POP QUIZ: how many kinds of beers are there? Go ahead and give it a guess. I’ll watch the time.
Give up? Two. Yeah yeah, you’re about to gripe and point out that I’ve long since written about more than two beers. But those are beer styles. I’m talking overarching beer families. See, every beer in the world falls into one of two categories: ale or lager. That’s it. Kind of like how a 24-hour period is divided into night and day (ignore, for a moment, the technicalities of dusk and dawn, you silly contrarian, you). It’s really an either/or kind of deal. Heads or tails. That’s it.
So why does this matter?
Because ales, as we know them, have been around for tens of thousands of years. That recipe is simple: ingredients + time = booze. But lagers are a different beast. You can only brew a lager in a cold temperature. And there weren’t many refrigerators in the 16th century, you know?
So lagers, as we know them, were “invented” in 1842, after a few years of experimentation in the Pilsen region of the Czech Republic. And thus, the pilsner–the world’s first lager–was born.
Brewed with soft Czech water, Saaz hops and English grains, it was the Frankenstein’s Monster of beers. Or a Robocop of beers, either way. And it took the world by storm. You’ve gotta understand, there wasn’t much quality control back then, and people would pretty much throw anything into a boiling pot of water if it’d get ‘em drunk. And the results were frequently vom-worthy. But, pilsners! Pilsners were different. Pilsners were crisp, clean, clear, and refreshing. And one day in the future, hotcakes would sell like them.
In an event that’s equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking, pilsners swept the continent. And while it was cool that everyone was getting down with a new style, it meant that a lot of local, specialized styles were completely tossed out the window in favor of this new beverage, which are now likely lost to history. It was like Beatlemania, but with beers. “Beertlemania?” No, I don’t like that joke one bit. Let’s keep moving.
Now, if you’re a casual beer drinker, you might wonder if you’ve ever had a pilsner. The answer is: sort of. Put it this way, pilsners were invented in 1842, and it’s no coincidence that Anheuser-Busch was founded in 1852. Now, all of your common ballpark beers (Bud Light et al) are officially known as “American Light Lager,” but these are the beers frequently described by clever marketing departments as having “that great pilsner taste.” Doesn’t seem disquieting, until you swap out “pilsner” with anything else. Would you dine on something with “that great meat taste”? Ew. Heavens no. That’s the kinda thing that’d get you stabbed in prison.
BUT! The good news is, if you enjoy those kinds of beers, then pilsners make for an excellent bridge into the craft beer world. We’re not miles apart right now, you and I. Just a few delicious blocks apart. And once you taste some of the beers listed below, which are our personal favorites, you might just have a hard time going back to them quick ‘n easy brews.
Of all the “old school” pilsners out there, our favorite “must try” is Pilsner Urquell. Why? Simple. It’s the original pilsner. Yes, through the occasional name change (and what many critics argue was at least one recipe change) Pilsner Urquell has been the pilsner since 1842. Crack open a bottle and you’ll get a clean, crisp beer showcasing a good bit of hop bitterness. You might also note that it’s got a flavor that, in a former life, you might describe as “kinda skunky.” But don’t worry! That’s just kind of how some Czech pilsners taste. Should you take this as a sign that your skunky Miller Lite is actually taking on refined flavors? Heavens no. Don’t jump to conclusions. You’re embarrassing all of us.
Mama’s Little Yella Pils
Before reviewing this beer, let’s take a moment to sing the praises of Oskar Blues.
Oskar Blues–brewer of Mama’s Little Yella Pils–is one of the funkier breweries in an already super-funky Boulder, Colorado region. They’re famous for canning their beers, which has caused the brewery to come under fire to some (but not me! I think it’s neat. Cans mean you can go camping with them! Plus, it keeps out harmful light rays. Even better, you can shotgun with them! But only if you’re some kind of monster or if nobody is looking.)
While they’re typically famous for big, punch-you-in-the-face beers, Mama’s Little Yella Pils is a surprising zig when you thought they were going to zag. A little on the sweet side, and a little less heavily-hopped than some other pilsners, Mama’s Little Yella Pils is an amazing beer for helping ease you into the craft beer world.
Victory Prima Pils
“Oh heavens,” you might say. “Not THIS beer again!” But if you say that–thank you so much for reading my columns! And for remembering my article from almost a year ago! You’re swell. Also, lay off me, all right? This beer is awesome and everyone’s tired of your negative attitude, Craig.
Anyway, this beer is hoppy, dry, and lemony, with a big, in-your-face flavor. Take note that this is technically a German-style pilsner, rather than Czech (typically, Czech-style pilsners are a little more easy-drankin’) so the bigger flavor profile makes sense. The only real caveat here is, if you get a six-pack, make sure you’ve got no place to drive for the next several hours.
Samuel Adams Noble Pils
What to make of Sam Adams?
Sam Adams is to craft beer nerds what, say, Mumford and Sons or Arcade Fire are to music nerds. If you’re a casual beer drinker, and you’re just starting to hear about what these guys have to offer, you might share the joy of your discovery with your, let’s say, more “enthusiastic” friends. And they might be snarky, because people that are smarter or more experienced than you are awful.
Fact is, for the most part, Sam Adams make “radio friendly” beers, if you’ll indulge me. They’re available almost everywhere and they’re pretty good, but probably not world class.
Speaking personally, I think Noble Pils is the exception. It’s Sam Adams’ best beer, and one of the better pilsners I’ve ever had. It’s got a wonderful bitterness to it, with a nice bready finish. Once a spring seasonal, the Noble Pils has been increasingly harder to track down. In a post apocalyptic future where oil has been replaced by Coca-Cola and there is no friendship or religion, don’t be surprised if Noble Pils is the new currency.
But that’s all my take, sports fans. So. Am I out of my mind? Hit me up in the comments and let me know!