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!

Modern Times: Two Years of Great Beers

First, let me say this: I am an unabashed fan of Modern Times Brewery and any attempts to be completely objective about their birthday party will likely fall short. I went to their Second Anniversary Soirée over the weekend and had a fantastic time. On Sunday, I arrived at the brewery (also known as the Lomaland Fermentorium) at noon for session three of the four-part bonanza. I was able to secure one of the few seats available at the bar and ordered a beer I had been eyeing on the taplist for a while. It was a Berliner Weisse with peaches added, and before I could take my first sip, the Talking Heads song “This Must Be the Place” started playing over the speakers. I knew then it was going to be an awesome Sunday afternoon. That first beer set the tone nicely: it was a bit tart, refreshing, and had some mouthwatering juiciness from the added peaches. The Dancing Plague (as it was called) left me wanting more, which was perfect because I had nine more beer tickets attached to my entry wristband.

Just in time for me to order a second taster, my friend Mike arrived and wasted no time asking for the Anniversary IPA. I stayed with another low-alcohol beer and tried the Blanc on Blanc on Blanc, a Pale Ale hopped with Hallertau Blanc and Nelson Sauvin hops, which each carry pleasant light and tropical fruit notes. The goal of this beer is to emulate white wine characteristics, and I’m sure it would have attracted quite a few Real Housewives and divorcées, had there been any present at the brewery. I didn’t love this beer initially, but revisited it at the end of the day and it was actually my second favorite of the afternoon. With Mike able to hold down the fort at the coveted bar seat, I was free to wander around a little bit with my third beer, the Anniversary IPA that my cohort was so eager to try.

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This Geofilter Seemed to Fit the Mood

If you’ve never been to the Lomaland Fermentorium, you really should. I’m confident that it’s the only active brewery in the world that has one wall decorated with a Post-It note mosaic of Michael Jackson and Bubbles and the opposite wallpapered with comic books. The bar itself is made of old hardcover books and topped with marble, and the rest of the tasting area looks like a minimalist vintage store. All of the bartenders were knowledgeable and quick to ask a brewer if I asked a really specific question (I did). In addition to the beer, the party also had a Louisiana cuisine food truck out front, unlimited free pours of Modern Times coffee (yes, they are also coffee roasters), and free savory Kind Bars, which were unusual but tasty. Lastly, the Anniversary Soirée served as a bottle release for the Monsters’ Park Imperial Stout variants that had been aged in 10 and 12 year old bourbon barrels. The 12 year version was sold out by the time I arrived but I happily snagged a bottle of the 10 year from the merchandise booth.

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Monsters Playground – So Fun, Its Scary

After milling about, I did what I came there to do and tasted the rare offerings without interruption. Of the various wine-grape-infused saisons on tap, I loved the color and the nose of the Funky Universal Friend with Pinot Noir, but found the taste a bit lacking, and had the opposite experience with the Zinfandel Must Brett Saison, which sadly lacked a proper name. My sixth beer was the one I was most excited about and the main reason I bought a ticket to the third session, as it was the only one to feature Monsters’ Playground, a sour stout conditioned on citrus. It was phenomenal. The aroma was orange and orange rind with a hint of chocolate, similar to those chocolate oranges that I always see but never purchase. The first wave of flavor was a distinct sour tartness that slowly revealed its roasty undertones, followed by lime juice. The back-palate was all orange and left a tart flavor that did not dissipate until long after swallowing. I loved every one of Modern Times’ sour beers from their first release last December and this sour stout proved that they are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to those tart, microbial beers we all love so much.

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To Quote the Poet Ice Cube: It Was a Good Day

They had a few beers I decided not to try in order to revisit my favorites, which were the Dancing Plague with Peaches, Blanc on Blanc on Blanc, and of course, another pour of Monsters’ Playground. I keep a list of every beer I’ve had, as long as I’ve enjoyed six ounces or more, and these tasters wouldn’t have qualified unless I had two of each of them. I know it’s slightly ridiculous but I wasn’t going to bend the rules after 1,150 beers. After finishing all ten of my tasters and feeling immensely satisfied, I decided to try some of Modern Times’ cold brew coffee. I’m not a coffee drinker at all; in fact, I’ve only paid for a cup of coffee once in my life, and that was at a coffee shop that literally did not have anything other than coffee to drink. These cold cups of joe, however, were on the house, so I figured I should at least see what Modern Times was up to when they’re not turning water, hops, barley, and yeast into happiness. Of their two blends, I preferred their Secret Beach summer blend to the standard Black House, as it was a little bit lighter in body and had some fruit notes that surprised me. Maybe one day I’ll start drinking coffee and start picking up on the nuances of it, like I do for other beverages. Until then, I’m going to use that money for beer and the anniversary celebrations of the wonderful people who brew it.