For Friday afternoon of American Craft Beer Week Friday, I drank a glass of Downright Pilsner —from Port City Brewing Company— at the brewery, located in Alexandria, Virginia.
A Pilsner is one type of lager beer, not an ale. As a comparison, Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser is also a lager, but not a pilsner-style lager. Downright Pilsner was measured at 45 International Bittering Units; Bud has been reported at about 10 IBUs. Flavor counts!
Port City's lead brewer, Jonathan Reeves, brewed the Pils —his late-spring limited release— with a Pilsner malt-only grist and hopped it exclusively with Czech Republic Saaz hops, often referred to as "noble' hops because of their perceived elegant aroma and flavor: over 30 pounds in kettle and an additional 11 pounds as 'dry-hops' after fermentation. 43 bittering units (BUs), 4.8% alcohol-by-volume (abv). Reeves used only Saaz hops in the Pils this year, because, he told me, the Czech harvest had been good, and the bittering compounds of the hops higher than normal.
Hops, an herb, contribute both bitterness and aromatics to beer, just as, say, oregano, would to tomato sauce. Hop aromas are derived from hop oils, whereas hop bittering from alpha acids. Saaz hops generally contain alpha acids in the 3 to 6% range. The 2011 crop was measured at an average of 5.8%. As comparison, Simcoe hops — found in many hoppy American IPAs— contain alpha acids from 12 to 14%. [Hieronymous: For The Love of Hops.]
The beer poured deep golden, with a tinge of chartreuse and haze (from the dry-hopping?). There's a wonderful aromatic surfeit of hops, but some sweet malt can be tasted in the background. Reeves describes the aroma and flavor as piney and woodsy, with the herbal heat of fresh ginger. I also tasted citrus like the twist of lemon. The finish is spicy, long-lived, and refreshing.
Brewer Reeves had an interesting observation about 'craft' lagers. Small and independent American breweries that produce lagers —a small subset of the American 'craft' world— tend to fall into one of two camps. Either they slavishly attempt to conform to perceived European styles or they brew something "experimental." He noted that his Downright Pilsner falls between the two extremes. Inspired by Bohemian Pilsners, it might differ from those in that it is dry-hopped, albeit with 'traditional' pilsner hops, Saaz.
That I could drink a glass of the Pils at the brewery was itself a special thing. Only last summer, a law took effect in Virginia, which allowed the state's production breweries to sell pints to customers, much as Virginia wineries could already do (with wine, of course). To borrow the vernacular, this was a game changer: several breweries have opened in Virginia since the law changed, and several more are under construction or in planing. Neighboring Washington, D.C. allows its production breweries the same, and the Maryland legislature recently passed a similar law which will take effect 1 July.
At Port City's tasting room, I so thoroughly enjoyed my taste of Downright Pilsner, that I wanted more. I bought a six-pack to take home.