I went to a mid-July barbecue after work last night, that most languid and familiar celebration of the heat and length of days. People had brought an equally familiar range of beers along: Deschutes Mirror Pond, Full Sail Session, Sierra Nevada Pale. There were even a few Private Reserves floating around. These are all good beers (even the Hanks, in which the sweet flavor of nostalgia overwhelms the more insipid qualities of the lager), and compared to what you'd have found a generation ago on back porches, we certainly have nothing to complain about.
This is not a climate of extreme heat, though, and even our mildest beers are cloaked in the malt and hops that will satisfy on cloudy 60 degree June days. As a result, we have failed to exploit one brewing niche that brewers some hot regions offer--the German-style pilsner.
The original Bohemian (Czech) pilsners are fairly serious beer--and one of my favorite styles. They generally weigh in at just 5%, but they have fairly high residual sugars, giving the beer body and heft. And then of course, there are the famous spicy Saaz hops, generally as sharp as we like them here on the West Coast. An amazing style, but like our summer beers, they are not ideal for a back yard session.
German pilsners differ in that they are drier and slightly less hoppy. They are no less strong, but lack the body of the Czech cousins and so seem lighter. The hopping is generally milder, too--definitely strong enough to delight the tongue but, like our pale ales, not aggressively bitter.
A summer beer needs to be no less flavorful than any other beer, it just needs to be light and refreshing. But so often, to get the "light," breweries offer a watery, uninteresting beer. It's fine on a hot day, and maybe even preferable to something heavier and tastier, but it's not ideal.
I recently tried a Schwelmer Pils, and in it found exactly the beer I wish was readily available in sixers here. It would have been perfect last night. It is light, but wonderful rich with flavor and aroma. The nose is floral almost to the point of being perfumy; I even detect a note of honey, which enhances the overall summery vibe. The malt is perfectly clean (it's a German beer, after all), but there is just the smallest touch of biscuity, honeyish sweetness. The hops are not strong but varied, with herbal notes, peppery spice, and that floral quality evident in the noes. It is crisp and dry at the finish, which is where the beer earns its hot-weather stripes. Heavier beers end with a fuller note--sometimes resinous, if they're hoppy--and this does not cool and refresh.
We have grown accustomed to thinking of light pilsners as a compromise, a product of marketing rather than brewing. But it doesn't have to be this way. Make a beer like Schwelmer Pils, and barbecuers will beat a path to your door.
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