Courtesy of Ethan Fixell
Ethan Fixell
June 22, 2017

If the ever-burgeoning number of beer styles overwhelms you to the point that you'd rather knock back a shot of vodka than deal with all of the confusing terminology, consider this single fact: nearly every beer in the world can be categorized as either an ale or a lager (let's discuss lambics another day, shall we?).

See, unlike the humans who judge them, all beers are not created equal. Ales are fermented at a higher temperature for a short amount of time with top-fermenting yeast. Lagers, however, are fermented cold for a longer cycle with bottom-fermenting yeasts. If your head is still spinning and you haven’t even begun drinking, all you need to remember is that ales are generally darker and more robust, while lagers are generally lighter and crisper.

Pilsners are perhaps the lightest and crispest of pale lagers, originating in Plzeň, Bohemia (today, Czech Republic) in 1842. City officials began brewing lager-style beer to improve the typical swill's clarity and shelf life. The result was a golden brew that was an instant smash hit (and also got lots of people smashed).

That very same beer is still brewed today by Plzensky Prazdroj under the name Pilsner Urquell, and has spawned dozens of imitators – some arguably even better than the original. This week's spirited Beer Olympic event pits Pilsner Urquell against three of its fiercest competitors.

Let's get pouring, shall we?

Appearance

Pilsner Urquell; Czech Pilsener; Czech Republic: Czech pilsners are known for their beautiful golden color, and The Original does not disappoint! What a beauty, with a nice amount of foam that melts away fairly quickly, like snow in the springtime (look out for my next beer column: "Beer Poetry").

Bitburger Premium Pils; German Pilsener; Germany: German pilsners are usually of a lighter straw color, and the Bitburger should make Deutschland proud in this respect. But there's not much head at all on this one, the palest of the bunch. Das ist nicht gut.

Firestone Walker Pivo Hoppy Pils; Czech Pilsener; U.S.: Though a Czech pilsner by name, Firestone's take looks almost identical to the Bitburger, though with frothier head. Hopefully my national representative will step it up in future categories…

Hitachino Nest Ancient Nipponia; Imperial Pilsner; Japan: Imperials feature an increased alcohol content and malty backbone that deepens the hue of the beer, and the Ancient Nipponia shows a rich, amber hue with plenty of head. Is this not how a "traditional" pilsner is supposed to look? Who cares – it's gorgeous!

POINT: Hitachino Nest Ancient Nipponia

 Aroma

Urquell: Did I just crack open a beer or did I walk into a Czech bakery? Plenty of sweet, deliciously, bready malt on the nose. …Is anyone else craving a Kolach?

Bitburger: Suddenly I'm transported from the bakery to the basement of a college frat house. Compared to Urquell, the Bitburger has an unpleasant, almost stale and sulfurous scent. Excuse me while I shake off this beer pong flashback...

Firestone: Whoa. Get a load of those hops! Firestone's pils smells like a pine forest in which the only precipitation is pilsner. It's ever so slightly funky -- in a good way – while retaining those grainy traditional pilsner qualities.

Ancient Nipponia: This complex beer layers intoxicatingly sweet fruit with cooked rice and a touch of hops. Despite what it says on the bottle, I'm beginning to think this isn't a pilsner at all…but I'm not complaining!

POINT: Hitachino Nest Ancient Nipponia

Mouthfeel

Urquell: MMMM…(sorry, mouth full)…what a nice, firm consistency, punctuated by healthy, active carbonation. Very well-rounded indeed.

Bitburger: It may run on the thinner side, but a swig of Bitburger held in your mouth will surprise you with creaminess. Reminds me of the shock I endured at IHOP when I once ate a dollup of butter thinking it was lemon sorbet (though considerably less gag-inducing).

Firestone: That frothy head stands up incredibly well – but it's soon pleasantly broken up by a ton of tingly carbonated bubbles that dance around the mouth. "Teach me how to Dougie!" shouts my tongue to the beer.

Ancient Nipponia: Here's to the creamiest of all, maintaining its thickness even as one approaches the bottom of the glass – perhaps to a fault. It's kinda like a root beer-beer float.

 POINT: Firestone Walker Pivo Hoppy Pils

 Taste

Urquell: Refreshing and dry, Urquell is a real thirst quencher that maintains an enjoyable, balanced flavor profile that never allows any one ingredient to overwhelm another. Hey, it's tough to argue with the pilsner that invented pilsner!

Bitburger: Pleasant enough, but Bitburger lacks the depth of its Czech counterpart. It's a bit too flat, with a more pungent hop profile. Maybe it's just a "German thing"?

Firestone: Though it's no hop-bombed IPA, this could be the hoppiest pils I've ever tasted. Yet, its bready lager malt smooths everything out so well, I could drink one after another. And I will.

Ancient Nipponia: Japanese Sorachi Ace hops give this brew an unusual citrus quality, with a blend of spicy, fruity, and hoppy flavors so rich and complex, it treads on ale territory. Truly unique, but I personally like my pilsners a little less sweet and boozy, and a little more pilsner-y.

 POINT: Firestone Walker Pivo Hoppy Pils

 Finish

Urquell – At last the forefather truly shines, with a finish so balanced and crisp, it offers clean, easy drinking from start to finish. If you're the type who prefers "vanilla bean" at a gourmet ice cream shop featuring 101 flavors, this will be your go-to beer for life.

Bitburger – Slightly bitter and sweet in the wrong places, this beer's finish leaves this imbiber uncertain he wants to drink it again. Maybe I can just hold it in my mouth without swallowing to wade in creaminess…

Firestone - Now that's a finale that begs for more: sharp and snappy, becoming slightly more bitter as it goes down, which satisfyingly dries one's mouth out after each swallow. Firestone's offerings aren't generally for people who don't like hops, but they're ideal for those who do.

Ancient Nipponia – The hops are too mild in this beer to balance its very-present sweetness and obviously higher alcohol content. Ancient Nipponia is an exciting experiment, but considering the price point ($5 a bottle!), I think I might prefer to buy two of something else next time.

POINT: Pilsner Urquell

 

Well, this has been quite the showdown. And although all four pilsners have plenty to offer in their own ways, I'm proud to crown our very own American Firestone Walker Pivo Hoppy Pils the new "King of All Pils." (Hopefully sensitive Czech pilsner purists won't string me up for heresy – or need I remind them that Pilsner Urquell was bought out by British beverage company SABMiller in 1999?!)

 But as Reading Rainbow's LeVar Burton used to say, "you don't have to take my word for it." If you've been drinking along with me (and you BETTER have been), leave your comments below and let us know which beer you've crowned Olympic Pilsner Champion of the world!

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