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!

Brews and View in Portland

Certain places just get it. Oregon is one of those places. I spent three days there over the extended New Year’s weekend and was constantly reminded of how well food and drink is done in the Beaver State. Every year, my girlfriend Victoria and I travel for New Year’s Eve and our anniversary four days later. Last year, we went to Cornwall, London, and Brighton and this year, with very little planning, we ended up in Portland.

The Stars of the Show

Our friends Brennan and Garrett were gracious enough to let us stay in their house in Southeast Portland while they were in Orange County and Dubai, respectively. Instead of heading straight there from the airport, however, we beelined for Great Notion Brewing in northeast Portland, luggage and all. Great Notion is finally getting recognized on a wider scale and for good reason: they make magnificent beer across a wide spectrum of styles. I first tried their beer last year when friends brought back Crowlers (32 ounce growler cans) of Juicebox Double IPA and their Blueberry Muffin sour beer. These, and the news they had collaborated with Alpine and Abnormal Beer Company on a vanilla stout, were enough to convince me it should be our first stop in a place saturated with great beer. All the beers I tried were excellent, but the two that really stuck out were Peanut Brother, a milk stout aged on fresh chocolate and handmade peanut butter, and Over-Ripe IPA, which had the best nose of any beer I smelled in 2016. With no added fruit or experimental hops, Over-Ripe smelled just like cantaloupe and honeydew. It was as uncanny as it was delicious.

The following morning, Victoria and I went to a cornerstone of the breakfast scene in the Rose City: Pine State Biscuits. I ordered the signature sandwich, the Reggie Deluxe, which slides a fried chicken breast, cheese, an egg, and sausage gravy all between their namesake crumbly biscuits. It looked massive and probably was, but I ate every last scrap and loved it. The sandwich was rich and savory, with creamy gravy and a crispy, juicy piece of chicken, but didn’t feel heavy at all–maybe it was because I was on vacation. Victoria’s vegetarian shiitake mushroom gravy was equally good with an understandable but unique earthiness you don’t often find in breakfast food.

 

Ave. No. 2 and “Elements”

With full bellies and warm hearts, we set out for the coast, traveling across a snowy pass to the tune of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, which is truly great. After winding through a white-flecked evergreen forest for nearly an hour, we descended into Tillamook, Oregon and were greeted with a beautiful, verdant vista of farmland with the coast looming a few miles towards the horizon. The green pastures are not only home to fantastic dairy farms, but also a sour beer brewery amongst the best in the world. De Garde, like so many breweries of the third wave of the craft beer movement, occupies a space in an unassuming industrial park. Were it not for the half-dozen barrels strewn about its front and back entrances, you could mistake it for screen printer, auto body shop, or a private accounting firm. Luckily, De Garde is none of these things, but rather a beery wonderland of spontaneously-fermented ales and deliciously fruited sour beers. Their beers are not one-dimensionally sour, but demonstrate layers of complexity akin to the beers made at Sante Adairius and Jester King. Clearly the brewers at these places recognized a kindred spirit in De Garde, because they teamed up for Elements of Composition, a blend made from components offered by each brewery. I thought the beer, which I poured from the bottle, did a fine job of balancing bright acidity with some earthy undertones. While delicious fresh, it was clear that this beer would develop with age and I’ve stashed a bottle away for that purpose. The other beers I tasted were the Avenue No. 2 (a wild farmhouse ale with marionberries), Alt Bu Weisse (an aged Imperial Berliner Weisse), and a guest tap offering of Jester King’s Detritivore, which is a beer I’d been wanting to try for some time. I purchased to-go bottles of what would realistically fit in our luggage home and then set off toward the coast.

We turned north once we hit the main coastal drag and it wasn’t long before we saw a sign that read “Brie cheese tasting. 1 mi.” We pulled into the gravel lot of a building that could have been an inn, but now housed a wayfarer’s station of gift shop kitsch that can only be described as folksy. Blue Heron was the type of place where you can not only sample brie, but also wine taste and dip pretzel rods in eighteen different mayonnaise-based dips (which we did), and buy kitchen gadgets and Oregon-themed linens (which we did not). From here, our travels took us up the coast to Rockaway Beach, where we tested the water temperature with tentative fingers and did our best to avoid the rain.

The drive back took longer because night was falling as quickly as the snow, but when we made it back into the city, we found ourselves back at Great Notion, where we met some family friends who had moved up to the Oregon coast. We left with a crowler of Peanut Brother, which was not available to-go the night before and set out in search of our final meal of 2016. Many restaurants were fully booked and had special tasting menus that night, but we found one that could seat a party of two. The restaurant, Tusk, was Lebanese cuisine via the Pacific Northwest in a delightfully retro-yet-modern pink pastel setting. The Lebanese flatbread and raw lamb dishes were both outstanding, but I think Victoria’s cocktail stole the show. The Eastern Maid is listed on the menu as “Prairie vodka, celery seed, lemon, rose water, hazelnut, yogurt,” but it is the final ingredient that made it such a standout. It was tangy, floral, slightly sweet, and utterly fantastic.

