THE SESSION #114— BEER BLOGGING FRIDAY
The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry.
The beer theme for August 2016 was Pilsners, hosted by Alistair Reece at fuggled.net
The Problem With Pilsner
Depending on where you are in the beer history, culture and self-esteem, pilsner beer will mean many things. This is a beer style that actually changed the beer world forever.
The problem with pilsner is that it is a lager. Lager, meaning that it is brewed with the bottom fermenting lager yeast Saccharomyces pastorianus and is able to ferment over a longer time (it derived from the German for storeroom or warehouse). The beer at the end of this process is usually golden, effervescent, with a frothy head, a big malt backbone and various degrees of hop balance. AND lagers have become associated with industrial beer namely Budweiser, Miller and Coors, which is the antithesis of the modern craft beer movement.
The beautiful thing is that lager is not the real enemy. Lager is a beer that is often more difficult to made, takes longer to produce and is an excellent beer for many occasions, be it pairing with meals or drinking at the end (or middle) of hot summers day. Finally, the craft beer culture is realizing this and many of the finer American brewers are offering lagers back into their mainstream lineup of beer. This is in addition to the many fine German lager beer styles that have not gone away and are being rediscovered by American brewers and beer drinkers, for example altbier, Kolsch, Helles, Bock, Marzen, schwarzbier and pilsner — pilsner being the topic of this writing.
The very name of this beer is associated with the city of its birth, the city of Plzen (or Pilsen) which is situated in today's Czech Republic, once known as Czechoslovakia and previously part of the of Bohemian Kingdom. It had become so associated with the city. Pilsner means "from Pilsen". In 1898 the brewery named the their beer Pilsner Urquell which means "original source of pilsner". The beer became so popular and copied that other breweries began calling their version pilsner. Just before World War I the Czech brewery took the German Bitburger brewery to court for copyright infringement and won. From then on, German brewers called their beer of that style simply pils and mostly still do till today.
The Oxford Companion to Beer reinforces this beer naming convention about pilsner, “within the Czech Republic, only beer from Pilsen is called pilsner, even when it is brewed in the same style”.
It goes on to say, “In the three decades following the invention of pilsner beer the whole industry changed dramatically, as beer abandoned their traditional warm-fermentation techniques of the new cold lager fermentation."
“This consistency [isolation of single strain yeasts] became pilsner’s byword, and brands emerges in the late 19th century that still dominate the global beer market today.”
Lager Yeast Origins
A recent article — Lager Yeast - Beer-Making Microbe Gets An Origin Story —stated a new theory on the origin of the lager yeast — one that caught me by surprise and I would assume many others that have a slight interest in the subject. Lager Yeast - Beer-Making Microbe Gets An Origin Story.
“The invention of lager beer happened centuries before Louis Pasteur proved that fermentation is caused by microbes in the mid-1800s, so it's hard to imagine monks who knew nothing about microbiology deliberately crossing the two species that created lager yeast. ”
University of Wisconsin-Madison “used advanced genome sequencing and informatics techniques to trace the two major strains of lager yeast to a combination of two pre-existing yeasts: S. cerevisiae and S. eubayanus."
Science Daily on the same topic states, “An international team of researchers believes it has identified the wild yeast that, in the age of sail, apparently traveled more than 7,000 miles to make a fortuitous microbial match that today underpins the $250 billion a year lager beer industry.”
“Five hundred years ago, in the age of sail and when the trans-Atlantic trade was just beginning, the yeast somehow made its way from Patagonia to the caves and monastery cellars of Bavaria where the first lager beers were fermented. University of Wisconsin–Madison Genetics Professor Chris Todd Hittinger and colleagues from Portugal, Argentina and the University of Colorado describe the lager yeast, whose origin was previously unknown.”
“Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Portugal, Argentina and the United States describe the discovery of a wild yeast in the beech forests of Patagonia, the alpine region at the tip of South America, that apparently solves the age-old mystery of the origin of the yeast that made cold-temperature fermentation and lager beer possible.”
So the take away from that is, that the yeast that makes lager possible, had to first travel from South America — the new world — to Europe so that it could hybridize with the then known yeasts used for brewing. Talk about a long strange trip.
There has been a great story about lager and pilsner, that the Czech brewery actually stole the lager yeast from a German brewery. This is from the Pilsner Urquell website, “One story says that a monk was caught stealing and smuggling the yeast from a Bavarian brewery, hoping to take it to Groll in Plzen. The other story explains how Josef Groll wrote to another brewery and bought some of their yeast. The stealing monk isn’t a true story but it’s one of the myths that often gets told about the brewery. The reality is that Groll simply bought the yeast and we have evidence in the archives of his purchase.”
“We’ve maintained that same yeast strain, known as the H-strain, for 173 years, looking after it in our laboratories (with some stored in secret vaults around the world) and using it in all the batches of beers that we brew, which is a great story, even if it’s not as exciting as having yeast smuggled out of Bavaria by a runaway monk.”
There, you have it — mystery solved!
Beer Judge Certification Program 2015 Style Guidelines Beer Style Guidelines is one of the standards from which to classify beer styles. With a major update in 2015, the purpose of the BJCP guidelines is to “address world beer styles as found in their local markets, keep pace with emerging craft beer market trends, describe historical beers now finding a following, better describe the sensory characteristics of modern brewing ingredients, take advantage of new research and references, and help competition organizers better manage the complexity of their events.
There are two classic pilsner styles, German and Bohemian (or Czech), plus many individual variations of each. Lets look at what the BJCP says about each. The text below is taken directly from the BJCP guidelines.
