I’ll be watching Super Bowl LI this Sunday for only one reason: It’s the first of the 51 championship games to be named after Long Island. #alternativefact
But seriously, as the New England Patriots compete in the team’s NFL-record ninth Super Bowl against Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons’ top-ranked offense on Sunday, we’re guaranteed at least three things. One, interesting and entertaining analysis dispensed by Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather, FOX’s most colorful football broadcast team. Two, a halftime show without a group of well-oiled, mustachioed, magenta-suspenders-wearing bodybuilders flexing among a tapdancing Goofy and an elephant-riding monkey. And three, several minutes of commercial time from the Super Bowl’s exclusive beer advertiser since 1975, Anheuser-Busch InBev.
Bud. Wei. Ser.
Over the past ten years, Anheuser-Busch InBev has spent almost $300 million to relay its messaging to television’s largest annual audience, creating ads ranging from hilarious to heartfelt to even Haterade-soaked hypocritical. In 2014, Budweiser took us on an emotive horse ride with “Puppy Love,” ranked the most popular commercial to air in the Super Bowl’s half-century history, depicting the friendship of an adorable golden retriever and one of the brand’s iconic Clydesdales. The following year, a spot less warmfuzzywuzzy (but just as furry) “fired shots” in retaliation of intensifying competition, mocking the booming craft-brewing industry and its bearded devotees even though Budweiser’s parent company has been purchasing craft breweries—one being Blue Point Brewing in Patchogue—since 2011.
Earlier this week, Budweiser’s commercial for Big Game 51 was pre-released online and immediately sparked controversy, though different than the kind that was elicited by “peach pumpkin ale.” The gritty, compelling and topical one-minute spot, dubbed “Born the Hard Way,” dramatizes Adolphus Busch’s journey as he emigrates from Germany to America in 1857 to pursue making beer. In his perilous trek,which includes having to flee a burning steamboat, dirty dudes hurl xenophobic insults like, “Go back home,” and “You’re not wanted here.” Undeterred, Busch eventually arrives in St. Louis, where he is warmly embraced by another immigrant, Eberhard Anheuser, who buys him a beer.
Amid both praise and backlash along partisan lines, Anheuser-Busch InBev has repeatedly denied it created the pro-immigration ad with political intent, a way to offer commentary following President Donald Trump’s controversial executive order last week temporarily banning refugees and nearly all citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. (It was actually filmed in October.) But let’s refrain from discussing Trump’s continuing mainstreaming of hate (among other awful things) and focus our forthcoming buffalo-sauce-stained mouths on the classic style that fueled Busch’s brewing ambitions over 150 years ago, and what most of today’s denatured, mass-market lagers are derived from: pilsner.
A Very Brief History of Pils-tory
Pilsner is a pale, golden lager (it’s worth noting that almost all beer can be categorized as an ale or a lager; the former ferments at higher temperatures with top-fermenting yeast, while the latter requires additional time at cooler temperatures with bottom-fermenting yeast) that revolutionized the brewing world upon its birth in the Bohemian city of Pilsen, now located in the Czech Republic, in 1842. Leading to this pioneering moment, Pilsen’s independent breweries had become increasingly pissed—or in this instance, pilssed—with the poor quality of their beer, so they joined to build a new state-of-the-art brewery designed specifically to recreate the popular dark lagers of Bavaria. Unsurprisingly, an adept Bavarian brewer, Josef Groll, was hired for the task.
Now working for Pilsen’s newly formed Citizens’ Brewery, which would later be renamed Pilsner Urquell, Groll created the first batch of pilsner with the local ingredients at his disposal: the town’s unusually soft, sandstone-filtered water; barley malt grown in Moravia (also now part of the Czech Republic) and kilned to an exceptionally blonde color; and the floral, spicy Saaz hops from Žatec, another Bohemian town. He also used a Bavarian lager yeast allegedly smuggled into Pilsen by a wayward monk, which worked to mature the beer in the cold sandstone caves beneath the new brewery.
The result, a seductively sparkling, golden beer (which could now be seen by drinkers, as its conception coincided with the development of glass on a commercial scale) with a crisp, refreshing taste, was entirely new and an instant sensation. Pilsner spread quicker than a dank meme throughout Europe, the first beer style to “go global.” It was widely imitated (and still is): in Germany, whose brewers used their own local hop varieties like Hallertauer and Tettnanger; and later America, where German immigrants like Adolphus Busch began brewing their own versions with ingredients native to them (like flaked maize), adding even further variation.
A Quick Fast Forward to an Even Quicker Look at the Fast Foodification of Pilsner.
OVER DECADES, PILSNER BECOMES SWILL-SNER IN AMERICA, ITS SUBTLE BRILLIANCE BASTARDIZED AND BLANDIFIED, DULLED TO NEAR-DRINKING WATER BY BIG BREWERS. TODAY, MOST DRINKERS EQUIVOCATE “PILSNER” WITH THESE MASS-PRODUCED, FLAVOR-LACKING IMITATIONS (ONE IS EVEN “TRIPLE HOPS BREWED”). SMH!
