Column: Pilsner on the patio: perfect

by Mark Tichenor

 

Now that the warmer weather is being forcibly dragged out into the open, maybe it’s time we sit down on a sunny patio and consider what the perfect summer beer might be. The answer, of course, is pilsner, a historic and much-revered style from Europe that gets unfairly maligned in craft beer circles on this side of the pond.

 

This is primarily because pilsner is a crisp, clean yellow lager. It was the principal type of beer adapted by immigrant German brewers in the 19th century, and it became the model upon which mainstream American beers were more than loosely based. As a result, the term ‘Pilsner’ became a descriptor for the blandest of bland beer.

 

Pilsner also found little love among craft brewers. It’s a technically difficult beer to brew, and the clean flavor magnifies flaws or shortcuts in the process. As a lager, it  also needs to spend more time in the tanks than rapidly fermenting ales, and thus costs more money to produce. While you can find absolutely stunning North American craft pilsners, they are still few and far between.

 

It remains difficult to pinpoint Pilsner’s characteristics, since even the Germans tend to infuriatingly refer to every kind of beer as ‘Pils.’ Broadly, the style divides into two types: Czech and German. Czech pils is the original and most famous; indeed, the style was originally developed in the Czech town of Pilsen, hence the name. As the story goes, the poor burghers of Pilzen were sick and tired of bad beer, so to show their displeasure they theatrically dumped it all out (Call it the ‘‘Pilsen Beer Party”), invested in a new brewery, and hired a Bavarian brewer used to working with the newfangled lager yeast to come over and create the town brew. Bang! Pilsner.

 

Ranging from medium to light amber in color, with an attractive soapy head, it has a medium body and a slightly sweet buiscuity grain character, followed by the Pilsner trademark, a quick, butter Saaz hop kick in the finish that fades away leaving just the ghost of an aftertaste.

 

The prime example of Czech pilsner is Pilsner Urquell, a descendent of the original beer brewed in Bohemia back in 1842. Czechvar is also very well known, although more for its famous unsuccessful intellectual property battle with Anheuser-Busch which didn’t think that a beer originally named ‘Budweiser ’ or ‘Budvar’ since 1785 had any right to use the that name.

 

The German take is a little different. It retains the big, foamy head, with a noticeably lighter pale straw color and a cleaner flavor. The hop kick is also much more powerful than in the Czech stuff. A good rule of thumb is, the further north in Germany you travel, the more bitter the hop finish. Until American craft brewing, the pilsner made by East Frisian brewer Jever (pronounced YAY-ver, should you want to suavely order one at the pub) ranked as one of the hoppiest beers in the world.

 

Jever remains the most prominently exported North German pils, although you can find notable examples, such as Dinkel Acker CD Pils from Stuttgart and Radeberger from Frankfurt, as well as a slew of borderline quasi pilsners (Beck’s, Veltins, St. Pauli Girl) that blur the line between purist style and mass-market blandness in pursuit of the almighty Euro.

 

On these shores, the Victory Brewing Company of Downingtown, Pennsylvania reigns as the champion of pilsner, producing both a German style (Prima Pils) and a Czech (Braumeister Pils). Needless to say, these are both excellent and a worth addition to any summertime cookout. Sly Fox Brewing of Phoenixville PA also produces the standout Pikeland Pils, which has the added bonus of coming in handy cans.

Pilsners are at their best when the mercury starts rising and the sweat starts flowing; no other style quenches and refreshes quite as thoroughly, or goes as well with a home-grilled meal enjoyed out on the patio. They’re also fantastic ‘lawnmower beers’ for consumption as you do summer yardwork,  although it is recommended that you not begin their consumption until you are done using the heavy bladed equipment.

 

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to beercraft@rochester.rr.com.

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Lambics, more macho than you think

by Mark Tichenor

 

I’m writing this column from deep within the man box–you know, that narrowly defined range of emotions and interests that shows the outside world that one is truly deserving of being considered masculine. We’re talking things like grilling steak, grunting, and big bitter double IPA.

 

Well it’s a load of crap. Especially when it comes to beer. Sometimes even us manly he-men can appreciate the art, complexity, and downright delishitude an excellent Belgian lambic affords. These wild-fermented fruit-laced ales are some of the most unique on the planet, and, berries and all, among the most challenging beers to ever cross your uvula.

 

Lambic beers break all the rules. Traditionally they ferment in big open vats, allowing the natural yeasts and bacteria of the Belgian microclimate to settle in and spontaneously ferment. The resulting beer is so throat-punchingly tart that it needs to be blended with older, mellower beer to make ‘gueuze’, before it’s even potable, and commonly gets flavored with cherry (kriek) or raspberry (framboise) before going to market.

 

Now you can be forgiven if the word ‘Framboise’ conjures up images of Audrey Hepburn goggles and tiny dog snouts poking out of Prada bags, because the framboise you’re most likely to find–brewed by Belgium’s Lindeman’s Brewery–is sweet and fizzy, more soda-pop than beer, with a frilly pink head and comically low ABV. This is a beer designed by marketers to capture the purses of young American urban women and nothing more. REAL Lambic bears about as much relationship to Lindemans Framboise as The Olive Garden’s breadsticks do to the cuisine of Tuscany.

 

The twisty streets around the Gare du Midi in Brussels, Belgium are not tourist avenues. They’re tough and gritty, an immigrant neighborhood with a decidedly north-African flair. Petty crime is rampant; crystals of auto glass lie in curbside piles and the narrow alleys echo with those funny European police sirens. It’s the last place you’d expect to find a farmhouse-style brewery, but Brasserie Cantillon never bothers to do what’s expected.

 

Cantillon is a throwback, and the home of serious lambic. They go heavy on the unflavored Gueze. They make it the real way and they make it sour. In each sip, you taste the must and musk of the farmhouse, and each swallow is tart enough to nearly close your throat. this is unquestionably a macho-ass beer, and the brewery is a mecca among beer tourists.

 

Lindemans and Cantillon are the polar extremes of lambic, with many small brewers and blenders somewhere in between. One of the finest is only recently available in the Rochester area: the Kriek (cherry)  from Brouwerij Boon in the original lambic town of Lembeek, Belgium.

 

Boon Kriek is a masterpiece of complexity and balance. Nowhere near as sour as Cantillon‘s beers, with a soft, subtle sweetness, the one sensation a sip of boon provides is creamy. The lactic acidity meshes with the cherries to provide a pillowy, almost marshmallow essence. Heavier in body than most Kriek, Boon’s example is robust enough to pair with game meats (stay away from salty cured stuff), yet strikingly elegant as a nightcap or special occasion toast.

 

The variety of lambic textures and flavors is all the more striking considering the tininess of the region where it is made. To this day, with the exception of Lindeman’s, the beers remain the sort of farmhouse products at which people in skinny jeans would toss the words ‘artisinal’ and ‘curated.’ To thoroughly experience lambics, you pretty much still have to go to Belgium.

 

Fortunately, our beer stores and more enlightened pubs appreciate the plae these fine beers have on the table, and, with a little determination, you can find a decent variety right here. With a beer style this special, the hunt is part of the fun, and lambic will provide an adequately sweet, or sour, reward. Oh, and never let anyone tell you your fruit beer isn’t manly.

 

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to beercraft@rochester.rr.com.