Friday, 7 March 2008

Beer O'Clock: When is that pale lager a Pilsner?

pc_pilsner [Posted by Stu, from SOBA]   So, you're sitting back drinking a lovely pilsner tonight? Think again. I love a good pilsner, yet it's a very rare event when I actually drink one and rarer still when I get he chance to drink one in great condition.

Pilsner is the possibly the most misappropriated term in beer (up there with either 'ale' or 'lager', both of which are used with reckless abandon). Although most major macro-brewers are careful to avoid the use of the term 'Pilsner' in their premium lager names, they certainly don't go out of their way to educate the public about style. I regularly hear people asking for, or talking about, 'Pilsner' when they actually mean light lagers such as Heineken, Stella Artois, Steinlager, Corona or Fosters. All of the aforementioned beers fall into a category of beers I know of as light lagers (or pale lagers). A category that is actually closer to carbonated water than Pilnser. These beers are usually crisp, clean and refreshing - devoid of any flavours that might bring a consumer to proclaim "too malty" or "too hoppy". They are often full of cheap fermentable non-malt adjuncts such as rice, corn or sugar and are so balanced (and devoid of malt or hop flavours) that I actually find them quite hard to enjoy (like that 'ex' that we all have in our past that was far too "nice" to keep you interested).

A real pilsner, contrary to the so-balanced-it's-bland light lager, is rich in malt character, firmly bitter, and bursting with a fresh and well-rounded combination of floral and/or spicy hops. They are a joy: complex, yet easy to drink, moreish and refreshing. Pilsners were the original clear pale beer, and come in two main styles - Bohemian and German - though a rare third (American) exists, and a fourth (New Zealand, or 'new-world') is begging to be recognised. Netherlands-based beer judge/writer Derek Walsh was so blown away by New Zealand Pilsners on a recent trip here that he was tempted to lobby for an entirely new beer-style: New Zealand Pilsner. He described them in a recent Beer and Brewer article as a "beer that has Pilsner and Sauvignon Blanc drinkers reaching for the same glass."

Try a Pilsner when you next get a chance or, even better, try one up against light lager and experience malt and hops.

Too see why Walsh waxed so enthusiastic, try one of these New Zealand Pilsners:

  • Emerson's Pilsner - a truly world-class triumph of New Zealand hops: bittersweet and overtly fruity.
  • Invercargill Biman - the most firmly bitter of all the New Zealand pretenders, with a fruity nose and a long bitter finish.
  • Moa (red label) - intensely dry, champagne-style beer with a hint of fruit and flint on the palate.

Comparatively, for a more conventional-style pilsner, try:

  • Pilsner Urquell (Bohemian) - a superb showcase of old-world brewing technique (in its decoction brewing process). Still one of the most impressive combinations of grain and hop character that I've ever tasted, even after its long trip to NZ.
  • Czechmate Pilsner (new-world Bohemian) - a near traditional in style and the BrewNZ best-in-class Pilsner two years in a row (against some very stiff international competition).

As for the light lagers, just make sure it is always local and fresh - nine times out of ten I'd choose NZ-brewed Stella Artois, thanks to its fresh flourish of balancing hops. Remember that pretty much all of these beers deteriorate from the day they leave the brewery and 4-6 weeks in hot shipping container certainly don't do them any favours - stewed fruit and cardboard are sure signs that you've been had.

Here's to Pilsner - traditional and new world...

Slainte mhath!  Stu
Society of Beer Advocates (SOBA)

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