In the world of foodie/drink pairings there are some perfect matches: chocolate chip cookies and milk, coffee and donuts, and a personal favorite: beer and pretzels. Sometime in the Middle Ages, probably like the year 915, an Italian monk baker at a German monastery took some dough, rolled it out, and crossed the ends over to look like a praying child. Or so they say. He was actually playing a joke on a friend. Alfonso was like, "Look Gunter, I made this dough shape to look like you begging for another pint!" and Gunter was all like, "Alfons — that's not funny. But damn this tastes good! If only it had some salt." And Alfonso was like, "Ya! Salt! With this dough and sodium going in your fat belly to absorb the alcohol, you can beg for more bier!" You know those monks were all chemists and stuff. And thus the pretzel was born.
Alright, so that may be a bit of drunken history, but the awesome pairing of beer and pretzels cannot be denied. In America we typically favor the crunchy bar pretzel, but in beer halls across Germany the soft pretzel reigns. I'm pleased to see Charleston's new biergartens are embracing the Bavarian preference.
Before we head out on a beer hall crawl and taste some of Charleston's best dough knots, let's get started on a batch of our own. After all you really can't appreciate something until you have made it yourself. Big thanks to the folks at Bay Street Biergarten for offering a home-cook version of their soft pretzels. After testing upwards of 60 recipes they should know a good one when they see it. Apologies too, as the commentary within the recipe is my own.
That's the stuff to make the dough, more in a while. Let's get started with this part, because I really want to get to the first beer joint. Take the water, sugar, and yeast and throw them in the bowl of a stand mixer. Listen, if you don't have a stand mixer, shame on you, and, well, go ahead and give up now. Just kidding. Do you think old Alfonso had a stand mixer back in 915? Hell no. So mix up your ingredients in a regular bowl and get ready to use your hands. Give the sugar and yeast mix a quick stir. Let that sit for about five minutes. Basically until it starts to foam, and foam it will. Speaking of foam ...
Let's head down Folly Road to the Bohemian Bull (in the old Jack's Cosmic Dog). Chad Biel and the guys there have 32 beers on tap, including the Boho Beer, a rotating domestic beer that changes often but is always $3 a pint. Out back you can play bocce ball or cornhole in their Biergarten with a Southern twist. Of course you can do all this while enjoying a tasty soft pretzel too. The Bohemian Bull pretzel is made by Normandy Farm and delivered fresh daily, often warm from the oven. It's a bit skinnier than its Bavarian cousin but delicious all the same. The Bohemian Bull pretzel is reminiscent of the soft pretzels served at ball barks and skating rinks. Mind you, what they offer is made locally and by hand and that makes a world of difference. In tasting local pretzels I did find that upgrading to the house beer cheese dip (where offered) was always a good choice. Biergarten Pretzel: $5.50.
Back to our pretzels. How does the yeast look? Frothy? Smell like beer? It should, we were fermenting the yeast, which is similar to the first steps in creating beer. Rather than add more liquid, however, we're going to toss in a bunch of flour. So instead of making liquid bread, it's like we are making solid beer. Go ahead and add the other ingredients to the liquid: flour, beer, butter, and salt and turn on the mixer to low. Mix it on low speed until well blended, about 3 minutes. After that, increase the speed to medium and knead the dough until it's smooth and pulls away from the bowl, another 3 to 4 minutes. This is the part where we are giving the dough structure by stretching the glutens. Under-stretching can lead to lack of structure (a doughy mess) and over-stretching can lead to tough dough. Smooth dough is what you're after in this recipe. Expect it to take about seven minutes. You folks in the Middle Ages (sans stand mixer) start grabbing fists of the mix and blend until it's smooth and doesn't stick to your hands. While you do that, those of us in the modern day will go for another pint.
