The Thrills of Pils

It’s hot here in Long Beach. Chances are it’s also pretty hot wherever you’re reading this. In such a climate, whether you’re hanging out by the pool or unwinding after a long day of work, your choice in beer tends to be focused on one thing–refreshment. So you open the fridge and grab a nice, chilled Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout with Cacao Nibs, Coffee, and Chipotle to quench your thirst. You’re not sure if it’s the 12% alcohol by volume, the fact that you drink it at 55 degrees, or the roasted quality of the coffee, but something about this beer really hits the spot on a hot day, right? No! Of course not. Enter the Pilsner.

Pilsner arose during the Industrial Revolution as the first light-colored lager and took over the world’s drinking preferences remarkably quickly for reasons you might expect: it was easy to drink, tasted best when cold, and had a low enough alcohol content to warrant drinking large volumes. By the second half of the 20th Century, brewing efficiency had metastasized pilsner into a flavorless shadow of its former self, with macrobreweries using rice and corn in the malt bill for a thinner body and cheaper product. The craft beer revolution understandably revolted against this style and craft brewers preferred to make complex and/or full-flavored ales over delicate lagers. You may recall that, for years, Stone Brewing’s slogan was “Fizzy yellow beer is for Wussies!”

I really should pack my lunch in this bad boy

But, whether with maturity or palate fatigue, craft beer drinkers are finally coming back around to a style either forgotten, misunderstood, or ignored for so many years. Perhaps a reason brewers avoided pilsner for so long is that it’s hard to do well. After all, with flavored stouts or hop-laden IPAs, it can be easy to mask an off-flavor that arises during the brewing process. In a pilsner, with its delicate malt body and flavorful-but-not-super-bitter hop profile, any error in brewing becomes readily apparent.

I warmed up to the style last year while studying for the Certified Cicerone exam and re-examining many beers with a more critical eye. While tasting through Central European lagers, most of which surprised me with their quality, I included Pilsner Urquell to represent Czech Pilsners. Instantly, the malty aromas of bread crust jumped out of the glass, followed by the light earthy spiciness of Saaz hops. I was hooked. It was so much better than I remembered and it actually became hard to concentrate on the beers that followed because I would invariably compare them to Pilsner Urquell. From that moment to now, nearly a year later, pilsners have been my go-to style.

It’s important to note that there are two similar, but distinct styles of pilsner: German and Czech. The Czech Pilsner, also known as the Bohemian Pilsner (and now officially the Czech Premium Pale Lager according to the Beer Judge Certification Program), is darker and maltier than its German counterpart and brewed with Saaz, the classic Czech hop. German Pils, often spelled pilsener (with the extra “e”) in German, is a light gold beer that seems more bitter than a Czech Pilsner due to its milder malt bill. It’s typically brewed with German-cultivated Noble hops like Spalt, Tettnang, and Hallertau Mittelfrüh and leaves a slightly stronger bitter aftertaste.  I’m partial to the Czech Pilsner mainly for the bready malt profile and my preference of Saaz hops over the other Noble varieties.

Modern Times Ice’s natural habitat

What comes next for pilsner? In the must-have beer book, Tasting Beer, author Randy Mosher says that he would “like to see Americans loosen up a little and not be so reverential,” adding that “[a] dash of creativity could help liven up this category in the marketplace.” Recently, it’s starting to look like he’s getting his wish. Noble Aleworks was ahead of the curve when they released Pistol Whip’d a few years ago, which was one of the first pilsners I know of to use New Zealand hops–Motueka, in their case. Earlier this year, I attended a coffee beer festival featuring dozens of coffee stouts and imperial porters. Yet, the beer I kept coming back to was Cellarman’s Pils, a coffee-laden pilsner from Creature Comforts out of Athens, Georgia. Modern Times, who’s seen success with their pilsner, Ice, has been experimenting with the style and released their own NZ-hopped pilsner called Meru, as well as an absolute gem of a beer, Bogus Totem. This special release brew took an already delicious pilsner base and added pineapple and tiki spices to it and instantly became a favorite.

In addition to the beers I’ve mentioned above, I’d be remiss not to recommend some other fine pilsners I’ve had recently. In no particular order, here are a few more I think are worth seeking out: Half Acre’s Pony Pils, Societe’s The Heiress Czech Pilsner, Pizza Port Pick Six Pilsner, and Central Coast Brewing’s Keller Pils. It also seems like Firestone Walker has released a brewer favorite in Pivo Pils, a German pilsner that’s incredibly balanced and pairs well with food and hard work alike. Lastly, in a cleverly named attempt to swallow their pride, Stone Brewing now brews a quality pilsner called Wussie. So, as we slog through the dog days of summer, do the right thing and grab yourself a pilsner; nobody’s judging (anymore).

 


Have you jumped on the pilsner train yet? If so, what’s your favorite? Let me know in the comments!

Judas, Benedict Arnold, Wicked Weed?