A Bottom-Fermenting Rebirth
Pilsner was neglected by many early craft brewers, which is understandable: They sought differentiation from the swill-sners and other lagers that dominated the American beer marketplace. And so instead of joining the inundation, they concentrated on the many styles their industrial counterparts ignored for decades while also establishing their own (IBUs-packed IPAs that pummel palates to a piece of schnitzel! Booze-blasting, bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stouts!).
There are also the challenges in brewing pilsner. They ferment more slowly than ales and require more time to mature, thus occupying storage space longer, a sacrifice many young breweries can’t afford. Also, pilsners are subtle, stripped-down beers that can expose even the most minor of flaws or unintended notes, thus they demand disciplined, precision brewing—much more so than, say, a complex, ingredient-packed imperial stout.
“It is a beer of great finesse,” wrote Garrett Oliver, whom I recently time-traveled with, in “The Brewmaster’s Table.” “Brewers sometimes refer to pilsner, with some trepidation as ‘naked,’ meaning that there’s nowhere for imperfect flavors to hide.”
In recent years, though, American craft brewers have accepted the challenge and are focusing more on pilsners (and pale lagers, in general), injecting both vitality and variety into a style that has been long misunderstood and underrepresented in this country. (Even better, unlike many of today’s coveted IPAs, you can buy them in quantity without waiting in line for hours or having to know the secret password. It’s “#alternativefact,” by the way.) Some are built for the purpose of reverence and snuggle closely to the classical Czech and German varieties (for more information on these prominent sub-styles, read this and this), while others are aptly modernized, in most cases dosed with American hops to evoke IPA, or even intentional pre-Prohibition throwbacks that supplement its barley-malt core with adjuncts like corn or rice.
Threes Brewing, in Gowanus, Brooklyn, is among this Pilsner Producing Posse (also part of the group is Livingston, New York’s Suarez Family Brewery, which has garnered great acclaim for its “little” beers since opening just over a year ago), making a notable German-inspired version called Vliet (rhymes with “fleet”). Light and bright, crisp and crushable, every mouthful of Vliet is a smack of bread-y body, bracing bitterness and spicy hop flavor. Like all good pilsners, Vliet doesn’t demand much attention or divert your thoughts; it’s quietly confident in its simplicity. For myself, I’ve been refreshed and invigorated by its companionship on a boat, with a goat, in the rain, on a train, even while reading my favorite book, Dr. Seuss’ “Green Kegs and Ham.”
Given my affection for Vliet, I recently asked Threes’ head brewer and partner, Greg Doroski, to recommend five of his favorite pilsners to (touch)down during the Super Bowl. It’s important to note that I also asked him because of his pre-brewing football career, having played in the NFL for several seasons with the Buffalo Pils. #alternativefact
Doroski and I both agree that one should drink whichever beers they want on Sunday. But if you want to avoid getting punted in your footballs, kick the pseudo to the side and score any of these five delicious, expressive pilsners.
1. Palatine Pils, Suarez Family Brewery
Suarez Family Brewery is making some of the very best beer in the country right now, and that includes Palatine Pils. Clean and crisp with a perfect balance of doughy-crackery maltiness and noble hops, this beer highlights Dan Suarez’s focus on technique and his vision as a brewer. It’s one of those beers that doesn’t necessarily scream for your attention at first glance; it’s just good, and comfortable in what it is. But after a few sips you can see how there are layers that deserve closer attention.
2. Luppulo, Oxbow Brewing
After trying this beer as Freestyle 38, part of Oxbow’s numbered series of experimental brews, over the summer up in Portland, Maine, I was psyched when I heard that it was going to become a full-time offering. Noticeably softer than many of my other pils favorites, it fits nicely along side Oxbow’s great farmhouse beers. A moderate dry-hop pushes the traditional hop character forward.
3. Pivo Pils, Firestone Walker Brewing
This was the beer that really got me turned on to Americanized continental-style pils, if that phrasing makes any sense. As U.S. craft beer was becoming even more IPA centric, Pivo was such a breath of fresh air the first time I tried it—a wake-up call even, like a reminder of where we all came from. I continue to drink Pivo by the case during the summer.
4. Tipopils, Birrificio Italiano
This one is special not only for what it represents as a beer that you drink—the sensory experience: crisp palette, herbal and citric hops, etc.—but also for its role in inspiring this recent pils revival. It’s rumored to have inspired both Pivo and Luppulo directly (the latter is referred to as an Italian-style pils), and I can promise you that me and Dan Suarez have done a good deal of ranting and raving about this beer together.
5. Vliet Pils, Threes Brewing
Vliet is our pilsner and I drink a lot of it. Our pilsner is German in style, with a bunch of Saaz and Spalt Select hops imparting their herbal, floral and slightly citric flavors. Crisp, light and right around 5 percent ABV, it’s perfect at any hour or anywhere. Equally suited for the beach or a white tablecloth dinner.