of starch first into unfermentable dextrines and if given enough time, eventually into some fermentable sugars), as there are other things happening at around 72°C, such as the extraction of glycoproteins, which are relevant for head retention. Hagen even specifically spoke about glycoprotein rest and how important it was for their Hefeweizen which they brewed that day.

(Back home in Germany, I looked up glycoproteins in brewing literature, and really, Prof. Narziss mentions it in a few sentences in his book)

Four open fermenters in the fermentation room at Dovetail, accompanied by two yeast harvesting vessels.

Hagen also emphasised the importance of the coolship in removing DMS precursors from their wort. What I could contribute was to teach him the German term for that: “ausstinken” (lit. “to stink off”), and that it’s not only used to describe what happens in the coolship, but also in open fermentation, another traditional element Dovetail employs.

All in all, I was really happy with every single beer I drank at Dovetail. I also have to thank everyone at Dovetail, but especially Jenny, Hagen and Bill, for the friendly welcome we received. We actually brought a few cans of their Helles and their Vienna Lager back to Berlin, and they travelled quite well.

Thinking back, there is something quite special about a brewery like Dovetail, something that I wouldn’t be able to find the same way in Germany: I could go there to drink really well-brewed German, Czech, Polish styles, easily at the same level as a good, traditional brewery back in Europe. But unlike here, I could enjoy a whole range of local styles from all over Central Europe at the same time. I don’t know of any brewery that serves a Helles, a Kölsch, an Altbier, a Rauchbier, a Hefeweizen and a Grodziskie all at once, at an incredible quality.

A handled beer glass of Helles on the left, and a Willibecher of Vienna Lager on the right, both sat on coasters on the bar at Dovetail. In the background, a historic copper Grant with swan neck taps for lautering can be seen embedded in the wall.