Down on Cumberland Street is another of Charleston's new beer houses: The Craftsmen Kitchen and Tap House. The Craftsmen has a selection of 48 beers on tap, most of them rotating regularly. While a soft pretzel is not a regular on the menu, they do have one of my favorite bar snacks: brats on pretzels buns. Chef Todd Garrigan is passionate about making food in house. For this dish he creates great little housemade brats, beer mustard, and beer pickles and serves them on a locally made pretzel rolls made by Brown's Court Bakery. The pretzel rolls seem custom-made for the brats here. They are the perfect size and the crunchy exterior blends nicely with the soft brats. Enjoy them with a strong IPA as chef Todd suggests. You have to get there early though, they stop serving them at 7 p.m. Brat bangers on pretzel rolls with mustard and pickles: $4.
Are you finished mixing yet? How does the dough look? Shiny and smooth? Is your mixer walking all over the counter? Perfect! Then it's time for the first rising of the dough. Find a nice size bowl, one that can hold twice the amount of dough you have. Slosh a bit of vegetable oil around in the bowl, making sure all of the interior surface has been oiled. Then, drop the dough in the bowl and flip it once or twice to coat it in oil. Now cover the bowl with plastic wrap. (Tip: oil the side that will touch the dough. Spray oil works best for this little bit.) Cover the bowl with a towel and set it in a warm (room temperature) spot so the dough can rise. If you're in a bit of a rush you can shave 20 to 30 minutes of the rising process with a little trick. Turn your oven on to 200 degrees. Once it pre-heats, turn it off and place your bowl in the oven. Doing this should give you a rise time between 35-45 minutes. I'm in no hurry today, so I'll leave mine on the counter. We'll check it in an hour. Just enough time to go hit another beer place.
The Gin Joint is a cozy little spot on East Bay Street. It's not a biergarten, but they always have a couple of excellent beers on hand as well as a menu full of crafted mixed drinks. Joe and MariElena Raya, owners of The Gin Joint, set out to create a menu of bar food that wasn't loaded with fried finger foods. Their pretzels are shining examples of ideal bar snacks. Or perhaps it's better to call them sparkling examples. They are made fresh everyday, and MfariElena finishes these delicious pretzels with a brush of butter and a dusting of flaky Maldon sea salt. They arrive at the table toasty warm and glimmering with salt. They even come complete with a delicious Sriracha cheese dip. These pretzels are big and hunky without being doughy. They have a nicely crisp exterior and a unique sweetness to them. MariElena tells me she uses molasses as a sweetener, which is a nice little twist to the traditional soft pretzel. Soft pretzels with Sriracha cheese sauce: $7.
And speaking of twists, let's get back to work on our pretzels. The dough should have doubled in size by now. Clear some space to roll some dough. With many doughs, we would flour down the workspace to keep it from sticking. With pretzels, an oiled workspace is better, and oiled wood is best. It will help keep your pretzels from getting too doughy and will help to add more crispness to the outside. So start by lightly oiling down some counter space (or a large chopping block). Next, divide your dough in to four equal pieces. (Tip: if you want to make pretzel hamburger buns divide the dough into eight pieces and tie them into tight ball-like knots.) Take one piece at a time, covering the others with your oily plastic wrap, and with oily hands roll the dough into a long even rope (roughly 24 inches). OK, this next part could take some practice: tying the knot. Make a U-shape with the dough, take both ends and twist them over one another. Er, pass the rope ends between your hands to make the twist. Surely there is a video out there somewhere. Now pull the ends down to where they will just cross over the bottom of the original U shape. Got it? Great. Do that three more times and cover your pretzels again with the oily plastic wrap. They need to sit a few minutes (maybe 20 or so), and so do I.
Ms. Rose's in West Ashley has some nice home-cooked dishes, but we're here for two things: beer and pretzels. Ms. Rose's has 16 beers on tap, and many of them are local. Any one of them should go nicely with their housemade pretzels. Ms. Rose's buttery pretzels are made in house and come to the table with housemade cheese mustard. They are light and skinny which might want to make you order a second helping. And at $3 for two why not order more?