Yesterday, Wicked Weed Brewing agreed to be acquired by AB InBev, the parent company of Budweiser, Stella Artois, et al. and the largest beer company globally by a monstrous margin. Of all the craft brewing buyouts, this has made the most headlines since Ballast Point’s billion dollar deal, but has arguably sent more shockwaves throughout the craft beer community.  When Ballast Point sold, the biggest surprise to everyone was the number associated with the deal. They had been expanding so rapidly that the idea of them selling out was not entirely unfathomable. But for Wicked Weed, which I venture a good portion of you have never tried, it feels different.

Wicked Weed became popular in the brewing boomtown of Asheville, NC for doing a lot of styles well, and more recently have been a craft beer darling for their outstanding sour beers. Last year, I sang the praises of Red Angel and Angel of Darkness from my visit to the Firestone Walker Invitational. So when the news broke that they agreed to sell, it felt like losing one of the good guys. Breweries, especially sour breweries, were quick to react. Jester King, The Rare Barrel, and Black Project quickly released statements canceling collaboration beers with Wicked Weed and/or dropping out of Wicked Weed’s own invitational beer festival. Additionally, the two breweries closest to my heart, Beachwood and Modern Times, both reiterated what it means when a conglomerate gobbles up another craft brand: AB InBev is trying to fill all available “craft” beer shelves with breweries in their portfolio by any means necessary. And, as best they can, they want to do this without the consumer noticing. Increased production by Elysian, or Golden Road, or Wicked Weed ends with less independently-owned beer available.

I love a brewery with a solid backbone. @beachwoodbbq @beachwoodbrewing

Independent breweries, especially the ones that fight tooth and nail against the nefarious practices the big guys use, are small businesses that support local jobs and economies. When they succeed, the money stays in local communities. When they are acquired, the money (in this case) goes to Belgium, Brazil, St. Louis, and wherever else AB InBev has headquarters. Wicked Weed seemed like one of those small businesses, and yesterday, it let a lot of folks down–drinkers and brewers alike. It’s not illegal to sell your business for a profit–in fact, it’s one of the things many people in this country dream about. However, when that sale violates an ethical boundary many of your peers aren’t willing to cross because it would negatively affect the group as a whole, you have to be willing to live with the decision.

Beer geeks will know about this sale and, hopefully, vote with their wallet to avoid Wicked Weed in the future. Casual craft beer drinkers might not, which is exactly how AB InBev wants it. If you know better, I urge you to inform your friends which company really owns the beer they want to buy next time you’re at a bar or bottle shop. I’ve stopped (as much as I can reasonably help it) buying beer from Golden Road, Ballast Point, 10 Barrel, and Lagunitas. And after today’s second kidney punch news that Heineken is buying the remaining 50% of Lagunitas, that’s not about to change. Stay informed, and stay vigilant!


Note: I previously stated that I intended to continue to drink Ballast Point when I wrote about their acquisition. With more knowledge, this is no longer my position or my practice.

Brew More to Drink Better

The inspiration for my creation

As I write this, a five gallon batch of beer is bubbling away in contented fermentation in my closet. It’s a West Coast IPA with Simcoe and Amarillo hops done in the style of Alpine’s Duet, the beer that originally sold me on the brewery over half a decade ago. I don’t homebrew all that often, maybe two or three times a year, but I feel myself becoming a more astute drinker each time I do. Homebrewing not only teaches the steps involved in crafting a beer, it familiarizes me with ingredients as individual components. I’ve said before that an understanding of the brewing process can deepen your appreciation for beer, but actually doing invites the hands-on knowledge that can’t be obtained otherwise.

Not Mosaic, but a similarly great hop

Oftentimes, you’ll hear someone tout the aroma of a hop-forward beer, indicating which hop variety contributes to this particularly pleasing scent. While it’s possible that beer has a clean and an unassuming malt profile with unobtrusive yeast, chances are the finished product doesn’t smell like hops and hops alone. Brewing, even every once in awhile, allows you to evaluate these ingredients individually, so when someone offers you a Mosaic-hopped IPA, you know what Mosaic hops should smell like in their natural (or pelletized) state. Then, the next time you sniff that IPA, you’ll be able to notice how the hops actually build on the subtle sweetness of Canadian two-row or Maris Otter malts or that some of the fruit aromas come from the yeast instead. Of course, the critical drinker could buy these ingredients from a homebrew shop for educational purposes without the intention of brewing with them, but where would the fun be in that?

Furthermore, homebrewing reminds you that brewing isn’t easy and can hopefully keep the egos of hypercritical beer geeks in check when they realize that the pale ale they brewed not only doesn’t hold a candle to Hill Farmstead’s offerings, it probably isn’t as good as the local brewery’s Cascade-hopped pale ale they just gave three stars to on Untappd. When we get used to having really good beer, it’s nice to have some humility and recognize the extraordinary effort taken to reach the quality we now enjoy.