Comments: Modern examples of Pils tend to become paler in color, drier in finish, and more bitter as you move from South to North in Germany, often mirroring the increase in sulfate in the water. The Pils found in Bavaria tend to be a bit softer in bitterness with more malt flavor and late hop character, yet still with sufficient hops and crispness of finish to differentiate itself from a Helles. The use of the term ‘Pils’ is more common in Germany than ‘Pilsner’ to differentiate it from the Czech style, and (some say) to show respect.
History: Adapted from Czech Pilsner to suit brewing conditions in Germany, particularly water with higher mineral content and domestic hop varieties. First brewed in Germany in the early 1870s. Became more popular after WWII as German brewing schools emphasized modern techniques. Along with its sister beer, Czech Pilsner, is the ancestor of the most widely produced beer styles today. Average IBUs of many well-regarded commercial examples have dropped over time. Characteristic Ingredients: Continental Pilsner malt, German hop varieties (especially Saazer-type varieties such as Tettnanger, Hallertauer, and Spalt for taste and aroma; Saaz is less common), German lager yeast.
Style Comparison: Lighter in body and color, drier, crisper, and more fully attenuated, with more of a lingering bitterness, and with higher carbonation than a Czech Premium Pale Lager. More hop character, malt flavor, and bitterness than International Pale Lagers. More hop character and bitterness with a drier, crisper finish than a Munich Helles; the Helles has more malt flavor, but of the same character as the Pils.
Czech Premium Pale Lager
Comments: Generally a group of pivo Plzeňského typu, or Pilsner-type beers. This style is a combination of the Czech styles světlý ležák (11–12.9 °P) and světlé speciální pivo (13–14.9 °P). In the Czech Republic, only Pilsner Urquell is called a Pilsner, despite how widely adopted this name is worldwide. Kvasnicové (“yeast beer”) versions are popular in the Czech Republic, and may be either kräusened with yeasted wort or given a fresh dose of pure yeast after fermentation. These beers are sometimes cloudy, with subtle yeastiness and enhanced hop character. Modern examples vary in their malt to hop balance and many are not as hop-forward as Pilsner Urquell.
History: Commonly associated with Pilsner Urquell, which was first brewed in 1842 after construction of a new brewhouse by burghers dissatisfied with the standard of beer brewed in Plzeň. Bavarian brewer Josef Groll is credited with first brewing the beer.
Characteristic Ingredients: Soft water with low sulfate and carbonate content, Saazer-type hops, Czech malt, Czech lager yeast. Low ion water provides a distinctively soft, rounded hop profile despite high hopping rates. The bitterness level of some larger commercial examples has dropped in recent years, although not as much as in many contemporary German examples.
Style Comparison: More color, malt richness, and body than a German Pils, with a fuller finish and a cleaner, softer impression. Stronger than a Czech Pale Lager.
- Beer is a composition of typically four main ingredients: water, yeast, malt and hops.
- Both pilsner styles use pilsner malts
- Czech water is softer
- Czech uses saaz hops, German uses Noble hops
- German pils tend to be more hop forward
With all of the background out of the way, it is time to get down to tasting some pilsners. I pulled three from our local bottle shop shelves that I thought would provide a good starting point to begin to discuss this beer style and some of its variability. Plus, if given a choice when it comes to which beer to drink, we all may have a little more to go on. If you need one more excuse to drink beer, then take the taste test for yourself — choose any of these three or just pick from what is available at your local shop.
I wanted to include another person in the tasting so my son (he is over 21) as a lover of the pilsner style was ready to jump in. I first poured the three beers into a set of tasting glasses. Our first beer up was the classic Pilsner Urquell.
Pilsner Urquell, you cannot have a serious discussion on pilsner without including this bee. Pilsner literally means, “from Pilsen”. And, Pilsner Urquell “means, original source of pilsner”.
The thing you will immediately notice about this beer is that it is malt aromas rush from the bottle into the glass. It is a beautiful golden hue and pours with a huge frothy bright white head. The taste is rich and earthy with obvious notes of grain and caramel. I think this beer will pair with many meals and should be considered when in doubt of what to have with a meal.
Beer Advocate rates it at 82 pts, but I would rate it closer to 90.
Lagunitas Czech-Style Pils
The lagunitas obvious states it is a Czech-style pils. Of the three we tasted that evening, this one was the least impressive. I have enjoyed many Lagunitas beers and while this was good, it didn't stand up to the other two in character or depth. The malt was not as pronounced as the Pilsner Urquell and its style wouldn't promote the hops as did the Victory Pils.
Beer Advocate rates the Lagunitas Pils at 82 pts as well, and that is about where I would put it, too.
Victory Prima Pils
This is a German Pils style and the nose gains more hop aroma than the malty Czech style. A more balanced beer with the hops playing against the malt. Very enjoyable and excellent with most any meal, especially with chicken on the grill — which I had that evening. I really like the balance of this beer.
Beer Advocate rates this beer at 91 pts. This beer can be a bit confusing, while it does use whole flower German, it also uses Czech hops rather than the traditional Noble hops for German pils.
Depending on my mood, the Victory Prima Pils could be my go-to pilsner. I love the balance of this beer, not too far afield in any direction. But, I know I often enjoy going to a big malty beer and when that is the case, Pilsner Urquell will make it into my beer fridge and pilsner glass.
The problem with pilsner, is that there is no problem with pilsner. It is in our minds and we need to move beyond any macro beer association.The pilsner beer style certainly deserves another look among dedicated and mature beer drinkers. There are many pilsner beers I believe would be enjoyed if only approached with an open mind and a sense of adventure. I think as the craft beer or independent brewery (whichever we choose to call it) industry continues to grow, mature and mutate, so will the need to put diverse and interesting beers on the shelves. And well made pilsners will play an expanding role there.