Time for pretzel magic. What truly makes a pretzel a pretzel is the crunchy exterior with a super soft interior. To get this crunchy shell we need to give our dough an alkali bath. The alkali bath will neutralize the acid on the surface of the dough and speed up the browning of the exterior when these hit the oven. Jeez, you guys didn't know this? It's the Maillard reaction. Surely it was covered in your high school chemistry class? Regardless, we need to get the fastest browning (Maillard reaction) possible in a short cooking time. To make the best alkali bath you need lye (food grade, not plumbing grade) and unless you are a local restaurant, that can be hard to come by. The next best (and safer) is sodium bicarbonate, a.k.a. baking soda.
Here's a list of the next few things we need:
Mix this in a little bowl and have a pastry brush ready.
The big flaky kind. You know, the kind you see on pretzels.
You will need to prep a few things. Have a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Also, get a cooling rack ready next to your stove top. You might want to have parchment under the cooling rack, things will get a bit messy. Oh, and turn the oven on to 450 degrees. While the oven heats up get the water and baking soda boiling on the stove top. Once it's at a boil, cut the burner off and let pot sit for about 10 minutes. A warm bath will give us more time to bathe the pretzel, thereby increasing the brownness. Drop one pretzel into the alkali bath and let it float for just about 30 seconds, flip it once during the 30 seconds (or spoon the liquid over the top). Remove the pretzel and set it on the cooling rack. Repeat with the three others. Once they are on the cooling rack, brush them with the egg wash. Be generous and use all the wash. Then sprinkle with salt as you prefer. Lastly set the pretzel on the prepared cookie sheet and place them in the oven. Pretzels cook fairly quickly, less than 10 minutes. Turn and rotate the trays halfway through cooking to get an even brownness. That's it! Pull them from the oven when they are done, and let them cool for a few minutes. Serve with your favorite beer (and mustard).
That was exhausting. Let's go grab one more pint to celebrate.
New to East Bay Street is Bay Street Biergarten, home to Charleston's unique "pour your own beer" taps. Fill up a beer card at the hostess stand and then find your way to one of the four public tap tables or the public wall. Once you have your beer, settle in and order the pretzel. I've been fortunate enough to visit Munich and taste the pretzels there. I can honestly say that Bay Street Biergarten pretzels are the closest thing to the real deal in town. Turns out their baker, Jason Walker, has also been through Bavaria and celebrated Oktoberfest. In between big beers Jason managed to store enough memory of the pretzels to recreate a fine recipe. His pretzels are big and doughy without being chewy. They are nicely salted with a perfectly crunchy exterior. And as an homage to their German cousins, the Bay Street Biergarten pretzels are made with a splash of beer. Jason makes them daily, and before heading to the table they are brushed with butter, salted, and heated. The pretzels are served with a side of Lusty Monk mustard. If you haven't tried Lusty Monk you are in for a surprise. Made with pure mustard seed, it delivers a big bite, like horseradish. One dip in the Lusty Monk and your sinuses will be cleared enough to smell the pretzel two tables over. The Lusty Monk is spicy fun, but Bay Street has an upgrade worth checking out: the beer cheese. Creamy and warm, the cheese is the extreme opposite of the mustard, enjoy both. Jumbo Biergarten Pretzel: $5.
So now you know the effort that goes into delivering perfect and delicious soft pretzels. Will you keep at it in your home kitchen, or just head out to one of our fine craft beer watering holes and order one? Maybe you should just plan to make some for Brewvival in February. If you've been before, you've seen the diehard beer drinkers wearing necklaces of hard pretzels. They swear it absorbs the alcohol and clears the palate, brethren of Alfonso and Gunter no doubt. Well, with your new skills as a pretzel baker you should be able to attend Brewvival with the perfect golden brown soft pretzel medallion hanging from your neck. You will be the envy of every drinker, and welcome new brothers to the church of bier and bretzen. Until then, cheers!