05 August 2016

Clinical pils trial

Session logoPils nut Velky Al is helming this round of The Session on the topic of... pils. "A few, " he requests, "compare and contrast." I haven't done a blind tasting in ages so I was well up for some of that. Al, who lives in the US now but previously in Prague, is of the opinion that nobody does this style better than the Czechs. It seemed obvious that a comparison of American and Czech iterations would be fun.

Representing the master-of-all-styles US beer scene is Lagunitas Pils (355ml, €3.20). My standard-bearer for Team Bohemia is Praga (500ml, €1.49), seemingly produced at Budějovický Měštanský Pivovar, the oldest brewery in České Budějovice (fka Budweis). And while I was selecting that I decided on impulse to add a familiar global brand. Nothing too obvious: solid, middle-of-the-road, UK-brewed Grolsch (500ml, €2.09) should make things a bit more interesting. I have had Grolsch in the past but not any time recently, while the other two were entirely new to me. Here we go then...

Beer 1 was perfectly golden: clear, pale and very attractive looking. The pure white head was composed of large bubbles, just about clinging to each other. The aroma was sweeter than expected but definitely within the boundaries of pils. Though not especially fresh smelling, there was a hint of Urquell: butter, and a little green apple. A pleasant herbal quality was the kernel of the flavour, with a refreshing bitter bite to finish -- waxy rather than grassy. Overall it did come across as a touch plasticky and cheap, but very passable for the style.

Beer 2 was more yellow than gold; a little anaemic looking, though topped by a handsome tight mousse. There was basically no aroma: "smells like the inside of a clean fridge" say my notes. And there's nearly no flavour also, just a sad, stale musty twang. I couldn't pick out any hop notes, let alone anything resembling Saaz or the like. This is grim drinking, a post-apocalyptic pils for opening only when everything else has run out.

Beer 3 was the big outlier. It's orange! The bright clear lurid colour of fake cider, and with a non-existent head to match. The aroma was super sweet, golden syrup spread liberally on brown toast. Like the previous beers this tastes cheap, but in a different way: it has a heavy brown sugar and caramelised sugar flavour, a bit like tramp-strength lager, plus a similar sticky heat. You can pretty much forget about any hop character: there's just a squirt of greenness under all the buttery malt. At the homebrew club it would be deemed a valiant attempt at Pilsner Urquell; as a commercial equivalent it's a total failure.

So nobody of these three is exactly covering themselves in glory; nobody hitting the precise demanding targets of good světlý ležák. But what does it tell us about how pils is brewed in these three countries? My conviction was that decent but unexciting Beer 1 was Czech Praga; that dull, just-about-beer, Beer 2 was Grolsch, and that kooky weirdo Beer 3 was Lagunitas.

Wrong on all counts.

Beer 1 was Grolsch, Beer 2 Lagunitas and Beer 3 Praga. Wow!

It's amazing, for one thing, that the strongest of them -- Lagunitas at 6% ABV -- had the least flavour. Maybe that tells us something about the American approach to pils: that they don't realise it's supposed to taste of something. I know very little of the intricacies of Czech beer production, but might the extra caramelisation of decoction mashing be behind Praga's dark brown sugar quality? Although it's not something I recall in any other Czech beer of the same style. And Grolsch... well... a small round of applause for Molson Coors UK and their expert game of fake-out.

As for pils generally, maybe the famous reliable brands are the ones to stick with.