Not the perfect pilsener.

Despite my Milwaukee patriotism regarding all things boozy, I cannot quite endorse the so-called Blatz “Pilsner”, left. However, it is a pretty cute bottle, as well as an apt reminder of the unfair struggles Pilsners have had in asserting themselves on the American craft beer landscape over the last decade or so.

As anyone familiar with American brewing history can tell you, Pilsners are the ugly step-children of the craft brewing world. This distinction has little, in fact, to do with either taste, refinement, or brewing sophistication. It is a product of the popularity of mass market, massive-batch, low-quality beers that were–and unfortunately continue to be–the staple of the American Beer scene since Prohibition. Brewers such as Miller, Blatz, Schlitz, Pabst, and Gettelmann and Braumeister (to a lesser extent) in Milwaukee, as well as other nationally distributed brewers such as Anheiser-Busch in St. Louis, rode the popular wave of lagering that had struck the nation in the wake of German immigration, and latched onto Fordist mass-production techniques to produce what has now become the “American Pilsner”: a flavorless, over-carbonated, urine-colored, bland lager that priced smaller breweries around the country out of business. This “Pilsner” deservedly ruined America’s brewing reputation in Europe.

With the rise of microbrewers in the late 80s and through the 90s, Beers (certain beers, that is) got better. And as Americans were becoming accustomed to bizarre and foreign elements in their beers: such as taste, texture, and quality, the noble pilsner (one of the best and most challenging lagers in the European brewing tradition was left in the dust.

I don’t blame American microbreweries for ignoring the Pils. Everything in their experience had equated Pilsners with all that was wrong with American brewing for decades: bad taste, mass-marketing, and the like. However, while this admission is historically admissible, the Pilsner is a distinct and highly-drinkable, excellent lager that deserves a resurrection. Let me explain…

The Czech Republic (second only to the Belgians in brewing prowess; apologies Germany and England!), a small land-locked nation of just over 10 million people has been quietly brewing the best Pilsners in the world since the style was invented in the mid 19th Century. The country far outpaces the rest of the world in beer consumption, (yes, Ireland, including you!) and their pubs are as numerous as their vacant renaissance churches: the nation is nearly 40% atheist. And, they invented the Pilsner.

“Pilsner Urqell”, the first Pilsner in the world was named from the town in which it has been brewed for over 150 years: Plzen, a city in Western Bohemia. The beer was famous for its impressive lightness of color and clarity, as well as its distinctive crispness (the two principal characteristics of the Pilsner). These qualities were the process of a revolution in lagering that led to the absolute clarity of the Pilsner, as well as specialized Czech Hop varieties and an the hardness of the drinking water in Plzen.

I lived in the Czech Republic in the Fall of 2004, as part of a study abroad program in Central European Studies at Palacky University in Olomouc, a college-town in North Moravia: three hours by train from Prague. From the first week in was in Olomouc, I fell head over heels for Czech pub culture, and especially Czech Pilsners. When I was there, I was drinking before class, between classes, after classes, and late at night (just like the rest of the people there), and yet, I never got all that drunk. The drinking habits there are so ingrained in social behavior, that drunkenness never finds a foothold. People are always drinking, but always slowly, and always as a companion to the task at hand: conversation.

As y’all can no doubt imagine, when I got back to the States, I was blind-sided by a number of things. (1) The high price of bad beer; a half liter of Czech Pils was between 40 and 60 cents in any pub, compared to the 3.00 bottle of Miller Lite in the states. (2) The emphasis of drunkenness over conversation and camaraderie. And (3) the lack of acceptability of drinking socially at 11:00 in the morning. After a month or so of stocking my dorm fridge with after-lunch microbrews, my pocketbook began to suffer, and I gradually weaned myself off of the glorious ritual.

Nevertheless, as my drinking habits gradually changes to mirror those of my fellow Americans, my taste for Czech Pilsner never faltered. Unfortunately, the imported Czech Pilsners that are available in the States, while great, are not nearly as fresh as they are in Europe, and the quality of American microbrew pilsners has yet to impress me to any great extent. Therefore, I am embarking on a quest: the quest to find a good, affordable Pilsner in the United States.

I’m embarking on this quest with a great deal of skepticism, but like any quest worth believing in, its at least worth my best shot. In the coming months (and probably years) I’ll be reviewing the Pilsners I’ve found, and posting the results on this site. Stay tuned, and wish me luck.

Coming soon: Zatec (Imported Czech “Bright Lager”).

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