I’ll admit it, when I first got into craft beer, I didn’t give lagers, especially Pilsners, much respect. To me, the word “lager” was synonymous with with the bland, yellow, fizzy stuff I was trying to move away from. It certainly didn’t help that German and Czech lagers actually are yellow and have higher carbonation levels. However, as I matured as a craft beer drinker, I learned that “lager” wasn’t a dirty word at all, it has just been bastardized by the Big 3 in the same fashion that the majority of the drinking public equates “beer” to bland pilsners. I mean, Märzens and Oktoberfests are some of my all time favorite styles, so lagers can’t be all bad, right?
What really helped shift this line of thinking is when I started studying for the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) exam. I would take one category at a time and drink every beer within that category in the course of a night with help from my wife. For the larger categories (such as stout), I would invite over a few friends so I could be functional the next day. I really enjoyed this method because, for instance, I would have a German Pilsner right next to a Czech Pilsner. You can read the BJCP guidelines about what makes them different, but drinking them side by side really solidifies everything. You can memorize that German Pilsners are drier and have a sharper bitterness than Czechs, but if you drink it, you know it. Anyway, it was during this time that I really started branching out and trying different styles when I would be out and about. I used to travel a bit with my last job, so I would be in different places with new breweries to discover quite often. At the time, I was really into IPAs and Stouts (still am), but I wasn’t venturing out of my comfort zone often enough. Studying for the BJCP encouraged me to try American made examples of classic styles that I was learning about. The first time I ever had a Munich Helles or a Dortmunder Export was when I was studying for the BJCP. Now, if I go to a new brewery and they have a Helles or Dortmunder on the menu, it is usually the first thing I’ll order.
Unfortunately, you don’t see too many lagers at craft breweries these days. The reason is that while ales usually take 2-3 weeks to make, lagers usually take 2-3 months to make. This longer production time ties up fermentation vessels, and the brewery isn’t able to keep up with demand. At our high season in the middle of the summer, there’s no way we could make this beer, as I need all 6 of my fermenters cranking as fast as possible just to keep up with visitors to our tap room. Fortunately, we’re starting to see more breweries adding extra capacity in order to produce more lagers, and there are even several breweries who are devoting themselves to nothing but lagers. I think in the next few years, lagers, and especially Pilsners, are going to become much more common.
Studying Pilsners was very eye opening for me. When I was in college, I collected tin signs from different breweries, and one of mine was for one of the American “Lite” beers that read “A True Pilsner Beer.” Shame on me for succumbing to their advertising and actually believing that their product was a true representation of classic Pilsner. The truth is, none of the American Lagers that advertise so frequently on our television sets come anywhere close to resembling classic Czech or German style Pilsners. Perhaps, at one point in their history they were similar, but nowadays they are nothing more than watered down knockoffs.
The original Pilsner was brewed by Pilsner Urquell on October 5th, 1842 in the town of Pilsen, Czech Republic. Back then, most beers were not very clear, and pale malt was a very recent invention. In order to make malt, barley must be allowed to reach the beginning stages of germination, before heat is applied to halt the process. Before modern technology, it was not always possible to apply the necessary heat without affecting the color of the barley, which would in turn affect the color of the beer. Fire was once the only way to apply heat, which led to beers tasting smokey. Smoke beers, are still produced, most notably in Bamburg, Germany (read more about Rauchbiers here). However, by the time that Urquell was designing their Pilsner, technology had advanced to the point where pale malt was possible. By studying the Bavarian tradition of brewing, they knew that by fermenting their beer with a bottom-fermenting yeast and lagering the beer for weeks or months at a time, typically in caves, led to brighter clarity. Coincidentally, glass manufacturing in Europe advanced to the point to where it became affordable for the average person to afford drinking glasses for the first time, which would show off their beverage of choice. The clear, golden Pilsner was quickly a hit, and also became a status symbol in consumer’s newly acquired glass.
