I went on a hike this week with a few of my colleagues to appreciate the forested beauty of the natural world. We eventually lit a fire and toasted some marshmallows and frankfurters. One of my fellow heshers was German and carried around a package of expired hot dogs during his hike that he intended to eat at room temperature. I convinced him to put aside his barbaric hunger and save the sausages for the evening cookout.13 Comments
A short history lesson is in order. Pilsner Urquell is the famous original pale lager. A “Czech Pilsner” is not actually a beer style given that the word pilsner itself is a demonym indicating the beer’s origin in Plzeň. The Czechs do not define their native brews by styles such as lager, India Pale Ale, porter/stout1, and so on but by color and degrees Plato with stronger beers of the same color not simply being the weaker beer “scaled up” but separate styles2. The Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery was founded in the 19th century to brew Bavarian-style lagers – then mostly dark at the time – but with pale malts pioneered in England and relatively highly-hopped compared to the common Dunkel. Pale lager became the type of beer that was copied around the world, was cost-reduced with adjuncts, and eventually made into the mixed beer and carbonated water soft drink that is Miller Lite with its “Great Pilsner Taste”. Unlike most beers, Pilsner Urquell continued being fermented and lagered in giant wooden vats and barrels into the 1990s when it was privatized and sold to conglamerate SABMiller. The international piss brewers “modernized” the brewery, replaced the wooden vessels with stainless steel tanks, slashed the lagering time to a third, and replaced most of the whole cone hops with hop oils. This review is of the filtered and pasteurized export variety which is a pale imitation of the rare unfiltered and cask versions usually unavailable in the US.
Pilsner Urquell pours a dark shade of gold with a frothy head. Not uric gold but a rich, vaguely ambery shade of gold. The beer smells vaguely of fresh bread and slightly floral, grassy hops. The taste is biscuits and bread interspersed with hints of butterscotch, caramel, and a mildly spicy hop bitterness. Pilsner Urquell is balanced, unlike many of the hop bomb, onions and cat piss craft IPAs best suited to keep teenagers away from drinking in the same way that putting hot sauce on your food will keep the dog from trying to steal it. The beer may be dumbed down by accountants and many of the flavors typical but it’s well made, tastes great, isn’t sour, doesn’t resemble animal piss, and you can easily down a six pack in a couple hours like I did.
1Porter and stout are interchangeable. Despite stout formerly indicating a stronger porter – a “stout porter” -, many breweries that brew beers called by both terms make a porter stronger than their stout.
2Read Ronald Pattinson’s excellent rundown of Czech beer styles on his Shut Up About Barclay Perkins blog. A more comprehensive detailing may be found on his European Beer Guide website.
France, the land known for fine wines, also makes fine beer. This makes sense given that it overlaps with a certain amount of formerly-German territory, but Kronenbourg 1664 stands on its own and is gaining some momentum in American markets. This lager very much in the European style has its own approach to beer making and tasting.
At first, it hits the palate with a sweetness. This broadens into a grainy taste, which then turns slightly bitter and then sweet again, like a melody passing from a few high notes to a surging dark riff and then ending on a semi-ironic, positive note. Slightly skunky, its combination of Pilsner and cereal malts gives it a sturdy but elegant flavor. Grassy hops propel its flavor to take on texture and depth, and its bready taste gains a small amount of almost citrus lightness as the beer warms. It pours down the throat smoothly like a light beer, but has the alcohol and complex flavor of a more traditional beer. In short, the wine-drinking cheese-eaters have given the Germans a run for their money here.
Kronenbourg 1664 is still hard to find in many places, but it is not exotic and fully ironic enough for the hipsters, so for now it remains the province of in-the-closet beer snobs like myself. All I ask for is quality, in part because what the majority of people drink — Budweiser, Coors, Michelob, Miller and Shiner — strikes me as both utterly bad and cynically cheapened yet given an appearance of uniqueness. Each maker puts out beers like television shows, with quirky personalities or weird ingredients, but underneath is an MBA bottom line: how to make something beer-tasting enough that people with buy it if subjected to advertising, and then how to save money by cutting out everything good. Kronenbourg 1664 has cut nothing good yet, but if it gets popular it will surely get the dreaded “Heineken treatment” and be reconstituted from syrup domestically to be sold as an import. Until that happens, this delicious beer with a light personality and cryptic depths awaits you.