Monday, March 10, 2014

Hey Bud, I'd like a pilsner.

Your average beer drinker probably thinks of lager & pilsner as interchangeable terms, both meaning a light colored, light bodied beer, but lagers come in a variety of strengths and colors, from light and bitter pilsners to dark and roasty schwarzbiers.

There are several styles of lager, but the most interesting one is Pilsner.

Lagers are made by a yeast that ferments at cold temperatures. Pilsner is a specific type of lager, first made in Plzeň, Checkoslovakia. 

Pilsner is historically significant because it looked and tasted like no other beer of its time.

This difference came from the malting of the barley. Beer is fermented barley, and barley is a seed.

But, you ask, isn't a seed made of starch, and doesn't fermentation require sugar?

Why, yes, you are correct. Malting is the process of soaking the barley in water so that the seed creates enzymes that will convert the starch into sugar in order to feed the newborn plant. Once the seeds have sprouted, the grain is toasted, which both stops the sprouting and develops the grain's flavors by caramelizing the sugar that is now present.

Have you ever tried to toast walnuts or sesame seeds on the stove? You probably watched them closely for what seemed like an eternity, maybe you even set the timer, and then, in the split second that you looked away, the nuts went from underdone to burnt. Roasting grain to make beer used to be like that.

Back in the dawn of prerecorded beer history, barley was toasted over an open fire, and early beers were dark and murky, but, nobody really noticed because they drank the beer out of opaque tankards.

Two events conspired to make a light colored lager both possible and popular:

The first event was the development of a closed kiln that used indirect heat to roast the barley. This gave much more control over the darkness of the roast, in sort of the same way that the “doneness” setting on you toaster is supposed to work (Maybe yours works. Mine doesn't.).

The second event that was crucial to the popularity of this new beer style was the development of glass that was strong enough to be made into drinking vessels. If you're gonna make a new beer that is visually distinct from other beers, you need something to show off its unique color. 

Enter clear glassware:
Ta Da!

Pilsner gets its name from Plzeň, Checkoslovakia, the city where this beer style originated. "Urquell" is German for "original".

The malt is very lightly roasted, and the beer made with lightly roasted malt will be straw to light gold colored. 

Take a whiff of this beer. I smell saltine crackers. You might smell crackers, or lightly toasted white bread, or biscuits.

Along with the toasty cracker aromas you'll get a pretty good whiff of spicy and flowery hops, and in Pilsner Urquell's case, the Saaz variety of hops are used. 

The flavor will have that cracker-like malt with pronounced, but not harsh or lingering, bitterness from the hops. There won't be any fruity aromas or flavors, because lager yeast doesn't produce them.
That Saaz hop aroma combined with the light color and cracker-like malt is what defines the pilsner style of beer.

European pilsners are hoppy.

The water around Plzeň is very soft, so there are no additional minerals dissolved in the water to compete with hop aromas . Perhaps no other style of beer showcases hop aroma like pilsner does.
Hop vines are easily crossbred and new varieties are introduced all the time. Saaz are one of the Noble hops (Saaz, Tettnanger, Hallertauer Mittelfrueh, and Spalter are the European Noble varieties). Think of Noble hops as heirloom, or heritage breeds.

This light bodied, effervescent beer is great before a meal. It also goes with seafood (lobster!), and its a great accompaniment to summertime foods like caprese salad and tomato bruschetta. In fact, the herbal aroma of the Saaz hops makes basil a good ingredient to act as a bridge between the food to the beer.

This beer has enough assertive flavors to stand up to spicy Asian and Mexican food, and the carbonation helps to whisk away the burn. Pilsner also works with deep fried pub food like fish & chips or calamari, or salty pork products like sausage or ham - try a pilsner with a grilled ham & cheese sandwich. 

Do yourself a favor and upgrade your grilled ham & cheese to its sexy cousin, the Cuban sandwich. I think that this is a great pairing - the malt counters the salty ham while the hops really play off of the tartness of the pickle to turn this pairing up to 11.

Here are some examples of European-style Pilsner: 

American pilsners are NOT hoppy! 
American pilsner bears only a passing resemblance to European pilsner. This American spinoff of pilsner is different enough that it is sometimes called Pale Lager or American Lager

How did this happen? 

The American Lager style of beer rose in prominence during World War II, when the United States government declared malted barley flour to be a critical resource. 

Anheuser-Busch made a deal to sell half of their malt production to the US government (at cost) in exchange for the exclusive rights to provide beer to US troops. This contract made Anheuser-Busch the largest brewing company in the US, and it gave them a captive audience.

As Anheuser-Busch was supplying beer to US troops, women entered the US workforce in large numbers. They also began drinking more beer. Corn and rice were added to barley to create a lighter bodied, milder flavored beer, and the hop bitterness that characterized the original pilsner was toned down. This has become the world's best selling style of beer

Here are some examples of American Lager:

What food might you pair with an American lager? Like the original pilsner, try a Miller Hi-Life with a ham sandwich: American cheese, Best Foods mayo, French's yellow mustard, and iceberg lettuce on lightly toasted white bread. 

The light malt flavor counters the ham, the hops will accentuate some of the bite of the French's yellow mustard, and the carbonation helps cut through the creaminess of the cheese and mayonnaise.

In the next beer post we'll taste some ales.

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