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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

And good craft Pilseners are wonderfully hopped-up. The addition of hops creates a floral bitterness, which can actually be measured using something called International Bittering Units, or IBUs. According to Larsen, light lagers like Miller or Budweiser will have around 8 to 13 IBUs, whereas a German Pilsener has 25 to 45. Trumer Pils has 26.

Finding an audience

The small band of elite West Coast Pilsener brewers has gained momentum, but the pleasure of this style of beer has yet to be discovered by most beer lovers.

Tony Magee, founder of Petaluma's Lagunitas brewery, says his Pilsener is still working to find its audience. Richer in body than Trumer, with a more assertive hoppiness, it's a beautiful beer. But, says Magee, "Most people who want a light, neutral beer will choke on the hops of a true Pilsener. And most beer heads who are into super-flavorful stouts and ales will find Pilsener too light."

Magee points out that lagers in general are more expensive and difficult to make than ales. "That's the reason most microbrews are ales," he says. "Ales are made in 14 days and they're ready to go. Our Pilsener takes five weeks to make." Furthermore, he says, since Pilseners are lighter in color, body and flavor than ales, flaws are much more obvious.

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.

Why does he make Pilsener? "Because I love it. I think it's the best beer we make in terms of artistry; it's the one I'm proudest of. And I think that American consumers are really starting to learn to enjoy beer with more character."

That's certainly what Trumer's producers are hoping. The new brewery came about because Carlos Alvarez, president of Gambrinus Brewing Company of San Antonio, Texas, (which is responsible for Corona, Negra Modelo and Pete's Wicked Ale) wanted to create a high-quality American Pilsener to compete with international brewing companies like Heineken, Stella Artois, and Beck's.

He couldn't attempt to do it on scale, so he decided to do it with quality, approaching a 400-year-old family brewery outside Salzburg with the unprecedented idea of replicating its spot-on Pilsener on another continent. After almost two years of hard work -- remodeling an old winery in Berkeley, sending teams to and from Austria and California and eight months of test brewing -- the partners finally created a Berkeley-brewed Pilsener indistinguishable, even to the Austrians, from the Salzburg Trumer Pils.

"So much status in the market is given to imported beer," says Alvarez. But often, he warns, quality is compromised in production and transportation of imports.

Most imported beers are not made using the same recipe as the beer you enjoyed in the mother country. Sometimes the recipes are changed to appeal to American taste; always the beer will be pasteurized, a process that robs a beer of some of its freshness and verve.

"We don't even do Pilseners from Eastern Europe," says Yoon of Father's Office. "We don't import lagers as a general rule because they're not built for the long haul. They don't survive the travel. The only beers we get from overseas are the big-bodied, high alcohol beers with living yeasts, which can survive the trip."

Often shipping containers are not refrigerated, and beer may be exposed to heat and light. Heat encourages oxidation, which leaves cardboard or paper-like flavors on the beer. Light (which gets to the beers through the traditional green-glass bottles) is a lager's worst enemy, causing it to become what can only be described as "skunky," or tasting of that animal's unmistakable aroma. Although this flavor flaw completely undermines Pilsener's lovely delicate flavors, "skunky is how many Americans think imported lagers are supposed to taste," says Larsen.

To avoid these pitfalls, Alvarez decided to make an unpasteurized beer to be fresh and pure for American drinkers. Berkeley was chosen as the site because its soft water was similar to that in Salzburg and because of its food-savvy and open-minded population.

Yes, Trumer only comes in green bottles, which Alvarez agrees "are not the best." But, he says, "the bottles are shipped in enclosed cases and are shipped in refrigerated trucks to their destinations. If the stores keep them cold and don't leave them in the light too long, the beers should be fine."

Pilseners are indeed fragile beers, but that's part of their charm. Their delicate balance between malt and hops would be hard to detect any other way. This fragility, though, is a good reason to drink local when it comes to lager beers. Why spend extra money on a tainted product from thousands of miles away when you can have a fresh product from just a couple of hundred miles away?

Freshness is something Californians prize, and it's a quality that plays to Pilseners' strong suits: verve, vibrancy, crispness.



Judging the brewer's art


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