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Judging Beers – “Downright Pilsner” by Jack Van Paepeghem

Jack Van Paepeghem works at Meridian Pint and is a Certified Cicerone®

It is 100 degrees outside and you probably need a beer. Those Spring seasonals are growing old and the onslaught of IPA’s and double IPA’s is leaving your palate as exhausted and worn out as you are by now. This weather calls for something light, crisp, and refreshing, but without the gimmicks of ice cold water from the Rockies or punch top cans which aid in “drinkability.” Pilsner season is in full force and one of the freshest, beautifully crafted Czech-style Pilsners is being brewed right in our backyard, Alexandria, Virginia. “Downright Pilsner” is the latest offering from Port City Brewing Company and it is worth seeking out; it just might change your opinion on the world’s most popular yet misrepresented beer style. And if you are already a convert to the light side, you might find a new mainstay in your fridge for these dog days ahead.

If you are a beer drinker, it is without question that at one point or another you’ve tried a pilsner or some bastardized version of it, and more than likely the latter. The popular conception of pilsner is something light and watery, alcoholic but negligible in terms of actual flavor. It must be served at or near freezing temperatures to numb your senses and ability to judge what you are drinking. This beer is even better when consumed in outrageous quantities and the primary goal is to get smashed. Here we go. I’ll be the first to admit that I have a soft spot for an ice cold PBR by the river or a Tecate with salt and lime, but sometimes these beers just fall short.

In the United States, Budweiser, Miller, and Coors (BMC) have monopolized the market on light beers and just about every country you visit has a national Pilsner, where the local water source is the only thing dictating how these beers taste different from one another. International companies like Britain’s SAB Miller have operations in 75 countries where breweries act as colonial outposts and beer is sometimes more accessible than drinkable water. But how did this light fizzy water come to rule the beer world and become the world’s most popular beverage?

Continues after the jump.

The story of Pilsner is a relatively recent occurrence in the history of beer and is the result of a convergence of technological innovation, commercialization, and expanding trade and shipping networks. It begins in 1842 in the Czech city of Pilsen (Plzeň) where Josef Groll first brewed Pilsner Urquell (meaning “Original Spring” or “Original Source”), a beautifully clear, fragrant and effervescent all-barley golden lager which enamored the locals and would go on to inspire the world of brewing. The grain bill called for local Moravian pale malt which was inspired by the indirect kilning methods devised by the British. The yeast was a super clean bottom fermenting lager strain which was acquired from neighboring Bavaria and Saaz hops were brought from Zatec, known for their signature spicy, herbal, and floral character. And to finish it off, the local water contains a very low level of carbonates and sulfates, contributing to the incredibly “soft” feature of the beer.

Before the commercialization of glassware and its availability to people beyond the upper class, beer was consumed out of earthen steins, copper mugs, and even leather boot-like containers. Now imagine picturing for the very first time this golden elixir shimmering forth before you through a crystal clear glass as water beads down the sides. Sexy and alluring indeed. With the pioneering work of engineers at the Spaten Brewery and the creation of an “ammonia cold machine” in the 1870’s, refrigeration technologies were being implemented in breweries across Europe and beer could now be produced year-round. Additionally, the expansion of railroads and transatlantic shipping networks carried this beer and brewing tradition to the world over. There’s plenty more to say about the history and (de)evolution of this style, but let’s get to the beer itself.

Downright Pilsner is in the style of Czech Pilsner, meaning it is fuller bodied and has a slightly deeper golden hue than German Pilsners. Also, the beer is single hopped with Saaz and various points in the boil as well as dry hopped during fermentation and conditioning contributing heavily to the aroma. From the bottle, the beer pours a brilliantly clear and polished gold while the draft version has a bit more hazy appearance due to unsettled yeast and/or proteins. Nevertheless, the color is magnificent—hold it up to the light and you’ll catch yourself a glimpse of El Dorado. A sturdy off white head sits atop the beer with tight uniform bubbles, leaving an even lacing as it recedes.
If you’ve ever wanted to nail down what Saaz hops are really about, just smell this beer. Minty and floral up-front, followed by a grassy and herbal spiciness which finishes clean, the hops here are the driving factor. Dry hopping is generally utilized by Americans and British brewers working with pale ales and IPA’s, but the Downright certainly benefits from the dry hop addition, but it plays harmoniously with the biscuit and lightly toasted bread malt aromas delivered by the natural carbonation.

Much like the aroma, the flavor kicks off with the same minty and spicy hop character which is followed by a round semi-sweet biscuit and bread taste. The mouthfeel is light but the malt character is full and without compromise. I’m left with a perfect lingering bitterness as I finish each sip. At 4.8% ABV, this beer drinks phenomenally easy. I’ll take another please. And I’ll take this super-fresh, locally brewed Pilsner over any German or Czech import in green bottles which spent weeks in transit and months on the shelf any day.

Desipite the “simplicity” of Pilsners, they are incredibly complex and many brewers can attest to the challenges of brewing such a clean, bright, beer without off flavors. The beer is essentially “naked” as it has no dark body, overwhelming hop intensity, or wildly fruity yeast character to hide off-flavors. Port City executes this 100%. Try this beer with fried or boiled shellfish or calamari, spicy and aromatic curry, or even with your favorite meats and veggies off the grill. If nothing else, this is my go-to “light beer” for the summer and it is definitely worth savoring while it is fresh and available.

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