But it wasn’t just the pale malt and the clarity that made the original Pilsner Urquell so popular, as the flavor was also outstanding. Pilsen’s soft water leads to a softer hop presence, and the local Saaz hop is extremely popular and regarded as one of the finest hops in the entire world. Saaz is very well known for it’s herbal and spicy tones.
After the introduction of Pilsner, it more or less took over the world. Before you knew it, every single brewing culture was brewing some version of a Pilsner beer. German Pilsner is noticeably different from Czech Pilsner, especially because of the harder water that is typically used in the German style. This leads to a sharper bitterness. German Pilsners are also typically drier than Czech examples, with Germans finishing around 2-3° Plato and Czech’s finishing around 3-4° Plato. German immigrants who came to America tried to replicate their home country’s Pilsner, but used indigenous ingredients such as corn. The beers were stronger and more bitter before Prohibition.
Our style of Pilsner is a bit of a hybrid. It was designed as a Czech Pilsner, as an homage to the original Pilsner, but I have not been able to get Saaz hops for quite awhile (I have a contract on them now, though!) When we last made this beer, we used Sterling hops, which is Saaz’s closest American substitute. For this batch, I wasn’t able to get any Sterling either, so I used Hallertau, which we have an abundance of. Hallertau is a German variety of hop, so it is not as different from Saaz as an American hop like Citra, for example, but it has more floral notes compared to Saaz’s herbal. Both have spicy tones. Even though we used Bohemian malt and yeast, I didn’t feel exactly right calling it a Czech Pilsner since we didn’t use Saaz, so I coined the term “Czerman Pilsner.”
The malt bill is extremely simple, 93% Bohemian Pils and 7% CaraPils. The CaraPils is there to leave extra body and residual sweetness to help the beer finish out at the typical 3-4° Plato final gravity. Pilsner malt is bready with cracker notes. Hops are Hallertau all the way through, but we Americanized it a bit by adding anything other than bittering hops. We added hops at 60, 30, 10 and whirlpool, with the whirlpool addition coming to about 19% by weight. You’ll get a little bit more hop flavor and aroma from our example compared to a classic example like Urquell. The Czech yeast produces a very clean and crisp flavor that is extremely refreshing. BJCP says that some diacetyl is acceptable in this style, but I don’t pick up any in ours.
As for the name, there’s no other hip hop group from the 90’s that I have more affinity for than A Tribe Called Quest, except for maybe the Beastie Boys. When I was in high school in the Chicago area, I remember driving up to Milwaukee with my friend Zoah to see The Beastie Boys, and A Tribe Called Quest was the opening act. Man, was that awesome! There was just something different about Tribe, from their intelligent lyrics, their jazzy grooves and rhythms, the interactions between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, to the way that I couldn’t help but smile every time I listened to them. To this day, their 1993 release, Midnight Mauraders, is still one of my favorite albums of all time. Tribe disbanded in 1998, but released their greatest hits album, Anthology, in the fall of 1999. That winter, I took a job at a local snowboard park, and that CD was on almost constant rotation. Tribe continues to be a favorite of myself and the other brewers during brew days.
“Check the Rhime” is probably the best known song from their 1991 release, The Low End Theory. It also provides possibly the best back and forth interplay between Q-Tip and Phife, with the infectious “You on point Phife?” “All the time, Tip.” and “You on point Tip?” “All the time, Phife.” It also introduced the lyric, “Industry rule number four thousand and eighty/Record company people are shady.” To this day, citing industry rule #4,080 with record executives will certainly get your point across.
The final stats for Czech The Rhime are 5.5% ABV, 40 IBU and 2 SRM. It has a beautiful clear, golden color with a brilliantly white head. It’s served in a traditional pilsner glass that highlights not only the color and clarity, but allows you to stare into your glass and follow the steady stream of bubbles traveling from bottom to the top. It has a moderate bitterness to balance out the sweet malt, and finishes mostly dry. When we brewed the first batch of this at the beginning of 2015, it was the first lager Joyride had ever made up to that point. I can’t wait until we have some extra capacity and I can brew this more consistently. To borrow from the song’s lyrics a bit, I definitely think this beer is “on point.”