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On the West Coast, true Pilseners on tap

Local brewers adopt Europe's techniques to craft the hoppy, high- malt beers. Fresh is best.

February 23, 2005|Jordan Mackay | Special to the Times

Berkeley — In an industrial section of Berkeley, just blocks off the roaring 10 lanes of Highway 80, a small brewery is producing a highly unusual beer.

All the remarkable characteristics of this beer -- its creamy head, its sweet floral nose, light body, and even its name, Trumer Pils -- are the same as those of a beer that residents of Salzburg, Austria, have been enjoying for hundreds of years. The only difference is that this beer happens to be made in Berkeley. Think of it as an imported beer that's not imported.

But though the brewing wizardry that allowed the company to reproduce an Austrian beer in Berkeley is a breakthrough, the real news is that this brewery is dedicated to only one style of beer, and that style is Pilsener. Trumer is the latest and most ambitious of the West Coast, mostly California, craft-brewed Pilseners -- beers that represent the most refined examples of a category that deserves a lot more attention than it's gotten in this country.

Pilseners, with their light-straw to golden colors, small Champagne-like bubbles and flavors with a refreshing hoppy bitterness balanced by an underlying malty sweetness, are among the most beautiful, flavorful and food-friendly beers on the planet. And when we taste a locally produced craft Pilsener such as Trumer Pils, Scrimshaw, Lagunitas, Sudwerk, Gordon Biersch, or Firestone lager, we're tasting a high-quality, true Pilsener. In its best incarnations -- such as Trumer Pils -- the flavor is balanced between the warm, bread-y malt and the bitter, refreshing hops.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 02, 2005 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Brewmaster -- In an article in last week's Food section about Pilsener beers, the last name of Trumer Brauerei brewmaster Lars Larson was misspelled as Larsen.

The growing availability of these regionally produced, fresh beers is a boon to West Coast beer lovers. Pilseners are beloved throughout northern Europe, where large numbers of small craft breweries deliver the beer fresh, unpasteurized and unfiltered. But because they don't travel well, the imports available here are nowhere near as delicious as Pilseners with the same name available on tap in Prague or Munich or Vienna.

And because the category is dominated by mass-produced, flavorless beers such as Bud and Miller, which call themselves Pilseners, many consumers have yet to discover the pleasures of the real deal.

"My biggest beef with the word Pilsener is that nobody knows what it is," says Sang Yoon, owner of Father's Office, one of Southern California's great beer destinations. "Miller's ad campaign that says 'taste the true Pilsener' makes my blood boil."

He's right. Miller is no more a true Pilsener than Domino's cheese-in-the-crust is traditional Italian pizza.

So what is a Pilsener?

At Trumer Brauerei in Berkeley, brewmaster Lars Larsen took me through the small rooms filled with tanks and hoses, poured me a cold, golden Trumer and explained that "all beer can be divided into two categories: ales and lagers. The difference between them is the kind of yeast -- ale yeasts are top fermenting, while lager yeasts are bottom fermenting. A Pilsener is simply a style of lager."

Setting the standard

In fact, Pilsener is the ur-lager, the first one to dazzle drinkers and capture international attention. Invented in 1842 in the Czech town of Plzen, the first Pilsener is what we know as Pilsener Urquell (meaning "original Pilsener"). Widely imitated, it became the gold standard for the style, and in many ways it still is today.

At the time, Pilsener beer was a revelation. Before its creation, most beers were dark and cloudy ales, but simultaneous breakthroughs in the controls of toasting malt, fermentation temperatures and yeast science allowed for the production of a clear, golden, beautiful lager. Improvements in glassmaking allowed the clarity and effulgence of these beers to be appreciated in clear glass vessels. The effect was like going from silent films to Dolby Digital sound in one movie.

Pilseners really took hold in Bohemia and Germany. Both regions developed distinct styles, which are how Pilseners are classified today: Bohemian versions tend to be a little heavier-bodied and sweeter tasting, while German examples are lighter and more bitter.

But as Pilseners gained in popularity in Europe and the States, they morphed into the less flavorful, mass-produced light lagers that proliferate today. These pale echoes of Pilsener are the most popular beers in the world and include such well-known names as Kirin Ichiban, Heineken and Budweiser.

A high-quality craft Pilsener differs from mass-produced lagers in several respects. Unlike Miller Lite, a craft Pilsener is made with a base of 100% malt. Mass-produced lagers are extended with rice and corn.

"Rice and corn are much cheaper to use than malt, and they might make up to 40% of what the beer's made from. They create alcohol but they don't create flavor," says Larsen. Malt gives beer richness and a discernible character of bread or grain.

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