There are few things that make opening your most prized bottle of beer more inevitable than carrying forty pounds of cat food/litter nearly a mile–after a long day of data entry. So, after quickly catching my breath, taking off my coat, and putting some chickpeas in the pressure cooker, I reached deep into my refrigerator to unearth my bottle of New Glarus Bohemian Lager.
Yes, in a fridge that contains a bottle of the Dogfish Head 120-minute IPA and a Founders Breakfast Stout, I chose a Bohemian Lager. Not a oak-aged imperial barleywine, or a weiss beer brewed with grains of paradise, saffron and dry-hopped with amarillo hops, or even a 2002 vintage of some high-gravity Belgian nonsense that you can’t even buy in the states; instead, I was saving a single bottle of a simple, Czech style lager, brewed in the traditional style of the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Pilsen, Czech Republic.
Granted, this beer is part of New Glarus’ coveted “Unplugged” series of beers, which, according to the label, is “a very limited edition and we make no promises to ever brew this style again.” So, considering my love for Czech pilsners, New Glarus beer, and the fact that this beer would most likely only be brewed once, I delayed the inevitable for months before finally succumbing this evening.
As for the beer itself, the brisk (but not effervescent) carbonation, the billowy head of foam (great retention, by the way), and the nose provided all you’d ever expect from this style. The beer itself is not as crystal clear as most Czech lagers, but this may have been a result of the beer having been lagered in unlined oak casks (a rarity in modern brewing, even in Central Europe). I do mot mean to be dramatic or overly hyperbolic, but as for the taste, it instantly reminded me of this scene:
More specifically, the malt character was excellent: very bready and light (think baguette, not pumpernickel). It tasted, actually, like barley, which was refreshing and familiar. As Czech lagers go, its closer to the more roundly balanced, almost amber-colored Budvar (aka Czechvar in the U.S., tragically) than the classic, sharp Urquell. The difference is subtle, but impressive, and this beer nailed it. The piney and peppery Saaz hops are there, but they’re neither screaming, nor cowering; they are, in fact, announcing themselves courteously. Unlike the vast majority of American craft-brewers–who often can’t resist to cascade-ify their versions, making them too hoppy, like a lagered pale ale–Dan Carey, New Glarus’ brewmaster, has created a beer that is understated to a fault. Vyborne!
As I’ve written previously, brewing a traditional czech pilsner in the United States is a risky endeavor. The extreme beer types will be unimpressed by the lack of innovation, and the newly converted former bud light drinkers will have difficulties teasing out the complex subtleties of a beer like this. Strangely, it’s a style without an audience. In 1915, this beer would have flown off the shelves, but in a time after prohibition and the resulting abundance of mass-produced “pilsners”, the style has been, more than any other, left behind. That is why I’m savoring this beer so much, as the odds of it making a repeat appearance anytime soon are slim.
As the beer itself is already long-gone, and difficult to come by, I’m not going to even bother grading it in my quest to find the best U.S. brewed pilsner. Pislners are inherently available, easy drinking beers. The kind you drink when you’re more interested in your conversation than getting drunk. So, the NG Bohemian Lager, a beer that’s both expensive and hard to come by will have to be excluded on a technicality. While I seriously doubt that I’ll find a better tasting pilsner or one that tugs so strongly at my memories, it fails in the proletarian sense. Whichever pilsner is crowned champion, it will have to be one that (in the region where it’s brewed and distributed) it’s always around, and at decent price.
Sorry, Dan and Deb. Let’s all hope the fine people of Wisconsin start demanding this beer again, and you can get it into your regular rotation. Na Zdravi!