Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Sublime, not simple: Pilsners and the Washington Post 2013 Beer Madness

Since 2007, the Washington Post has run a beer contest paralleling the March Madness tournament of collegiate basketball. Post columnist Greg Kitsock selects a panel of 'laypersons' and 'experts' which winnows a field a beers —placed in divisions, similar to the brackets of the NCAA tournament— to one, champion beer.

For this year's Washington Post Beer Madness, he and Greg Engert —beer director for the Churchkey/Neighborhood Restaurant Group— selected a tournament line-up of 32 local beers —beers from breweries in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware— and separated those into four brackets of Crisp, Fruit & Spice, Hop, and Roast.

Over successive weeks, the eight judges rated the beers based on their personal preferences, rather than adherence to any stylistic guidelines. Which is how the vast majority of consumers chooses its beers. Which is why I enjoy the contest, but why it might rankle a beer-style geek. Accept the results as subjective fun.

Last week the panelists had winnowed the field to two: the redundantly named Double Dog Double Pale Ale from Flying Dog, of Frederick, Maryland, and the succinctly named Pilsner from Legend Brewing, of Richmond, Virginia. And then, Kitsock wrote this:

Pilseners tend to be simple, straightforward beers.

No, no, no, and no!

At best, Kitsock's statement is dismissive praise, like saying that Mozart's String Quartet No. 19 —the Dissonance Quartet— is 'simple' music because the notes have been written down. At worst, his comment finds common cause with the major brewing companies in doing harm to their distant legacies of Czech and German lagers —and SAB/Miller Brewing, in particular, with its apostasy "true Pilsner" campaign: if we repeat something enough, it will be believed to be true.

I'm going to avoid quoting formalistic delineations of OG/ABV/IBU and other alphabetic parameters. But I know a pilsner when I taste one: firm, slightly sweet, deep golden-hued malt; spicy, floral hops; crisp character, with a whiff of yeasty sulfur; gentle enough alcohol at about 5% to allow another sip, yet strong enough to make a statement; a long, dry, dare I say, bitter finish. And, above all, a clear, joyful declaration of the four ingredients of beer —malt, hops, yeast, and water— unencumbered by ale's zig-zag riot of dank hop, fruited yeast, and nowadays, back-of-the-cupboard oddities. No disrespect is meant to the world of ales. But if one fancies him or herself a beer lover, and 'simply' dismisses lagers out-of-hand, she or he leaves undiscovered an entire hemisphere of delicious choices.


Double Dog bested Legend Pilsner today, winning the 2013 Washington Post Beer Madness. A fine beer it is: a fine, strong, hoppy ale. Congratulations are due to Flying Dog Brewing. I have a bottle in the fridge. But, when the time is right ...

Pour yourself a Legend Pilsner, 'crank up' Mozart's 'Dissonance' Quartet, and take the time to taste and listen. That's not simple; that's sublime.

  • Two of the Post's judges advanced Legend Pilsner into the final round because of complexities they described as Belgian beer-like and banana. In a formal competition, those flavors would have been deemed faults and the beer eliminated. In writing this posting, I tasted the beer. I didn't find those flaws.
  • With many iterations available, here are but two other U.S. pilsner-style lagers to try: Gordon-Biersch (nationwide brewpub chain), Victory Brewing Prima Pils (Pennsylvania). For more in-depth stylistic exploration of pilsners and other lagers, read the blog Fuggled.
  • I cannot claim authorship of the lager/string quartet analogy. That belongs to Washington, D.C. beer raconteur Bob Tupper, who compares an ale to a jazz quartet. Each member goes his own way, but all finish together. A lager, in contrast, is like a string quartet. It is a seamless composition.
  • Flying Dog's brewmaster Matt Brophy (and, again, congratulations) had this to say about the name of his beer: when Double Dog Double Pale Ale premiered in 2004, to celebrate the brewery’s 10th anniversary, there was no accepted stylistic designation for a strong ale with such a massive hop content. That has changed, and Brophy assures us that the beer will be relabeled a “double IPA.”
  • The fact that Kitsock and Engert were able to select thirty-two local beers —easily, with many excluded— is, in itself, a remarkable facet of the competition. Even five years ago, there weren't enough breweries here to do that.


    1. 'about 5%'

      I know where you are coming from with this number, and also that I am a stickler when it comes to this 'style' but still the best pilsner on planet earth, tankove Pilsner Urquell, is 4.4%. Much of the magic of pilsner is, in my opinion, in the yeast, which doesn't attenuate as fully as some lager strains but leaves a nice maltiness in there to balance the big whollops of Saaz. That and decoction mashing! ;)

    2. Well said. As someone who leans towards beers such as Double Dog Double Pale Ale more often then not, I've also often been disappointed when I went to the beer fridge and couldn't find a "simple, straightforward beer." Seriously, I too disagree with Kitsock's categorization. I tell folks, if they don't like beer, they haven;t actually had a GOOD lager. Prima Pils is indeed one of the best. I can remember many a "World Beer Fest" where I ended the day recovering with a pints of Prima Pils!

    3. I love a good Lager and I love coming across your blog and seeing you sticking up for them from time to time. They are like the forgotten style in the craft beer world. There are a few representations out there, but it can be hard to hunt down something delicious and new to try as they so rarely get any exposure.


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