Multimedia Friday

Last night, John Harris addressed a packed house at Ecliptic to comment on his 30 years as an Oregon brewer. I mentioned briefly why those 30 years are going to be hard to beat (he is, to use a metaphor from a different field, a first-ballot hall of famer), but I wanted to relay something Sally told John and I yesterday. She was talking to her business partner and mentioned John’s anniversary. “Wow,” he told her. “He taught me how to drink good beer.” When Devan came to Oregon, he like so many found Deschutes Mirror Pond and was ushered into beer. There are tens of thousands like him.

Here’s John speaking last night. If you don’t know John, this is a pretty perfect introduction to his personality. (I’m pretty sure the young woman to his left is his daughter.)

And, to close out impromptu Pilsner week with a trip to the Czech Republic on this week’s podcast. Patrick and I survey Czech beer and what makes it tick. As I have said a number of times, and which I repeated on the podcast, I think the Czech Republic is my favorite beer country, and it’s partly because the beer there is far more varied and interesting than Americans know. With clips from Budvar’s  Adam Brož, we walk through the reasons it’s so fantastic. Give it a listen on Soundcloud our iTunes (we’ve submitted it to Google Play, so look for it on android, too.)

Have a good weekend–

from Beervana

A Modest Proposal: Oregon Pilsner Cup

As this pilsner thing bubbled up unexpectedly this week, it revived an idea I’ve been toying with for a few years. Four or five years ago, as Oregon started to be fertile ground for these really good, classic pilsners, I thought it would be cool to do a blind tasting with the brewers who made them. My inspiration was more journalistic. I thought it would be fun to have them discuss pilsners while tasting them, and from that session I’d get a sense of why they had returned to this classic (and un-American) old style.

I didn’t manage to get around to it, though, and then more and more breweries started making them. Now there are, off-hand, eight examples I really like (Arch Rock, Breakside, Buoy, The Commons, Ecliptic Spica, Heater-Allen, Occidental, pFriem, Upright Engelberg). If I’m in a pub and any one of these beers is on tap, I almost certainly order it at some point. Hop Valley apparently discontinued its great Czech Your Head (also a great name), and it looks like Ninkasi has, too. Then there are others like Widmer’s PDX Pils that I’ve never tried. There are even helleses like Zoiglhaus Lents Lager and Ninkasi Helles Belles that are pretty close to the wheelhouse. Add all this up and you’ve got something approaching a score of great pale lagers.

There oughta be a competition.

I’m terrible at implementation, but I’d love these wonderful little beers–perfect standards of counter-programing in hoppy, aley Beervana–to get more attention. They aren’t braggy beers, and they are misunderstood. The people who prize them form a kind of secret society. And yet making them isn’t easy, and it takes more time and is more expensive. Breweries who put in the effort do it for the love of these beers, and I feel that love. So someone (obviously not me) should arrange a Pilsner Cup to select Beervana’s finest. A good blind-tasting like Willamette Week implemented for its beer awards this year would produce a credible winner. I for one would be fascinated to see who would come out on top. I don’t know that I could make a call myself.

from Beervana

Wild in the Eastern Deciduous Forest

Liriodendron tulipifera -, Tulip poplar, Budding with spring leaves emerging

The Eastern United States is an entirely different native ecosystem from California.  Duh.

Liriodendron tulipifera -, Tulip poplar, Budding with spring leaves emerging

Liriodendron tulipifera, Tulip poplar, budding with spring leaves emerging in deciduous woodland.

The Central Prairies are different too.  Oh yeah.  And how about the Everglades ?  The desert Southwest ?

We live in a vast country with vastly different native plants, yet sometimes when we hear about the importance of gardening with native plants, we somehow think any “native plant” we see in a catalog or book is going to work in the native plant garden we want for ourselves.

I think most of our readers here at Gardening Gone Wild understand the concept of “native here”.  All plants are native somewhere, so before selecting native plants for your garden, try to understand your native ecosystem.

Redbud tree flowering by pathway to woodland garden

Redbud understory tree flowering by pathway to woodland garden.

My week in Virginia has only reinforced my wonder of the Eastern Deciduous Forest.  The grandeur of the trees gives incredible strength to the garden, and since they are deciduous in winter, the spring  woodland ephemerals are at their peak just as the leaves  break out.

