Who Said Americans Can’t Make Great Pilsners and IPAs?

In the past I have lamented the fact that American craft brewers just can’t seem to get a handle on what may be my favorite style of beer – Czech pilsner, which is a bright golden malty lager that is softer and smoother than its German counterpart, with a spicy finish from Saaz hops.

Most American attempts at Czech pilsner that I’ve tried are clumsy, heavy-handed failures – out of balance, overhopped and generally unrefined, as if the Ugly American that all Europeans love to hate was brewing the beer, completely unaware of how far off style he really is.

But, ever the optimist, I try every pilsner I see, just in case I find an acceptable one.

And I am happy to report that in the same week I found two tasty pilsners.

Capital Brewery’s Pilsner is in the German style, so there is a hint of bitterness on the back end. Still, it is tasty, nicely balanced and beautiful to look at. German-style pils will do in a pinch.

Next up was Lagunitas’ Czech-Style Pilsner. Very nice. As I sipped on my tall pilsner glass of Lagunitas Pils, I almost felt like I was back in České Budějovice or Prague.

Almost, but not quite. It’s a touch sharp for a Czech pilsner, but it’s much closer in style than other craft beers I’ve tried that claim the lineage, and since I will never again be in the Czech Republic, it will do.

* * *

A boldly labeled bottle of AleSmith IPA stared down at me recently from the wall o’ beer. The first thing that popped into my prejudiced mind was this: AleSmith is in San Diego, which is in California, and Californians are hop crazy; ergo, this will not be an IPA you like.

But as I gazed back at the cheeky Helvetica extra-bold IPA come-on, another part of my mind recalled doing an interview a decade or so ago with Peter Zien, owner of the San Diego brewery, just after the homebrew club he had led for years, QUAFF (the Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity), walked away with its fifth consecutive National Homebrew Club of the Year award.

When I talked to him, Zien had pretty much left the club to focus on his brewery, but since he had been there when the club set its eyes on the prize, I thought he would have a great perspective on how the club ramped up to that level.

He talked about what it took to be the best homebrew club in America, and that included a great support system with all the brewers sharing their skills and knowledge for the growth of all concerned, and brewing true to style.

I’ve never been disappointed by an AleSmith beer, however, my disdain for ham-handed American IPAs is, I think, well documented. I prefer the refined and balanced IPAs of the old country, England.

But here is an American brewer using American hops but still obviously striving for the beautiful balance of malt and hops that made English IPAs the envy of the brewing world.

The first thing that impressed me about this beer is the beautiful rocky head – a veritable mountain of virginal white rocky foam that looked firm enough to support a very tiny mountain climber.

And the taste, well, this is what an IPA should be. Yes, the hops are there in various citrus notes, but they do not dominate. They contribute like mallets bringing out bright notes on a vibraphone on top of the malty horn section heft of this delicious and musical beer.

Wait, I just took another sip and must say this: NEW FAVORITE BEER!