The perils of isolationism

I’m not the first guy to say that the USA is the most exciting nation on earth for beer lovers. It’s obvious. Not only are Americans spoiled for choice of imports, but our thriving craft brewing industry is producing delicious versions of classic beer styles, and constantly developing new spin on old-world ideas.

But we Americans are prone to the same foibles about beer as we are to most other things. Geographic separation from the European nations in which classic beer styles were developed can foster a certain detachment from the originals. And, more worryingly, American pride and personal hubris can lead the students to believe they are now the masters (insert Darth Vader
breath here).

Case in point: This review on Beerjanglin’. Now this is a fine beer blog, which I regularly read. Hell, I’ve even knocked a few back with one of the principal contributors and hope to do so again. But their take on Pilsner Urquell goes beyond trashing the beer to the point of doing the reader a mild disservice. And behind the reviewer’s words, it’s all too easy to see a mindset that runs deeply through the American craft beer scene.

I’m not going to pick the review apart line by line, and reviewer Willie Moe definitely makes some good points, but his verbiage in the opening paragraph betrays his bias:

Why that would be Pilsner Urquell of course! Yes that’s right the original pilsner, the beer that changed how the world sees beer! This was the first ever pilsner, and every pils, pilsner, or pilsener is in some way formulated from the original recipe passed down through the ages from the gang at good ol’ Pils-Urq. Now, while it is tempting to start rattling off an ode to the pilsner style, I will refrain.

Now I’m guessing there’s not a lot of blonde beer in dude’s fridge. Ever. Were I to hazard a guess, I’d expect the writer to be a fan of (caution: cliche imminent) the more extreme beers. Dark. Bitter. High in alcohol.

If that’s the case, it’s totally cool. There are many damn fine beers out there that fit those characteristics and deserve paragraphs of praise. And this extreme territory is a place where many beer drinkers go once their eyes are opened to the sheer awesomeness of American craft brewing. But for someone who’s pretty obviously not a fan of the style to do this review is like having Me review a country album. I’m gonna hate it and my bias will shine through with every snide stroke of the keyboard.

I guess what gets me the most is the reviewer’s implication that people who drink Urquell are only trying to be seen drinking a glitzy European beer.

The Pils-Urq is offered in a shiny green bottle, with a label that screams, “CLASS!” Elegant and inviting, the bottle wisks you away to the old time Czech Republic, and it never felt so right. Nice lookin’ label, nice lookin’ bottle, so far, so good. Unfortunately that is roughly where the good times end. Because now it’s time to open her up and go in for the real thing.

I’m not stupid. I don’t drink Pilsner because of marketing. I drink it because, over the course of what my family would consider an alarmingly exhaustive study of the world’s beers, Pilsner Urquell has proven itself as the paragon of great Pilsner. Its crisp flavor, seductive bitterness and soapy head are like no other pilsner. And, frankly, I’d like to see a North American brewer come even close to the flavor, body and visual appeal.

Yes, it’s light-colored. Yes, it’s low in alcohol. Yes, it doesn’t present the raw IBU (Bitterness) numbers of Stone Arrogant Bastard. But let’s take a moment to consider the context. Those backward, yokelish Czechs developed (with a German brewmaster, incidentally) a beer that refreshed after a hard day of manual labor, that you could drink all night at festivals, and that could serve as a daily libation; a simple joy for a simpler time, and the perfect session beer for the times in which we now live.

Yeah, the green bottle sucks. I wish European brewers would stop doing that. It sounds like Beerjanglin’s reviewer got a poorly handled sample, but dude should know that from past experience with beer and give the brew a fair shake.

And I’d also submit that it’s important to drink beers like Urquell; archetypes of beer styles that have been consistently maintained for a couple of centuries. Because of the ingenious and experimental nature of American brewers, we change things over here. You don’t see much pilsner, you see IMPERIAL pilsner. Everything changes. Classic styles don’t remain so in the USA, they mutate into uniquely American takes on beer. Every now and then, it’s necessary to take a step back and give a nod to tradition.

Anyway, for my money, I’ll take my ‘alcoholic water’ and enjoy every drop of it. For some reason, I don’t have any difficulty perceiving Urquell’s subtleties of flavor, light bite of bitterness, and substantial mouthfeel. It certainly isn’t Great Divide Titan IPA, but I doubt that’s the benchmark its brewers are shooting for.

edit: Czech Pilsner is misunderstood in general on this side of the pond. How fortuitous, then, that Prague-based Evan Rail has started a Czech beer blog in the Prague Daily Monitor (English-language newspaper). Hurry up and familiarize yourself with this sublime style, before I have to launch an annoying, pedantic blog crusade. -Mark


2 thoughts on “The perils of isolationism

  1. Hey man, I can assure you that I am probably the most novice of the beerjanglers that post, and I can understand your points. I am far and away a fan of the more extreme beers and do not for the most part enjoy pilseners. But that hint of skunkiness is also a part of the style, I just don’t like and won’t get used too. Depending on what I’ve already been drinking I sometimes do not even enjoy a Prima Pils, which is a top notch pilsener. I just don’t understand the flavor and it doesn’t hit me right. Now, granted the P.U. I had was proabably way past it’s prime, but it’s still not something I would probably go out of my way to order. The thing you have to understand about the “alcoholic water” is it is meant to be light-hearted and yet over the top. An “alcoholic water” does not necessarily mean it’s bad, it’s just watery and not all that packed with flavor. The alcohol content for me is good to have, but is not what I judge my brews on. I say next time I hit the Roch-cha-cha area with my fellow beerjangler we sit down and discuss it over some fine brews. And for the record, here’s what’s in my fridge:

    Brooklyn Monster Ale
    Magic hat Roxy Rolles
    Middle Ages Black Heart Stout
    Thousand Islands War of 1812
    Wachusset Blueberry
    Anchor Liberty Ale
    and Pabst Blue Ribbon (the king of alcoholic waters)

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