Andrew & Frances Boninti Garden

Virginia garden just as the  spring as native trees leaf out.

I have lectured often about the beauty of California native plants in the garden, but for a recent presentation at the Virginia Living Museum I found myself struggling to find photos that fit my preconceived idea of previous lectures.

Andrew & Frances Boninti Garden

Garden focal point in Virgina spring garden.

Only after I got here and walked in the spring woods around my sister’s garden did I realize all I really needed to do was show the pictures.  The audience will get it.  I have seen beautiful native plant gardens in the East and almost ALL of them are in the forest.  Even the exceptions, some marvelous meadow gardens, are best understood as gaps in the forest, as ecosystems in transition.

Shady native plant woodland groundcovers with grass in Chanticleer Garden

Shady native plant woodland groundcovers with grass in Chanticleer Garden

Just show the photos.  Tell the audience these are native plants.  Explain these gardens are the easiest to grow since the plants are pre-adapted and the earth will welcome them readily.  Explain these are still gardens.  They must be tended and weeded.

Woodland groundcovers in environmentally-responsible, native plant sustainable garden, Mt Cuba Center Delaware. Trillium sulcatum (Southern Red Trillium), Thelypteris novaboracensis (New York Fern) foreground), Iris cristata (Crested Iris) on left with Rhododendron maximum (Rosebay Rhododendron), Aesculus parviflora (Bottlebrush Buckeye) on right.

Woodland groundcovers in environmentally-responsible, native plant sustainable garden, Mt Cuba Center Delaware.

A clever gardener put these plants together and cared for them.  But caring for gardens is what gardeners do, and native plant gardens can be beautiful when we apply some basic garden design principles, choose plants that like each other, and take care of them.

Chairs in shady garden overlooking pond in woodland garden, environmentally-responsible, native plant sustainable garden, Mt Cuba Center Delaware

Chairs in shady garden overlooking pond in woodland, native plant sustainable garden, Mt Cuba Center Delaware

I can’t wait to photograph some more.

Betula nigra 'Heritage' - Heritage River Birch in Cranmer naturalistic woodland garden - Larry Weiner Design

Betula nigra ‘Heritage’ – Heritage River Birch in native plant garden as accent.

from Gardening Gone Wild

What Makes a Good Pilsner?

After I posted a link to my Sherpa recommendation for Block 15’s Gloria! pilsner on Facebook yesterday, Jonathan Aichele added his own link–and promptly sparked 397 furious comments. He directed us to a blind tasting the Oregonian did with Oregon pilsners that resulted in the selection of … an infected one as Oregon’s finest. (Verbatim tasting notes from the “winner”: “is this infected?,” “good, clean fun,” “tart, gose-y,” “not very pilsner-y.”) This demonstrates that, while style sometimes blinds us to a beer’s true nature, ignoring it while comparing beers doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. It’s like selecting a schnauzer as the best tabby because you don’t like cats.

Which leads us to an obvious question: okay, smarty pants, then what is a good pilsner? In anticipation of yet another pilsner-related post for later this week, I’m really glad I asked.

Pilsners Generally
Pilsners are pale lagers that originally came from–spoiler alert–Pilsen (or Plzeň in the Czech), Bohemia. In the United States, we say there are two variants, Bohemian and German, and this is dead wrong. These are actually separate beers. German pilsners have evolved on a separate track from the Czech line and bear Bavarian hallmarks. (German helles is far closer to German pils than the later is to Czech světlý ležák–what we now call Czech pilsner.) Nevertheless, the entire category, as European lagers, do share some similarities that are very distinct from the American tradition, and they’re important.