Latourell Falls

After a quiet New Year’s celebration, we made up our minds to get the tastiest brunch we could and settled on the aptly named Tasty N’ Sons, where we met our friends from the previous night. I was craving chilaquiles and the ones they had were quite good, as was the potato donut appetizer. My mezcal-based Bloody Mary was fine, but didn’t live up to the rest of the meal. Not wanting to miss out on all the natural beauty Oregon offers, Victoria and I drove out to the Columbia Gorge, where we stopped at Latourell Falls and the much more popular but ever-impressive Multnomah Falls. Snow began falling with increasing intensity so after getting the requisite photos of America’s second tallest year-round waterfall, we navigated back onto the 84 West bound for Portland.

Though quite popular, Voodoo Doughnuts no longer carries the appeal it once had (to me, at least) and I was more excited to try Blue Star Donuts when we got back into Portland. They’ve opened up shop in Los Angeles, and although I haven’t been yet, my first bite of the Blueberry Bourbon Basil donut made it pretty clear that I’ll visit the Venice or forthcoming Manhattan Beach location very soon. After satisfying my sweet tooth, I was thirsty again and though many businesses were closed on New Year’s Day, Deschutes’ Portland brewpub welcomed us with open arms. I tried their Peach Vice, an American Wheat Ale brewed with peach-forward aroma hops and Black by Hopular Demand, which I inferred correctly to be a Black IPA. These were both solid beers, but I still prefer their main production and seasonal releases that I can get in Southern California.

Our final stop of the weekend was the Cascade Brewing Barrel House, one of the longest tenured sour breweries in the U.S. (at over a decade old). I’ve enjoyed their beers for some time, and saw them as the forebearers to the clean, lactic-forward style now propagated by the Rare Barrel, among others. The price point for their beers is higher than most, so going to their Barrel House provided a good way to taste many of their beers without paying thirty dollars a bottle. My favorite beer was their Cranberry 2016, which was slightly spiced with orange peel and cinnamon. No trip to Portland would be complete without a stop here, and I’m glad I was finally able to make it.

There were plenty of other places we weren’t able to visit in our two and a half days, such as Pip’s Original Doughnuts, The Commons Brewery, Hopworks Urban Brewery, and a pizza place I like called Oven & Shaker. Luckily, Portland is more accessible than ever now that Southwest Airlines has joined JetBlue in making flights out of Long Beach Airport, which is incredibly close to me. Something tells me I’ll be back sooner rather than later.

Best Fest in the West

Every year in June, brewmasters, brewery owners, and beer geeks descend on Paso Robles, California for about five hours of tasting beer out of a little three ounce snifter glass. The beer geeks pay almost a hundred dollars for this experience, but the brewers get invited. After all, they don’t call this event the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival for nothing. This year, I went for the first time and the experience lived up to the hype as the beer festival to rule them all, at least on the west coast. I was lucky enough to get a ticket in the 30 seconds or so that they weren’t sold out and went with my brother Kyle and friend Brennan, who was visiting from Portland. Officially, the festival lasts five hours, or six if you buy a VIP pass, but it is actually a weekend-long event, full of special release beers, bottle shares, and brewery visits.

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Flavor overload!

Like virtually all festival goers, I don’t live in Paso Robles and had to head up to the Central Coast from Long Beach for the weekend, which was convenient because that meant I had to drive through Buellton—home of Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks—to get there. Barrelworks specializes in barrel-aged beers, divided into the categories Wild Ales and Strong Ales, and with the festival that weekend, they put some of their finest offerings on draft. I started with the fruited sour beers I’d yet to experience: the newly-released Peachy Bones and Champs de Fraises, the plum sour Drupē Bones, and Violet Underground, the collaboration beer with raspberries and candied violet petals brewed with the UK’s Wild Beer Co. All four were outstanding, with Peachy Bones showcasing ripe peach flavor over a nuanced, slightly sour saison base and Champs de Fraises erupting with strawberry aroma out of the taster glass. The other two were arguably better, but I’d say it’s as close as the eternal contest between pizza and tacos. Drupē Bones is fermented with plums from Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson’s orchard and Violet Underground had the most acidity and intense flavor of the bunch (and I should add it’s the only one I got a second taster of). After these, I had a trio of strong ales—PNC Imperial Buckwheat Stout, Bravo Imperial Brown Ale, and Rufus Single Barrel Imperial Continental Amber Ale— that were good but meant to be enjoyed more slowly, as I was running out of time before last call. The Rufus Single Barrel #95 was the standout of the three, displaying a fine balance of malt sweetness, alcohol, and barrel character. At this point, the weekend already seemed like a success but the next day had much, much more in store.

