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Oakes Archive - Pilsner
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Styles & Seasonals
October 16, 2003
Written by Oakes
For this special editorial, I shall weigh in on something that quite frankly has annoyed me for years. I have seen some strange things amongst beer lovers, and one is the whole “style police” thing. Beer lovers just love to argue about style. There’s no question that homebrewers are the absolute worst for this, since they always enter their wares into competitions which grade according to style. For those who don’t know, there is this Beer Judge Certification Program. So of course this just makes matters worse. Great beers which don’t fit a particular style are brutalized when they are rated, even though half the tasters will feel lousy for doing it. Prominent beer writers from all over will place enormous emphasis on adherence to style, without worrying about whether the beer is actually good or not. This allows people to justify mainstream lagers. Coors Light is a great example of the light lager style because it is tasteless, like it’s supposed to be. If you ask me, this is an engineer’s mentality. The artist’s mentality is my choice. Technical precision doesn’t make a beer taste better, and lack of it does not inherently make it worse. I want inspiration! On a technical level, Budweiser is vastly superior to the quirky, rustic-tasting pale lager from Joutu-Tupa, a microscopic brewpub in the small Central Finnish town of Joutsa. But flavour wise, Budweiser falls well short.
All this leads me to the whole point of this rant, which is that relying on style has led to a weird situation. Beer geeks everywhere will debate over whether a pale ale is American, English or Indian. They will break down stouts into five or six variations. And the Great American Beer Festival breaks mainstream lagers into as many as a half dozen categories (Premium, SuperPremium, Amber, Malt Liquor, Light, etc.). But strangely, while it is widely recognized that American Pale and Brown ales have evolved from their British brethren, there is still a perception that lagers like Bud and Molson are somehow related to pilsners like Urquell or Jever. Michael Jackson champions this theory, and this inspires a fair degree of blind faith, but I don’t buy it for a second. It sounded like a good excuse to reacquaint myself with some neglected old friends, so I dove right in.
Jackson wrote once in defense of microbrews that an abbey ale does not represent a failed attempt to make Miller Lite. It is flavourful by design. What he has failed to grasp, as has everyone else who makes the absurd claim that mainstream lagers are “distant interpretations of the pilsner style”, is that Miller Lite does not represent a failed attempt to make Pilsner Urquell. Miller strives to be bland. Urquell does not. Labatt Blue may say ‘pilsner’ on the label, but it is made to be mainstream. Christoffel is not. Whether it’s Kingfisher, Karhu, Brahma or Castle, it is most certainly not Prima Pils, Budvar, Wernesgruner, or Bitburger.
The first most obvious distinction is the hop content. Lagers are distinguished by their lack thereof. Bitterness ranks maybe between 12-20 IBU’s. A pilsner starts at a minimum of 28, with serious examples 40+. A pilsner is all-malt. A lager can be, but often is not. A pilsner has a robust malt presence to underscore the hop. A lager does not. A pilsner is lagered at least 4 weeks, preferably more. Lager might age for 2-3 weeks tops before being released. We as beer geeks readily accept that Dortmunder and Munich Hell are two distinct styles. We have no problem differentiating between porter and stout. Bock and maibock. Marzen and Vienna, or Dunkel and Schwarzbier. There are many examples like this, where the differences are evident to the average drinker, but are no greater than those between Urquell and Anheuser’s Bud, which are likely the two earliest examples of their respective styles. So why is it so hard to accept that XXXX is not related to the pilsner style? Is it because we would then need to find another beer to the be the classic example. Would we have to accept that there was a beer style that was inherently bland and therefore unappealing to the connoisseur (who, by beer geek law, must love every beer style on the earth)? I don’t know. But I do know this – lager and pilsner are not the same. They are bottom fermented, and that’s pretty much all they have in common. But just to be sure, I grabbed five from my local store to double check. Here’s what I found.
TigerFrom Singapore, I must admit that I wouldn’t have expected to ever sample this again, but life is just chock full of surprises. Seriously though, this is fairly sweet, mostly be default as there is not much hop to it at all. The colour is fuller than say, Molson Canadian, but that’s about it. Definitely a lager.
Creemore Springs Premium LagerA bit of a tweener, in that it has a deep bronze colour, and a nice touch of hop in the aroma and palate and is all-malt. But it is still rather sweet. Bitterness is just too low here to call it a pilsner. This is one of the most characterful lagers in the world, along with fellow microbrewed entrants from the likes of Skagit River in Mt. Vernon, Washington, and the Tärnö brewery of Stockholm. Flavourful it is, pilsner it is not.
WernesgrünerThe first thing you notice is how lean this beer is. It’s not Bitburger lean, but it’s getting there. The first beer of the night with a full hop accent. Like most German pilsners, the bitterness is a bigger factor than the aroma. The finish is dry, which is a hallmark of the pilsner, but not lager, style.
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