Since we did a mini pale ale roundup last time, this time we’ll tackle an even less-loved beer (although most popular!) style with the pilsner. Unfortunately we don’t have the best Japanese pilsners on hand – the Nihonkai Club Pilsner is nearly impossible to find in bottle form unless you order it directly from them (maybe we’ll have to resort to this later), and the Fujizakura Heights 55 Premium Pilsner is not brewed that often, let alone bottled for sale. Instead we’ll have to make do with the regular Fujizakura Heights Pils, and we’ll compare it to the Baird Cool Breeze Pils (which is a seasonal beer) along with the original pilsner of them all, the Pilsner Urquell.
A minor note – RateBeer lists the Fujizakura Heights as a German-style pilsner, while the Baird and the Pilsner Urquell are categorized as Czech-style. I doubt Baird is making a pilsner that sticks strictly to style guidelines, but it will be interesting to see how it compares to both a classic Czech pilsner and a Japanese German-style pilsner.
Fujizakura Heights Pils (富士桜高原ピルス)
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 30
Pour – Foamy, straw gold, nice and clear
Aroma – Very grassy aroma, dirt, some citrus, malts as well
Flavor – Fizzy, starts out light and crisp, transitions to a very prominent lemon citrus tang and zest in the finish, sugar
Fujizakura Heights are well-respected here for making solid German-style beers. This pilsner is one of only four regular beers that they brew year-round, and it’s an OK effort for a pilsner, if not that exciting. It is well-executed enough and the citrus aspect is nice and refreshing, but lacks anything really particular about it that would leave an impression. Compare that to their 55 Premium Pilsner, which is actually quite bitter for a pilsner (the 55 stands for 55 IBU, as compared to 30 for this one). I’ve had the 55 Premium Pilsner but only on tap – if we can get a hold of a bottle we’ll write it up here as well.
Baird Cool Breeze Pils
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 40; hops – GR Taurus, Magnum, Perle, US Sterling, CZ Saaz
Pour – Extremely foamy, takes a while to settle down, more amber in color than gold
Aroma – Very sweet, both distinct hops and malts in the aroma, almost a melon-like quality
Flavor – Initially a bready malty character, followed by sweet, then a tangy bitter finish. As it warms up and you work through it the sugars begin to dominate, probably to its detriment
As we wrote in the brewer overview earlier, Baird is a solid if unspectacular brewery. They have a lot seasonal beers, and for the most part I find them acceptable but not exciting. In that context this beers comes as a pleasant surprise – the Cool Breeze Pils is a very complex beer for a pilsner. The aroma is heavy on the sugar, although you can still pick out the malt and hops. Flavor-wise, it goes through a few distinct phases, with each phase highlighted by a different characteristic – malts, sugar, then bitterness. The sweetness does begin to become too much eventually, but overall, this is a pretty decent beer, though it certainly doesn’t taste like any other pilsner I’ve ever had. Brewer’s artistic license? In the brewing notes the head brewer Bryan Baird does mention that as a Czech-style pilsner there is more leeway for an emphasis on hops – I suppose it’s up to the style gods to determine if they’ve gone too far with it, but for me, I liked this far more than I expected to.
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Golden amber, medium head
Aroma – Very prominent earthy hops; sugary but not overwhelmingly so, almost a burnt smell
Flavor – Coppery earthy hoppiness giving way to sweet finish, also noticeable malts on the finish
Ah, the ever-ubiquitous green Pilsner Urquell bottle! No doubt this image is very familiar to most of you, whether you like beer or not. I certainly never gave it much thought until recently, but no matter how much you may laugh at this beer as a staple of college life you do have to give it its due as the grandaddy of all pilsners. Of course, that also means it’s largely responsible for Budweiser et al., so I suppose it’s a double-edged sword. Here’s a great article that takes a closer look at their history and brewing techniques.
The familiarity of this beer in a way makes it hard to properly evaluate – even though I hadn’t had this beer since those college drinking days, the first whiff of it was so distinctive that all of my cumulative Pilsner Urquell experience from long ago came rushing back instantly. The taste too was just the same. With that out of the way, I think earthy and coppery are the two best words to describe it, both in aroma and flavor. Certainly it is a unique and distinct flavor that managed to imprint itself on my senses well enough to last almost 20 years, which is no mean feat.
Comparing the three, it’s interesting to see the Pilsner Urquell as a basis for both the Fujizakura Heights Pils and the Baird Cool Breeze Pils. The Pilsner Urquell and the Fujizakura share an earthiness, whereas the Pilsner Urquell and the Baird share a hoppiness and sweetness, although the hoppiness is of a different character. Stylistically the German pilsner is supposed to be more grassy and bitter, whereas the Czech pilsner is supposed to be more earthy and malty. The Fujizakura certainly is grassy but emphasizes citrus, which is a bit of a departure. The Baird is earthy, but also has a combination of hop bitterness and sugar and malts that ends up tasting very different from the Pilsner Urquell. In terms of ranking them, I personally enjoyed the complexity of the Baird the most. The nostalgia of the Pilsner Urquell was strong, and the Fujizakura Heights Pils not so exciting, so I’d probably take the original Pilsner, although that one is close (being owned by SABMiller is also a big strike).
Before I wrap up, I do want to point out one other thing – the Pilsner Urquell that they bottle and ship globally is filtered and pasteurized. There is a big debate about whether pasteurization impacts beer flavor (see here and here for example), but there is an unfiltered, unpasteurized version of Pilsner Urquell that is only available very rarely in draft form that rates much much more highly on RateBeer. I’ve never had a chance to try it, but it’s worth noting that even though I’ve tried to compare the Japanese pilsners against the original, there might be a far better original just out of reach out there somewhere.