Folks in the beer-centric community shudder when they hear the word “lager”; it brings to mind a variety of beers that can only be differentiated between their labels and their omnipresent marketing campaigns… but that’s not where lagers begin and end my friends!
Let’s back up that reel to give you some history behind this beverage. The word “lager” is German and translates to “storage”. The term references the locations where these beers would historically be stored during and after the brewing process. The term lager eventually became a catch-all for types of beers fermented at colder temperatures than their ale counterparts. While there are many different beer styles that would fall into the lager category and to avoid going into elaborate details about the other styles, I’m here to talk about the Pilsner, a beer style that has dominated the beer industry for more than a century.
While the original Pilsner is undeniably from German Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), the credit for this wildly successful style goes to a Bavarian brewer by the name of Josef Groll. In the mid 1800s, Germany was renowned for having the best beer in the world thanks to the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516. The Czechs wanted a piece of the action so Groll was hired on and brought with him a veritable cornucopia of modern ingredients and brewing techniques. This included the use of bottom fermenting yeast that had to be lagered or stored, thus improving clarity of the beer and extending it’s shelf life. The use of pale malts also made the beer lighter and crisper.
All of these things were coupled with two very crucial ingredients native to Bohemia: soft spring water and Saaz hops, known for mildly spicy, earthy flavours and herbal aromas. From that point on, everyone wanted to emulate this beer. Needless to say, this recipe made its way back to Germany where the addition of Hallertauer Mittelfruh hops made for a Pilsner with added spice and earthy flavours. As the craze spread to the rest of Europe, the Pilsner took on some sweeter characteristics as other countries didn’t have access to the same pale malts as the Czechs or Germans.
American brewers couldn’t seem to replicate the Pilsner either. The water was too hard and the six row barley that grew so well in American soil wasn’t right for making such a crisp, light, easy drinking beer. Adding corn and rice was the only way to brew up a beer that had any semblance to what was so popular in the Old World. And so this was the start of a trend known in the beer community as the “adjunct lager”. These adjunct lagers now make up around 90% of the beer consumed in the world today.
The beauty of a Pilsner isn’t about what’s there, it’s more about what’s not there. Strange, I know, but hear me out. You can make a big, boozy imperial stout and age it in bourbon barrels with coffee, chocolate & vanilla beans and it will taste amazing, no doubt about that. Similarly you can make an IPA bursting with citrus & tropical fruit flavours that lead into a nice lingering bitter finish and I will most likely love it… but the imperial stout and the IPA have such bold flavours that any flaws can be easily masked. With Pilsners, the flavours are so light and delicate that even people with an untrained palate can pick up on the slightest off flavours. I strongly feel that these lighter beer styles, when done right are some of the absolute best in the world. A brewery that can make an excellent Pilsner has a brewmaster who knows his or her chops!
If you’re looking for the original, look no further than the Pilsner Urquell, the granddaddy to likely every beer you drank back in college. The beauty of Pilsner Urquell is that it’s still relevant today. It holds a special place in nearly every beer geeks heart with its pale golden hue, pillowy white head and clean, light taste. Pair it up with the classic Czech fried cheese sandwich, Vyprážaný syr, and you have a match made in heaven!
For a more modern take, try a Steamworks Pilsner. The Vancouver based brewery’s Pilsner can stand up with the classic European big boys and still impress your snobby black-hearted beer geek buddies. It’s golden yellow, has a touch of malty sweetness which is followed up with a little hop bite on the finish. Make it the complete package by pairing it with some warm pretzels and grainy mustard.
Another great modern example to this beer is the Phillips Brewing Pilsner. What makes this beer unique is that not only is the beer brewed by Phillips Brewing but the barley used in the beer is also malted by them. This means that they’re able to dial in the exact malt flavours they want for this beer, being a soft biscuity note with a touch of honey sweetness and tame leafy hops flavours. This one goes down nice and easy on a hot day especially with some screamin’ hot Buffalo wings! Enjoy!
This article first appeared in the 5 Vines email newsletter, where Tom is the in-house beer expert. Tom is also one half of the beer bloggin’, pint holdin’ duo Hipster Beer Run. You can follow them on Twitter @hipsterbeerrun or visit hipsterbeerrun.com.