Some Classic Lagers Revisited

A fine beer, i) is made from traditional ingredients and not heavily processed, and ii) has an excellent flavour. Craft productions do not occupy all the space here. Blonde lager made by old-established companies can be superlative too. European lagers in particular have set the pace for quality since pale lager took root in Pilsen, Czech Republic in 1842. But you have to get the right beers, and at their best.

In the early days of the craft brewing era, some names in Europe were highly reputed for lager. The most famous was and still is Pilsner Urquell. Another was Grolsch from Holland, which had a top reputation for its all-malt recipe and lack of any form of pasteurization.

Another beer well-reputed was Stiegl Gold of Salzburg, Austria.

Recently I had these in a flight – a serving of about 4 oz each – at the Loose Moose downtown in Toronto.  Unlike on most previous occasions when tasting these anywhere, each was nigh on perfect. This means: the beer was well-brewed, it was very fresh, and served in very clean glassware.  It may sound odd to say that brands such as these made for generations can be brewed differently or taste different but I’m convinced this can occur. Brewing processes change, sometimes subtly but they do, ingredients certainly change especially the availability of some hops, and of course the age of a particular barrel and how it was treated before beer hits your glass can vary quite a bit.

Sometimes conditions contrive to make the perfect taste though, as the other day at Loose Moose.

The Grolsch had no grassy skunky notes. I’ve often noticed this taste before, and I don’t think it comes (usually) from the green bottle as I’ve noticed it in the canned version too. I believe it is a dimethyl sulfide note (DMS), that typical boiled onion taste so many Euro lagers have, and which many people like evidently. I am hoping either that the draft is made a little differently than the bottled stuff or the lab people at SAB Miller are seeking to rub out the taste.  (If they are, keep going team, you’re on the right track). The result was a dryish, clean malty taste with some good neutral-type hops underneath in support. Not a strong taste but a good one. I’d rather have a fine but restrained taste than bags of flavours which don’t cohere or taste right.

Stiegl was more hoppy and a little heavier in body with a fine apple note from the yeast surely. It was spicy in the best German way but with no DMS, no chemical/chlorine taste as numerous other German imports seem to have, perhaps from overage or deterioration to heat.

The Urquell was winy-like, with an insistent hop presence and the slight rye bread note the beer usually has. But the balance and freshness were better than I’ve had from cans or bottles recently, and well, it’s just the right taste. It reminded me of very fresh Urquell in NYC where the turnover is high and after all NYC is the first landing in from the Atlantic. (Still, it can be indifferent in New York too).

When European lager is as good as these, it easily matches the best top-fermentation beers of England or Belgium, and now too North America which does a good turn in pale ale and India pales.

But rare is the opportunity, in my experience, to taste each of these at their very best. It’s nice when it all comes together. For the student of the beer palate, small differences can make all the difference…