Friday, August 5, 2016

The Session 114 - Urquell and Not

This month's Session is around the theme of 'Pilsners', I asked bloggers to find examples of the various subsets of the pilsner style and do a  little tasting and comparing, but first I have a confession to make.

Believe it or not, I have not always been a devoted drinker of Plzeňský Prazdroj, the original, eponymous, lager from Plzeň. That's not to say that I haven't always been a fan of Czech pale lagers, but in my first few years living in the Czech Republic I preferred Budvar, Velkopopovický Kozel, or Gambrinus. Then as I started breaking out and drinking lagers from small breweries I discovered wonders such as Zlata Labut Světlé Kvasnicové Pivo 11°, Koutský 10° Kvasnicové Světlé Výčepní, or Chodovar Kvasnicový Skalní Ležák.

Plzeňský Prazdroj was something I drank on the occasions when I went to places like U Pinkasů, Bredovský Dvůr, or Bruska. Sure I liked it enough but it was really only when Pivovarský Klub had a keg of the unfiltered, kvasnicové Prazdroj, that was normally only available in a couple of bars in Plzeň, that I realised what a magnificent beer it truly is. Now that it is available in the US, cold shipped in brown bottles, it is a fairly regular, though fleeting, visitor to my fridge.

It seemed only logical for this iteration of The Session then that I get myself some of the original pilsner and subject it to my slightly modified version of the Cyclops beer tasting method, but then I decided it would better to actually write about the beer than have a set of bullet points. Thus I poured a bottle into my hand blown glass from Williamsburg, and as I expected it was a rich golden colour, not yellow, deeply golden. The head that formed was a cap of tight white bubbles that just lingered. I took time to actually smell the beer, something that I find gets overlooked with beers you know well, and there was everything I love about Saaz, the closest description I can come to it like mown grass in a lemon grove, with just a trace of honeyed digestive biscuits in the background. That theme of sweet cereal and bracing hop bitterness continues into the drinking, and while I wouldn't say that I can tell if a beer has been decocted, there is something ethereal about the sweetness, it's almost dainty, lacking the clunkiness of caramel malts. Beautifully balanced, crisply bitter, clean, and thirst quenching, Prazdroj is a classic, simple as.

When trying to decide where in the pilsner universe to go next, Germany was the obvious destination, but which of the many, many, excellent examples of the style would I pour into my goblet? Really there was always a leading contender, a beer that I simply adore, Rothaus Pils. When Kardinal Hall opened up here in Charlottesville and I was able to drop $11 on a litre of Rothaus Pils, I was almost giddy with excitement. I was a little worried that bottled Rothaus wouldn't stand up to draught, what a silly boy I am sometimes. Where Prazdroj is golden, Rothaus is very definitely yellow, again topped with a firm white head that clings to the side of the glass. I don't know, nor particularly care, what hops are used in the beer, but they reminded me of summer meadows in the mountains of central Europe laced with lemongrass. The dominant flavour was that of wildflower honey schmeered onto a lightly toasted slice of homemade bread, with a bitterness that lingers in the background and build with every mouthful. The complexity of this simple beer is astounding and it is one that I never tire of drinking.

Having had the original, and then probably my favourite, where to go next? How about right up to date in the USA? I know there are people for whom Goose Island is off limits, for the same daft reasons as those railing against Devils Backbone, but when they released Four Star Pils a few months back I was eager to give it a whirl. This one pours a similar rich golden as Prazdroj, though the head here is slightly off white, as expected it sits around for the duration. The hops here are a mix of German and American, and it tells in the nose, a gentle blend of the German floral thing and a distinctly American citrus note, all dancing over a base of graham cracker malt. Drinking is a cascade of toffee infused graham crackers topped with bitter orange peel. Sneaking in the background is a light grassiness that sets off the sweetness of the malt nicely. Again a very nicely balanced beer, the bitterness of the hops drying out the finish to make it delightfully refreshing.

So what can be drawn from this little comparative tasting? There is scope under the pilsner umbrella for a raft of flavours and that hop bitterness is a key facet of the drinking experience. True pilsners are not bland in the slightest, and are very much a drinkers' beer. They are not built for sampling a few ounces of in a tasting room and cyberticking it on Untappd, but for engaging in real sociability with real people. So I encourage everyone this weekend to go beyond the IPAs, Belgians, and Imperials of this world, and have a few pints or litres of a pilsner.

Na zdraví! Prost! Slainte!


  1. I now live in a part of the country where Victory's beer is ubiquitous. This means that I have been able to keep my fridge stocked this summer with Prima Pils, which I like a lot. My only real quibble with it is that it's a wee bit strong for a proper sessionable beer...

  2. A lot of great brewing here in the Ozarks. My favorite is the Behemoth Pilsner by Core here in NW Arkansas. Boulevard brews KC Pils which is the same recipe of the old Muhlebach brewery in Kansas City. It is very tasty.

    I understand that before Ales took off a lot of cities had their own brewery, brewing their own variation of Central European styles. They did not last the period of merger and consolidation the 50's and 60's.