Monday, September 12, 2011

Of Pilsners

Mrs Velkyal and I went to a wedding at the weekend.

The bride is a colleague of Mrs V, and when they started working together we discovered that her then boyfriend, now husband, had lived for a time in Prague, a time which overlapped with my ten years in that most beautiful of cities. When chatting at a party, comparing notes really, you could say, we learnt that from about 1999 to 2001 we went to the same pubs and clubs, knew a few of the same people and had quite probably shared a beer or two. Through the groom, Mrs V and I have been introduced to a few other people with a Prague connection, and again one of them is someone that went to the same clubs and pubs, and in this case definitely someone I shared a beer or two with. I am getting convinced that the City of Charlottesville should enter into a twinning arrangement with a city in Czech Republic, Plzeň for example or České Budějovice, although Jablonec nad Nisou has a similar population, and is an excellent place for a beer.


Anyway, given the Czech connection, there was bottled Pilsner Urquell available at the reception, and it went rather quickly as those of us still being clawed by the Old Mother dived in. Now, I am quite happy to say that Pilsner Urquell is best drunk in Plzeň itself, preferably kvasnicové, failing that then tankové. However, even pasteurised and in a green bottle it is a damned sight better than many a "craft" pilsner that is available unpasteurised in this neck of the woods. As you can imagine, our little Prague coterie indulged in much nostalgia infused revery about the beers of the Czech Republic from the late 90s to the early Noughties. Themes such as how great a beer Velkopopovický Kozel was back then, how even Braník was a decent brew, especially the tmavé and lamenting the passing of the pubs and clubs we all got hammered in with much abandon, the Marquis de Sade, the Radegast beer hall and the original Iron Door nightclub (there is kind of a successor but it has never been as good as the original).


Once the Pilsner Urquell had been polished off, we moved on to the other pilsner available, North Coast's Scrimshaw Pilsner - just a side note, one of the best things about this reception was the complete and utter absence of beer from one of the big American breweries, the tap selection was from Allagash, North Coast and Bluegrass Brewing Company, and bottles from Legend, Port City and a few others I can't remember. It was interesting to go from Pilsner Urquell to one of the imitation pilsners and compare, and the most immediate thing I noticed is the absence of a firm hop bitterness that I grew to love about proper Czech lagers. There was a touch of butterscotch, but nothing overwhelmingly drastic, and so I drank shed loads of it, especially as it is bang on style with an ABV of 4.4%. So, yes I drank a lot of pilsner on Saturday night, though managed not to fall over, throw up or do anything else to embarrass myself, which is usually the sign of a successful drinking session.

Yesterday though I felt rough, rougher than I have in a long time. Perhaps as I get older it gets more difficult to drink in quantity and rely on that lifestyle drug of choice, paracetamol, to get me through the next day. As I lay on the sofa nursing a hangover, I read bits and pieces from the Oxford History of Britain and Stan Hieronymous' Brew Like A Monk. A phrase that hit me from Stan's book was something along the lines of "you can't make a great beer from numbers" and I wonder if that is one of the reasons so few craft breweries over here fail to make good pilsner - I almost wrote "great pilsner" but even just plain "good" is hard to find at times.

 
A great pilsner is not just about having an OG of 1.048, 40 IBUs and 4.4%ABV, it is about the intangibles of the triple decoction mash, the letting the beer lager until it is ready, the judicious use of Saaz hops whilst telling the accountants to sod off worrying about the cost of using only Saaz. If making a great pilsner, or any beer really, was just a case of following the numbers, I'd have been brewing my own pilsners by now, but it isn't.

Perhaps with lager style beers it isn't enough to be passionate about brewing, a brewer needs to be passionate about lager in particular. To quote the Gospel writer, "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also".

2 comments:

  1. I've had the style guideline argument a thousand times. How do you judge a beer—On they taste, or how well the brewer matched the BCJP style guidelines? I lean toward taste, but I think people get so caught up in being correct, that the numbers become a crutch and the beer suffers as a result. Beer needs soul, and It's easy to lose that when you brew by the numbers.

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  2. Branik 12 Dark. What a beer that was. One of my all-time favourites.

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