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On the West Coast, true Pilseners on tap

Special to the Times

In an industrial section of Berkeley, just blocks off the roaring 10 lanes of Highway 80, a small brewery is producing a highly unusual beer.

All the remarkable characteristics of this beer -- its creamy head, its sweet floral nose, light body, and even its name, Trumer Pils -- are the same as those of a beer that residents of Salzburg, Austria, have been enjoying for hundreds of years. The only difference is that this beer happens to be made in Berkeley. Think of it as an imported beer that’s not imported.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 2, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 02, 2005 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Brewmaster -- In an article in last week’s Food section about Pilsener beers, the last name of Trumer Brauerei brewmaster Lars Larson was misspelled as Larsen.

But though the brewing wizardry that allowed the company to reproduce an Austrian beer in Berkeley is a breakthrough, the real news is that this brewery is dedicated to only one style of beer, and that style is Pilsener. Trumer is the latest and most ambitious of the West Coast, mostly California, craft-brewed Pilseners -- beers that represent the most refined examples of a category that deserves a lot more attention than it’s gotten in this country.

Pilseners, with their light-straw to golden colors, small Champagne-like bubbles and flavors with a refreshing hoppy bitterness balanced by an underlying malty sweetness, are among the most beautiful, flavorful and food-friendly beers on the planet. And when we taste a locally produced craft Pilsener such as Trumer Pils, Scrimshaw, Lagunitas, Sudwerk, Gordon Biersch, or Firestone lager, we’re tasting a high-quality, true Pilsener. In its best incarnations -- such as Trumer Pils -- the flavor is balanced between the warm, bread-y malt and the bitter, refreshing hops.

The growing availability of these regionally produced, fresh beers is a boon to West Coast beer lovers. Pilseners are beloved throughout northern Europe, where large numbers of small craft breweries deliver the beer fresh, unpasteurized and unfiltered. But because they don’t travel well, the imports available here are nowhere near as delicious as Pilseners with the same name available on tap in Prague or Munich or Vienna.

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And because the category is dominated by mass-produced, flavorless beers such as Bud and Miller, which call themselves Pilseners, many consumers have yet to discover the pleasures of the real deal.

“My biggest beef with the word Pilsener is that nobody knows what it is,” says Sang Yoon, owner of Father’s Office, one of Southern California’s great beer destinations. “Miller’s ad campaign that says ‘taste the true Pilsener’ makes my blood boil.”

He’s right. Miller is no more a true Pilsener than Domino’s cheese-in-the-crust is traditional Italian pizza.

So what is a Pilsener?

At Trumer Brauerei in Berkeley, brewmaster Lars Larsen took me through the small rooms filled with tanks and hoses, poured me a cold, golden Trumer and explained that “all beer can be divided into two categories: ales and lagers. The difference between them is the kind of yeast -- ale yeasts are top fermenting, while lager yeasts are bottom fermenting. A Pilsener is simply a style of lager.”

Setting the standard

In fact, Pilsener is the ur-lager, the first one to dazzle drinkers and capture international attention. Invented in 1842 in the Czech town of Plzen, the first Pilsener is what we know as Pilsener Urquell (meaning “original Pilsener”). Widely imitated, it became the gold standard for the style, and in many ways it still is today.

At the time, Pilsener beer was a revelation. Before its creation, most beers were dark and cloudy ales, but simultaneous breakthroughs in the controls of toasting malt, fermentation temperatures and yeast science allowed for the production of a clear, golden, beautiful lager. Improvements in glassmaking allowed the clarity and effulgence of these beers to be appreciated in clear glass vessels. The effect was like going from silent films to Dolby Digital sound in one movie.

Pilseners really took hold in Bohemia and Germany. Both regions developed distinct styles, which are how Pilseners are classified today: Bohemian versions tend to be a little heavier-bodied and sweeter tasting, while German examples are lighter and more bitter.

But as Pilseners gained in popularity in Europe and the States, they morphed into the less flavorful, mass-produced light lagers that proliferate today. These pale echoes of Pilsener are the most popular beers in the world and include such well-known names as Kirin Ichiban, Heineken and Budweiser.

A high-quality craft Pilsener differs from mass-produced lagers in several respects. Unlike Miller Lite, a craft Pilsener is made with a base of 100% malt. Mass-produced lagers are extended with rice and corn.

“Rice and corn are much cheaper to use than malt, and they might make up to 40% of what the beer’s made from. They create alcohol but they don’t create flavor,” says Larsen. Malt gives beer richness and a discernible character of bread or grain.

And good craft Pilseners are wonderfully hopped-up. The addition of hops creates a floral bitterness, which can actually be measured using something called International Bittering Units, or IBUs. According to Larsen, light lagers like Miller or Budweiser will have around 8 to 13 IBUs, whereas a German Pilsener has 25 to 45. Trumer Pils has 26.

Finding an audience

The small band of elite West Coast Pilsener brewers has gained momentum, but the pleasure of this style of beer has yet to be discovered by most beer lovers.

Tony Magee, founder of Petaluma’s Lagunitas brewery, says his Pilsener is still working to find its audience. Richer in body than Trumer, with a more assertive hoppiness, it’s a beautiful beer. But, says Magee, “Most people who want a light, neutral beer will choke on the hops of a true Pilsener. And most beer heads who are into super-flavorful stouts and ales will find Pilsener too light.”

Magee points out that lagers in general are more expensive and difficult to make than ales. “That’s the reason most microbrews are ales,” he says. “Ales are made in 14 days and they’re ready to go. Our Pilsener takes five weeks to make.” Furthermore, he says, since Pilseners are lighter in color, body and flavor than ales, flaws are much more obvious.