In the United States, we commonly build beer from a foundation of generic two-row pale malt–a “base malt”–so generic its variety isn’t even mentioned, and layer on specialty malts for flavor. In both ales and lagers, yeast plays a diminished role. In ales particularly, hops are the diva at the center of the performance, and the other elements are supporting characters. Pilsners, by contrast, sing in harmony, with three actors playing equal roles:

  • Aromatic, flavorful base malts. Pilsners are made with basically one malt, and yet they have  incredible malt character. This comes from the base malts, which are prepared in such a way at the malthouse that they produce distinctive aromas and rich flavors. Dozens of malthouses are scattered across Bavaria, and they prepare the pilsner malts differently, accentuating different characteristics. Some tend toward honey, others grain, others rustic breadiness. In the Czech Republic, the malts may even still be made in traditional floor maltings, and in any case, the strain of barley–as in England–plays a big role. (Many breweries favor either Moravian or Bohemian-grown malts, too.) Again, the Czechs are looking for unique aromas and flavors that come just from these malts. Because no specialty malts are used for flavor, the base malts have to be distinctive.
  • Delicate herbal hops. Continental hops are not uniform, but they do share a kind of delicacy that’s critical to a pilsner. Those malts need to shine through, so the hops have to add a dose of flavor and aroma without overwhelming them. European hops aren’t so strongly flavored, so even when used to produce high levels of bitterness, they don’t overshadow those malts. Ideally, they’ll harmonize with malt flavors, too, so that the honey or bread play nice with the black pepper or tarragon coming from the hops. 
  • Clean, crisp yeasts. Lager yeasts don’t contribute fermentation characteristics like phenols and esters–they let those malts and hops shine through transparently. What they do add is a smoothness of palate and, particularly, a crisp snap at the finish that makes these among the most moreish of all beers. 
Sladmistr David Mares at the Ferdinand brewery/malthouse.

This tripartite balance point is essential to the style. There are a lot of ways to make great beers, but the thing that makes pilsners work is when all of these elements are expressed simultaneously. It is often said that pilsners are the hardest beers to make because they don’t hide anything. I think that’s wrong. They’re the hardest beers to make because each of these elements is subtle, and when you’re trying to make them sing in harmony, the slightest off note is immediately evident. They test a brewer because she must find a way to take three delicate elements and bring them together so that they wow a drinker. When it works, it looks like magic.

Regional Differences
A quick word on why German and Czech pilsners are not really the same style. It is true that in 1842 and for decades thereafter Bavarians were the ones leading the lager renaissance in Bohemia (Josef Groll, who brewed the first pilsner, was Bavarian). But that was a long time ago. Two world wars and a cold war interceded, and the two countries spent the 20th century brewing separately. Germany’s tradition followed technology, while the Czech tradition, for long decades imprisoned behind an iron wall, languished. Qualitatively, this means German lagers are more refined and polished. They’re often thinner of mouthfeel and drier. Czech lagers are more assertive and fuller. There are reasons for this.

  • Decoction mashing. This old German technique is mandated by law for any beer that wants to be called “Czech beer.” Many Bavarian breweries still do it, too, especially in the countryside, but it’s getting less common. Decoction mashing is used (now) to create melanoidins that help build richness. Think less of the process,though, and more of the result–that richness. This isn’t a priority in German pilsners, but it is in good Czech ones.
  • Hopping rates. In the US, basically the only distinction we acknowledge between Czech and German pilsners is that the former uses Saaz hops. They’re basically the marker for Americans. And important they are! But there’s also an issue of intensity. That richness that builds up with the malts can withstand a bit more bitterness, and Czechs take advantage. In neither tradition does late- or aroma-hopping play much of a role, but the Czechs do something interesting to create a “softness” to their hopping…
  • First wort hopping. This is a technique where you put the hops into the kettle while the beer is coming in from the lauter tun and being raised to a boil. It is said to create a delicacy, a softness to the bittering that helps keep all the elements in balance, even with stiff bitterness. I suppose there are breweries in the Czech Republic that don’t do this, but I didn’t encounter them. Conversely, I’ve never heard of a German using the technique. (Which doesn’t mean none do, but.)
  • Other oddities. Some Czechs do other funny things from time to time, too, like using open fermentation, using long boils, and conducting extra-long lagering. These things can probably be found in farmhouse breweries and rustic village breweries in Bavaria, but that’s the thing–they’re rustic. In the Czech Republic, breweries like Budvar still do weird things like lager their beer for three months. It’s considered normal.

We don’t get many Czech pilsners in the US and the ones we do–Budvar and Urquell–are regarded as slight oddballs in the Czech Republic. So you may have to take my word on this one. Side by side, the differences between a Czech and German pilsner are anything by incidental.

from Beervana