Chill Pils

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Heineken in Rotterdam

Heineken in Rotterdam

Perhaps an extension of the craft beer trajectory would be, after the hop arms race and the exploration of more obscure styles, when brewers seek to reclaim traditional styles that have been stretched to the breaking point by the large macrobrewing conglomerates. Craft beer consumers usually follow that path too. Once they’ve discovered the bold flavors of IPAs and Belgians, why would they want to go back to bland lagers? That is, until their favorite brewery goes and executes those styles the way they’re historically meant to be done.

Pilsners are one of those geographically traditional beers whose demonym has reached the sort of global ubiquity the likes of which Kölschs and Berliners have only dreamed. Hailing from the city of Plzeň (Pilsen) in the western portion of the Czech Republic in the former Kingdom of Bohemia, Pilseners (Pilsners) are a crisp, clear, lager-style brew with a mild hop bite and sweet maltiness. Back in the 1800’s, yearly beer production was notoriously unreliable, so in 1838 when the citizens of Pilsen had finally had enough and dumped barrels of beer in protest, they banded together to form the Měšťanský Pivovar Plzeň (Bürger Brauerei or Citizens’ Brewery) and implement new techniques learned from their Bavarian neighbors. The local Czech ingredients, however, conspired to create an all new style of beer, a pale, refreshing lager that caught the world by storm. That inchoate brewing revolution was launched by the sweet Moravian barley kilned to a light blonde color, coupled with the floral Saaz hops, all brought together by the famously soft water around Pilsen – a function of terroir that might otherwise garner an appelation d’origine contrôlée of sorts, as with the famous beers of Burton-Upon-Trent. But the Pilseners themselves, perhaps drunk on their own supply, never got around to patenting their invention until some years later, by which point the horse was out of the barn and many imitative pilsners were being brewed around Europe. Some court cases have met with mixed success, the only real tangible victory being that many breweries shorten the name to “pils” when the brew doesn’t actually hail from Pilsen. Unfortunately, this popularity led to the pilsner becoming a sort of rubric for every mass produced lager we see today, adulterated into oblivion, with little resemblance to its original incarnation.

Recognized pilsner styles devolve largely on regional differences. The citizens’ brewery went on to become the famous Pilsner Urquell – denoting their status as the originator – and they’ve been brewing traditional Czech-style pilsner since it was first brought to market in 1842. Czech pilsners are slightly darker, floral, and retain a substantial foamy head. German styles like Beck’s and Bitburger are a lighter straw in color, with an earthier flavor profile, while other “European” styles like the Dutch pilsners from Heineken or Amstel tend to be a little sweeter. Nevermind American light lagers, even these latter, widely distributed European examples elicit an upturned nose from many beer enthusiasts this side of the pond, but that’s probably because the average pint poured round the pub is filtered and pasteurized for shipping to overseas markets. But you may have heard people say that a Heineken tastes much better in Amsterdam and, closer to the source, I’ve found that to be so. To illustrate that point, the Hay Merchant was able to acquire an unfiltered, unpasteurized keg of Pilsner Urquell within a week of packaging for tapping during this past year’s Houston Beer Week. After the mass produced swill that many beer drinkers have grown accustomed to, drinking one of these quintessential pilsners can be something of a revelation.

Dogfish HeadAmerican brewers have expressly attempted to reclaim and rehabilitate some of these traditional beer styles, as Karbach did for lager with their Sympathy for the Lager. On the Czech side of things, Mama’s Little Yella Pils is a solid example from Oskar Blues, a perennial fixture on the Petrol Station’s easy-drinking “Youngling” list. Ironically, since “pivo” means “beer” in Czech, Firestone Walker’s Pivo Pils is actually billed as a “classic German Pilsener with a Bohemian twist,” and is hoppier than standard pilseners without even using the noble Saaz hop. Since Dogfish Head often seems incapable of doing anything subtle without adding fruit must or juice, their Piercing Pils is a solid example brewed with pear juice and pear tea, but they also have a collaboration with Italy’s Birra del Borgo called My Antonia, an imperial (7.5%) pilsner, something Utah’s Uinta Brewing also aims for with their Tilted Smile. Live Oak’s Pilz, brewed right here in Texas, is one of the best examples on the market of a classic Czech version. On the German side of the spectrum, Victory Brewing’s Prima Pils is a standout example, and Victory actually brews several other pilsners. Sixpoint’s brews often buck style guidelines, but the Crisp is a solid German pilsner, while here in Texas, both Real Ale’s Hans’ Pils and Austin Beerworks’ Pearl Snap Pils are excellent options.

Perhaps owing to their status as the godfather of Houston craft beer, Saint Arnold is furthest along my theoretical beer trajectory, and they have released two different, though closely related, Czech style pilsners. Their seasonal Summer Pils is hitting retail shelves presently, utilizing Czech Saaz hops with some additional German Hallertauer on a body of German pils malt. The recent Icon Red currently being replaced by Icon Blue, a Brown Porter, was a Bohemian Pils hewing even more closely to a Czech formulation, focusing on the Saaz hops alone and using a traditional decoction mash technique, inspired by founder Brock Wagner’s hop-buying trips to the Czech Republic where he relishes a fresh, unfiltered Pilsner Urquell.

Crisp as Day

As the days start to warm, keep an eye out for any of these refreshing pilsners and give craft brewers the chance to show you what a pilsner ought to be, especially our local Texas brewers. The beer check-in app Untappd encourages exploration with a pilsner badge, but once you find your favorite, keep cool this summer and proudly proclaim, Ich bin ein Pilsener! Or, more appropriately, Jsem z Plzně!

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