Thursday, April 14, 2005

By any other name...

I don't know when the New York Times became the pantheon for beer journalism, but they've yet again grabbed a spot on this blog by publishing a little piece on that baseball and bbq favorite: pilsner. Unlike other recent articles they've put out, however, this one raised a little bit of debate in our happy household. And thusly, I bring you my snarky reasons for explaining why an imported vs. domestic pilsner tasting is fundamentally skewed. I'll try not to spray too much while I rant.
"In a tasting of pilsners, the panel was struck by how vibrant and alive the American brews tasted in comparison to some of the European beers."

The first, and most obvious reason is inherent to what makes pilsner so successful in the first place: its fresh, startlingly clean, crisp palate. In order to enjoy that, the beer has to be a) fresh, and b) clean. Take the contender that took last place in the tasting as an example. The true joy of enjoying a beer that's defined by its "naked" flavor profile is in being able to isolate and identify flavors via their freshness. Any beer shipped from as far away as the Czech Republic (sound familiar?) in green bottles (eh?) and then left to collect dust on liquor store shelves as the passing patrons scrunch their faces up in attempts at pronouncing the name (oh, c'mon!) is doooooooomed to taste anything but fresh. Noble hop aromas vanish within no time. Even perceived bitterness fades quickly in lighter beers, only to be steamrolled by light-struck, oxidized, stale cardboard flavors. And let's not forget the kicker: beers brewed for export are different than the beers brewed for the locals. Not only are the recipes and aging schedules different, but many brewers toss the fabled Reinheitsgebot out the window when it comes to the product headed for American shores. Colorings, preservatives, artificial flavors - all the stuff that could get your kneecaps broken in countries where even adding sugar to the finished product involves lengthy court cases - are added willy-nilly in an attempt to make sure the finished product is at least beer-ish by the time it's finally cracked open in a Reno roadhouse.
The second, more contentious point (between beersnobs and casual beer drinkers, that is) concerns the nomenclature involved. A Bohemian farmer with an infestation of corn in his fields is more likely to curse the hopdevils and burn the lot down before adding it to his grain bill. But that's exactly what domestic brewers do - the Canadians are especially guilty of this one - corn, rice, rye, and other adjuncts are all fair game in our lagers, and we don't hesitate to call them pilsner. So where does that leave the baseline for comparison? Since it's obviously not accepted as a strict style in North America - arguably unlike the situation in Europe, where consumers have long expected a very specific look and taste from the style - it's difficult to consider what the parameters for the tasting ought to be unless you're surrounded by a bunch of certified beer judges. And I'm not exactly suggesting that for a fun time, either.
The final, most nebulous argument concerns regional tastes and palates. Hop on a flight to Germany, have a Bitburger Pils in the airport bar (which one, you say?) and you're likely to be struck by not only how different it tastes compared the stateside version, but also by the realization that that is the taste they've all been yabbering about for the past 150 years. Lagunitas Pils, for example, is a fine beer, but would a Czech recognize it as such? Don't even get me started on Rogue's wonderful, if odd, Imperial Pilsner. Quoth Lew Bryson: "A German would throw his kids in the river if he brewed a beer like that". Truth is, pilsner's pretty darn expensive to make, what with all the special equipment and lagering involved; handling decoction mashes and keeping the beer cold for long periods of time requires a lot of energy and a lot of space. So what do we do in such a profit-margin-conscious society? Brew two-week ales and get them on the trucks, that's what! That's why the wonderful, albeit rare, American lagers in this test did so well - these are truly enthusiastic brewers, which can't always be said of our friends across the pond.
If you're like me, however, and wanted to get a taste of the poll's winningest brew, you'll have to fill that gas tank and hit I-5 northbound, 'cause it's not available in California. So you'll have to head up to Stockton, instead, and indulge in our region's best example of the style at Sudwerk Privatbrauerei Hubsch, at least until it closes or changes owners. Sigh. I guess there's always Trumer. Sigh.


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