The Road to Beer Judging Certification: Light Lager and Pilsner

This week’s BJCP class was Light Lager and Pilsners – which is to say, beer I haven’t drank in 15 years.

And oh how the quickly the memories returned; the smell of DMS and hormonal college kids in a cramped basement, the epiphany that is the first sip of a Spaten Pils, constantly asking yourself ‘where did I go wrong?’ with each sip of Grain Belt Premium.

Even though there are 8 substyles across these 2 styles, the range of characteristics is quite narrow. Cumulatively:

IBU: 8-45 (human taste range is 8-100 IBU in beer)
SRM: 2-6 (straw - gold)
OG: 1.028-1.060 (water is 1.0)
FG: 0.998-1.017 (again, water is 1.0)
ABV: 2.8-6.0

In other words, these 8 substyles range from highly carbonated water to highly carbonated, slightly sweet, crisp water. The only function of the hops is to balance out any malt sweetness. The lack of any flavor characteristics means flaws and defects are not only more noticeable, but both more likely and more common. The DMS from the corn or pils malt can quickly dominate. The same for issues caused by poor handling (skunky, light struck, old). These are very fragile styles. It is only in the high ends of these styles that any positive characteristics other than high carbonation levels become noticeable. It’s only in the German and Bohemian Pilsners that a hint of hop flavor and alcohol are both noticeable and appropriate.

Yes, despite the narrow characteristic range and propensity for defects – there was a surprising breadth across the tastings. If you concentrate – it is possible to notice a definite difference in carbonation, mouthfeel, and flavor between Miller High Life, Miller Lite, and Miller Genuine Draft.

Across the board, there’s a refreshing crispness that is both a significant characteristic of the all the styles and most often absent from the tastings. Instead, there’s frequently a dull flatness or wet cardboardy-ness. Not ideal.

    Overall Ranking:
  1. Spaten Pils (German Pilsner)
  2. Staropramen (Bohemian Pilsner)
  3. Left Hand Polestar Pilsner (German Pilsner)
  4. Coors Light (Light American Lager)
  5. Miller High Life (Standard American Lager)
  6. Miller Genuine Draft (Premium American Lager)
  7. Amstel Lite (Light American Lager)
  8. Miller Lite (Light American Lager)
  9. Dortmunder Gold (Dortmunder Export)
  10. Avery Joe (Classic American Pilsner)
  11. Grain Belt Premium (Standard American Lager)

I wasn’t looking forward to these styles. I fully expected to be holding my nose and choking down bad beer (just like in college). In the end, it was quite enjoyable (just like in college).