Why does he make Pilsener? “Because I love it. I think it’s the best beer we make in terms of artistry; it’s the one I’m proudest of. And I think that American consumers are really starting to learn to enjoy beer with more character.”

That’s certainly what Trumer’s producers are hoping. The new brewery came about because Carlos Alvarez, president of Gambrinus Brewing Company of San Antonio, Texas, (which is responsible for Corona, Negra Modelo and Pete’s Wicked Ale) wanted to create a high-quality American Pilsener to compete with international brewing companies like Heineken, Stella Artois, and Beck’s.

He couldn’t attempt to do it on scale, so he decided to do it with quality, approaching a 400-year-old family brewery outside Salzburg with the unprecedented idea of replicating its spot-on Pilsener on another continent. After almost two years of hard work -- remodeling an old winery in Berkeley, sending teams to and from Austria and California and eight months of test brewing -- the partners finally created a Berkeley-brewed Pilsener indistinguishable, even to the Austrians, from the Salzburg Trumer Pils.

“So much status in the market is given to imported beer,” says Alvarez. But often, he warns, quality is compromised in production and transportation of imports.

Most imported beers are not made using the same recipe as the beer you enjoyed in the mother country. Sometimes the recipes are changed to appeal to American taste; always the beer will be pasteurized, a process that robs a beer of some of its freshness and verve.

“We don’t even do Pilseners from Eastern Europe,” says Yoon of Father’s Office. “We don’t import lagers as a general rule because they’re not built for the long haul. They don’t survive the travel. The only beers we get from overseas are the big-bodied, high alcohol beers with living yeasts, which can survive the trip.”

Often shipping containers are not refrigerated, and beer may be exposed to heat and light. Heat encourages oxidation, which leaves cardboard or paper-like flavors on the beer. Light (which gets to the beers through the traditional green-glass bottles) is a lager’s worst enemy, causing it to become what can only be described as “skunky,” or tasting of that animal’s unmistakable aroma. Although this flavor flaw completely undermines Pilsener’s lovely delicate flavors, “skunky is how many Americans think imported lagers are supposed to taste,” says Larsen.

To avoid these pitfalls, Alvarez decided to make an unpasteurized beer to be fresh and pure for American drinkers. Berkeley was chosen as the site because its soft water was similar to that in Salzburg and because of its food-savvy and open-minded population.

Yes, Trumer only comes in green bottles, which Alvarez agrees “are not the best.” But, he says, “the bottles are shipped in enclosed cases and are shipped in refrigerated trucks to their destinations. If the stores keep them cold and don’t leave them in the light too long, the beers should be fine.”

Pilseners are indeed fragile beers, but that’s part of their charm. Their delicate balance between malt and hops would be hard to detect any other way. This fragility, though, is a good reason to drink local when it comes to lager beers. Why spend extra money on a tainted product from thousands of miles away when you can have a fresh product from just a couple of hundred miles away?

Freshness is something Californians prize, and it’s a quality that plays to Pilseners’ strong suits: verve, vibrancy, crispness.

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Judging the brewer’s art

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Tasting Pilsener is not unlike tasting wine. The color should be beautiful, ranging in hue from pale straw to rich shades of gold. Notice the head as you pour the beer into the glass: It should be thick and generous. Smell the grainy malt and the floral, bitter hops. If it’s a well-balanced beer, you should be able to smell both. If you get a whiff of paper or an off-smell (“skunk”), the beer may have oxidized or been exposed to too much light.

Taste too should balance malt and hops, but also pay attention to the body and the finish. Does it finish dry? Does the bitterness dissipate or gain in intensity after the beer has left your mouth? Ultimately, flavor and balance are the keys.

Below are descriptions of the best West Coast craft Pilseners. Prices are per six-pack, except where indicated.

Trumer Pils. Tight, Champagne-like effervescence with a good frothy head that lasts through several sips. The nose is nuanced between sweet malt and light hoppiness. Light-bodied in the German style, the beer’s aftertaste is slightly bitter, but in the refreshing way that makes you want another sip. About $7.50 at select Beverages & More stores.

Lagunitas Pils. Occupies the middle ground between the light, hoppy German style and rounder, sweeter Bohemian style. Thick malts make for a lovely nose, while in the mouth the beer is richly textured with a long finish that balances sweet and bitter. About $7 at Wine House in West Los Angeles; $4.50 per glass on tap at Father’s Office in Santa Monica.

Rouge Imperial. This Pilsener from Oregon has a cloudy amber color with a light head that dissipates quickly. Spicy, sweet hops give it an almost citrus tang. The finish is lightly bitter, but ultimately refreshing and cleansing. About $12.50 per 26-ounce bottle at Wine House in West L.A. and at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa.

North Coast Scrimshaw. Beautiful straw color, an ever-so-fine scent of biscuits and a faint, ethereal hoppiness. Round and sweet in the mouth, this should appeal to people who don’t like much bitterness. About $7.50 at select Beverages & More stores.

Firestone Lager. Calls itself a lager, drinks like a Pilsener. Golden in color with a modest head. Sweetly malty nose, crisp and clean, it offers understated hoppiness. Though medium-bodied, the beer is a bit light and watery. (The first bottle I tasted was tainted -- it smelled like nail polish remover -- but the next bottle was fine.) $8 at select Beverages & More stores.

Gordon Biersch. A light-bodied German-style Pilsener with a grain-dominated nose. The flavor emphasizes malt sweetness over hops until the finish, which has a lingering bitterness. About $7.50 at select Beverages & More stores.

Sudwerk. Straw-colored with a medium head, it’s gently malty with aromas of citrusy hops. Altogether, the flavor is good, if a little weak, with a lightly bitter, faintly sour finish. Tasted twice; the first bottle was tainted and had an off-smell; the second was far better. About $8.50 at select Beverages & More.

-- Jordan Mackay


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