Pilsner. What a loaded seven (or eight, or four, depending on your spelling) letters those are. That word means so many different things to people.
Pilsner. Bud. Coors. PBR.
Pilsner. Travels across Germany and the Czech Republic.
Pilsner. Light, crisp, clean.
Pilsner. Fishing cool.
Pilsner. The opposite of craft beer.
All of those interpretations are completely correct, if not complete. Pilsners are one of the more divisive of beers by virtue of being associated with the decline in quality of American lagers. With the mass production of beer. With the rise of tastelessness and mediocrity and quantity over quality that came to define so much in American culture over the last century.
But no longer, my friends, no longer. Pilsners have finally come back out of the shadows to reclaim their rightful place amongst beer royalty. What other style has had such a pervasive influence over beer the world over? Indeed, over culture itself? Pilsners deserve respect, and, luckily, there is one brewery tucked into a tiny corner of a tiny industrial complex in a tiny suburb that is trying to show us all why.
And I’ll get to them in a moment.
But first, we need to have a little discussion about what a Pilsner is. Well, what a Pilsner is according to the BJCP, which gives them an entire style category. Because they are that important.
There are three major types of Pilsners: German (Pils), Bohemian (Pilsener), and American (Pilsner).
German Pils tend to be drier and crisper than their counterparts, with more effervescence. While Bohemian Pilseners do have higher IBUs, German Pils tend towards dryness, so the bitterness from the hops will be more evident. German Pils are brewed with noble hops, which impart a certain floral spiciness to the beer that may be unfamiliar to some American palates that are more used to the American citric, fruity hops.
Bohemian, or Czech, Pilseners have a fuller body, higher IBUs (but less perceived bitterness), and are considered to be more complex than the German Pils. The biggest difference here is the water, which is lower in sulfate than German water, allowing for more roundness. This beer also uses noble hops, so it should not be fruity.
American Pilsners are the adaptation German immigrants made to their Pils when they immigrated to America. Whereas both German and Bohemian Pilsners are brewed with 100% malted barley, American Pilsners are brewed with a percentage of corn added. This beer also uses noble hops, but American varietals and hybrids. Prohibition effectively killed this beer style until homebrewers began brewing it in an attempt to resurrect indigenous beer styles. Some of the large breweries that survived Prohibition brewed this style pre-Prohibition, but watered the recipes down significantly afterward to appeal to a broader market. Thus, American Light Lagers were born. And the world would never be the same…
So there is a bit of a history on the Pilsner style.
Now, let’s talk about Saint Patrick.
No, not that Saint Patrick! (Or leprechaun, rather. But honestly, who thinks of a Catholic crusader when they think of Saint Pat anyway?)
This Saint Patrick:
Saint Patrick’s Brewing Company in Englewood, Colorado is tucked back into an industrial complex just north of Belleview on Santa Fe. While they are technically in Englewood, they are just a drunk stumble from downtown Littleton, so I consider them a Littleton brewery.
As I briefly touched on in my article about lagers, Saint Patrick’s is only producing lagers. They brew on a small, one-barrel system, and lager entirely in bottles. With no draft system, they serve directly from the bottle in 11- or 22-ounce glasses. You can also purchase bottles (or cases. I recommend a case.) to go.
Brewmaster Chris Phelps has insane dedication to detail and quality that you can taste in his brews (and see in his artwork which adorns the walls of his fine establishment). While very often a beer with a multitude of specialty grains or too many hops varieties turns into a muddled mess, Chris manages to cox out the very best of each ingredient, making none superfluous or distracting.
In addition to being co-owner and brewer, Chris runs the brewery and tasting room (can’t call it a taproom without taps!) with co-owner and sales manager (and stepfather) Dave Barron and Dave’s son, RJ. We are talking a serious family brewery here, people.
The tasting room is as minuscule as everything else, with seats for just over a dozen people. They do have an upstairs rec area with ping-pong and one of the most hilarious roof height issues you’ll ever see. The atmosphere, as someone put it the other night, is: “just like hanging out in your living room with your best friends, cracking jokes, drinking ridiculously good beer.” When visiting a brewery, the feel of the place is as important as the beer, and Saint Pat’s doesn’t disappoint in either realm.
But back to the reason we are here: the Pilsners.
Starting today, Saint Pat’s is releasing FIVE different Pilsners to the drinking public. They are: Pilsner Wit, Czech Golden Pilsner, German Pilsner, American Pilsner, and Japanese Pilsner. (They also brew a Pilsner called Centennial State, but it is not currently available. You should be bummed out about this and tell Chris that he needs to bring it back. Because it tastes like the tears of 1000 triumphant garden gnomes. Yes, that’s a good thing.)
Last week I sat down and tried all five Pilsners, and you should, too. Here’s why:
What the brewery says: “a hybrid lager. With the hop flavors and aromas of a German Pilsner and the grain profile of a Belgian Witbier.”
What I say: you definitely can smell the coriander and orange peel (by the way, Chris zests his own oranges). Without using a Belgian wit yeast, it doesn’t really have that wittiness that you expect. It is definitely hazy and has that creaminess you expect from a wheat beer. The hops are playing really nicely with the coriander, which is the be expected, but it’s nice to have that bitterness to play against the sweetness from the grains. I’m not a huge fan of wheat/wit beers, so this isn’t my favorite, but I admire what they did here and would expect this to easily surpass some of the mass market “wit” beers on the open market. No orange slice needed.