The following morning before the festival started, my group expanded to include my friends Ryan and Stephanie, who shared a bottle of DeGarde’s The Purple, a black and red raspberry sour with more red wine character (Pinot Noir, specifically) than any beer in memory, including wine/beer hybrids from Barrelworks and The Bruery. Thirty minutes later, we were all inside the fairgrounds, which looked a little like Knott’s Berry Farm or Frontierland at Disneyland, with the same excitement of any child visiting one of those theme parks. Our plan was to visit Side Project Brewing’s tent first, but overhearing everyone else, it seemed like we weren’t the only ones. The hour-plus long line for the Missouri standout brewery confirmed it and we headed to Jester King instead, where I ended up having a delicious beer called Intersection of Species that happened to be a collaboration with Side Project anyway. For most of the afternoon, one of us would wait in a long line while the others filled glasses at brewery tents with lines that were more manageable, and often those beers were just as good. The whole affair was a wonderful chaotic symphony of flavors, aromas, and heat, that involved as much complex planning as impromptu decisions and thrusting glassware forward, not sure of the beer that would fill it.

Before I continue with the standout beers from the event, I’d be remiss not to comment on the outstanding food they provided. Offerings came from food trucks, restaurants, and caterers, and everything I tried was the perfect complement to drinking beer in 94 degree heat. Firestone’s own Taproom restaurant had a watermelon gazpacho that had to be one of the most refreshing foods I’ve ever had. Some other favorites were chicken and waffle bites from The Pairing Knife and Jeffry’s Catering’s irresistible chili. Later on in the day, I also put down about fifteen pretzel bites from Rooney’s Irish Pub—to soak up the alcohol, of course. To cap the food experience, our whole group roasted individual s’mores with beer-infused chocolate and marshmallows from Brandy’s Sweet Temptations.

But we were there for the beer, so allow me to point out some favorites: Boulevard’s Hibiscus Gose, Crooked Stave’s Petit Sour Blueberry, Kern River’s Long Swim IPA, The Rare Barrel’s Emerald Vision (a cucumber mint sour), Odell’s Piña Agria pineapple sour, Three Floyds’ Dark Lord Imperial Stout from 2013, The Garage Project’s The Amazing Hop-Boy IPA with 63 hop varieties, and Beavertown Barrel Aged Sour Power. While that seems like a long list, it’s probably only about 20 percent of the beers I had that day. These were all amazing, but a pair of Southeast breweries were the only ones that made me get right back in line after a single sip of beer. Wicked Weed from North Carolina poured a double raspberry sour called Red Angel (double because after refermenting on raspberries for nine months in wine barrels, they blend that on more fresh raspberries for two additional months before bottling) and a Sherry-barrel aged raspberry, boysenberry, cherry, and blackberry dark sour called Angel of Darkness that was the most deceptive 11% ABV beer in recent memory.

For me though, one brewery really took the cake as the best in show, blue ribbon, gold medal winning top banana. Creature Comforts of Athens, Georgia is totally deserving of the superlatives I’ve just heaped on. They brought four beers that all exceeded my expectations and represented a wide range of brewing skill. First, I had Titronia, a cucumber and lime gose that was perfect on a hot day—drinkable, refreshing, pleasantly tart, and just salty enough to complement the cucumber and lime. Next, I tried their Tropicália IPA, whose name holds no irony—its aroma was reminiscent of a tropical fruit smoothie and the taste was as juicy as IPAs can get. I walked directly to the back of the line once I’d had my first taste, and in my next go-round, I got a glass of Emergence, an extremely well balanced blonde sour and See the Stars, an Imperial Stout aged in maple bourbon barrels, à la Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout, which was super drinkable for a high-alcohol stout. I’m not saying I would go to Georgia just to drink their beer, but I do know where my first stop will be if I do find myself in the Peach State.

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The Lion himself!

At 4:00, all pours of beer stopped unless they were near the main stage, so we went by there to soak up the last hour of the festival. This area contained Firestone Walker’s own beer booths as well as those of a few other large craft breweries like Sierra Nevada and Ballast Point. I opted to get some refreshing Bretta Rosé, Barrelworks’ raspberry sour, and was surprised to find that David Walker (the Walker half of Firestone Walker) was the one pouring it. I got super excited and took a photo with a big, cheesy smile on my face and realized right away that I had to end my day on that high note. The experience of the whirlwind day will linger in my memory for years to come and the best lesson I learned was the importance of going with friends. Sure, that allows you to get more beer, but it also reminds you that drinking should be a fun, social activity with people capable of sharing your joy. I can’t wait till next year!

 


Did you go to the Invitational? Want to go next year? Let me know!