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The Impact of the Pilsner

Beer is the most popular and widely drunk beverage in the history of the world; it's probably the oldest alcoholic beverage, too. It is offensive to all the different cultures of brewing throughout the world to assume that beer is defined by the pilsner and its imitators.
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When anyone thinks about beer, an image of a transparent, pale-hued liquid with fluffy, white foam on top and light fizziness is probably what comes to mind. Even though beer with these attributes has not even existed for 200 years, it has become essence of the beverage to many people, and not only Americans. This specific conception of beer has led to strong biases and close-mindedness toward different styles of beer among drinkers, including craft beer lovers, too. Of course beer is not required to be clear, nor pale, but learning about the beginning and evolution of beer like this can emancipate us from its monolithic presence in our consciousness of malt beverages.

The beer style that everyone has had, and dominates the world, is what beer connoisseurs call the American adjunct pilsner or lager. Budweiser, Miller, Coors, Rolling Rock, Corona, Red Stripe and many more cheap beers fall under this style. The defining characteristic of these beers is the pale yellow, fizzy, but crystal clear appearance and a very not-robust flavor. The tiny amount of hops used, subtle lager yeast, and adjuncts are the source of this character. Corn and/or rice are the adjuncts used in all of the beers I listed above. They contribute much less flavor and body than barley malt, the most commonly used grain in beer.

Budweiser somewhat pioneered the use of rice in brewing in the late 19th century when the pilsner style had become extremely popular and every brewery was making their own version of a pilsner. The first pilsner was brewed in 1842 by Josef Groll in the Bohemian (now Czech) city of Pilsen. It used no corn or rice, just barley malt, local Saaz hops and lager yeast. Before then, pale beers did exist, but none as clear and yellow as the pilsner. The beautiful, new beer became a phenomenon and Germans started brewing similar beers, which eventually became styles of their own, including Munich helles lager, Kolsch and Dortmunder. German and Czech pilsners are even seen as different styles today because brewers in northern Germany produce paler and drier pilsner than Czech brewers, even though the beers contain essentially the same ingredients.

Where I'm leading with all this is to how different the first pilsners are from the more modern American adjunct pilsners they influenced, and to how recent their invention was. So many beer drinkers seem to think that the definition of beer is a light-bodied, yellow lager with low bitterness, low sweetness and 4-5 percent alcohol by volume. Brews like that have existed for a fraction of the history of beer. So isn't it peculiar when someone drinks a style that dates back to hundreds of years before the pilsner (like a sour or smoked beer) and exclaims "this doesn't taste like beer?"

Beer is the most popular and widely drunk beverage in the history of the world; it's probably the oldest alcoholic beverage, too. It is offensive to all the different cultures of brewing throughout the world to assume that beer is defined by the pilsner and its imitators. It is even more offensive to assume there can be no better beer than the pilsner and its imitators.

Now please don't get the idea that pilsners can't be world class beers, many are, and I love the great European and American examples, but they take advantage of the simple yet distinct ingredients of a pilsner. Czech Saaz and German Hallertau hops are the most traditional hops for pilsners. They aren't nearly as bitter and pungent as American varieties but still display complex flavors and aromas which are displayed perfectly in pilsners. The use of one pale malt allows the contrasting floral, grassy, herbal and sometimes berry-like flavors to come out from the hops. This is what made the pilsner world famous and so influential. The influence they made on Budweiser was a little too good, or too bad, depending on how you see it.

The already subtle pilsner grain bill was even more obscured by the use of about 30 percent rice instead of barley in Budweiser. Using quality malted pale barley can add bready, biscuity and crackery notes to a beer along with a little honey sweetness, a rich silky body and a stunning golden sunset color. Most craft brewers agree rice reduces flavor, body and color, and thus the pleasant character I described above. Though great beer made with corn and rice is out there, those beers use these adjuncts and their subtle character with intentions to highlight the flavor of a distinct yeast strain or hop variety. Bud and the like do not do this. I would love to taste the Hallertau hops that are apparently in Budweiser, but there isn't enough. All of the methods and ingredients involved in making these American adjunct pilsners seem to attempt to reduce the flavors of hops, grains and fermentation. So, isn't it odd the the most popular beer in America, the one that many people would say defines the taste of beer, is brewed to avoid the flavors of its ingredients?