My arbitrary rating: overall, not my cup of beer, but I do think it’s well-balanced and presents an innovative, and cohesive, approach to a Pilsner hybrid. I’ll give it 8 out of 10 hop cones. (Sure – let’s use hop cones, that sounds good…)
Czech Golden Pilsner
What the brewery says: “a Bohemian Pilsner. The aroma is bready and malty, but balanced by five varieties of noble and American hops. Dry, crisp and clean with a lingering malt finish.”
What I say: yum. Yum yum and yum. The nose is like a good loaf of Italian bread with just a little bit of herbs sprinkled on top (different than herb sprinkled on top. This is Colorado, but still…). There is a certain sweetness to this beer, but it finishes dry with no lingering after flavors. Maybe a little dry for style but that doesn’t matter since it tastes oh so good. There is a little bit of DMS (dimethyl sulfide – like cooked veggies), but that comes from the pils malt and is an aroma and flavor I rather enjoy in a pilsner (in small quantities. I’m not looking for a can of creamed corn, here).
My arbitrary rating: very good. If you’re a stickler for style, know that it does deviate somewhat because of the American hops. (Also – if you are so obsessed with style guidelines that you automatically don’t like tasty beers because they don’t conform, please punch yourself in the boob.) 8.5 out of 10 hop cones.
What the brewery says: “a pale lager with a notable hop aroma. Clean, crisp and smooth, with malt undertones. Dry hopped with six varieties of American and German hops.”
What I say: this is definitely a hop-lover’s Pilsner. When Chris set it down in front of me I could immediately smell the hop aromas curling off the sizable head. Yep, I said sizable head. I’m not sure if he modified the water when brewing this beer, but it comes off as very dry without any resins or huskiness. There is some harshness from the amount of dry hopping (as there isn’t the fruitiness of an ale yeast to counter those alpha acids), but it isn’t unpleasant.
My arbitrary rating: this beer left me smacking my lips and looking for a pretzel. 7.5 out of 10 hop flowers.
What the brewery says: “an easy drinking American lager beer. The aroma has malt overtones balanced with noble hops.”
What I say: gateway beer. Total gateway beer. Bring your hipster friend who swears that the best thing out there is PBR and have him drink this. Or your lawnmowing uncle. Or your friend who swears they can’t drink anything but Bud. They will drink this and, dammit, they will like it. It’s light and crisp and clean, but it’s the positive side of all of those things. It is tremendously well-balanced with just the subtlest hint of hops to balance out the malts.
My arbitrary rating: this is a lawnmower beer, there’s no way around it. But lawnmower beers are not only necessary, but, in this case, very good. 7 out of 10 hop flowers. (Shit – I think I switched from hop cones to flowers, part way through there… oh well…)
What the brewery says: “a premium rice beer. Easy drinking, dry, crisp and smooth with rice overtones.”
What I say: you definitely get the rice here. It smells like well-cooked sticky rice. There is a little bit of rice hull on the back, but it just serves to dry the beer out even more without robbing it of body. There is no slickness to this beer, which was rather surprising, considering how often rice-heavy beers have an oiliness to them. It is a beautiful, bright straw color, and is highly effervescent. This actually carries more upfront flavor than the American Pilsner, but without as much of the hop characteristic.
My arbitrary rating: I tend to steer clear of rice beers as they don’t always treat my guts with respect, but I really liked this one. I would have liked it better had it been paired with a nice Vietnamese spring roll, but that’s neither here nor there. 8 out of 10 hop cones/flowers.
Since the Centennial State Pilsner is not currently available, I will not tempt your taste buds with descriptions of its magic. But it would win a whole hop bine.
This is a solid line-up of Pilsners. What I enjoyed best about this is that Chris went out on a limb, brewed several iterations of the style, and challenged his guests to evolve how they think about this beer. Pilsners have so often gotten a bad rap from beer geeks and this flight proves that they have as much to offer as any other style. And, besides, if you head down you get to hang out in one of the coziest, most flavorful breweries in town before they blow up (and they will). Yep, you get to be That Guy who knew them before they were “cool.”
Right now, Saint Pat’s also has several other beers
on tap in bottle including their Midnight Mocha Lager, which is an interesting take on Schwartzbier, and their HellEdel Helles, which is a great beer to try alongside the Pilsners as that style was developed to directly compete with this style. They do release new beers on a fairly regular basis, so be sure to follow (and like) them on Facebook.
And next time you come across a Pilsner on a beer menu, don’t automatically pass it over. One of my biggest fears is being seen as a “beer wuss.” The minute I (or any woman, it seems) orders a Pilsner or Kolsch or Hefeweizen or any light-colored beer, you can see most bartenders automatically label us as neophytes. And then the orange wedges come out and the condescending comments when you order a double IPA, and, well, it’s a slippery slope. But I, and you, need to cut that shit out. Pilsners are good. They deserve respect. Brewers are already elevating them to the next level, help them out by ordering and enjoying them.
Now: what are you waiting for? Go! Imbibe!
*By the way, Pilsner is one of those words the more you write it, the more wrong it looks, so if there are gross misspellings of it, I blame the human brain’s abhorrence of repetition.