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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Imperial Pilsners: A Beer Paradox

This week in Pilsner month we tackle Imperial Pilsners. You have to hand it to American craft brewers for their tendency to take a style and then bulk it up. Bigger, stronger, hoppier, etc., imperializing or "doubling" a style has come to mean taking a style of beer and "roiding" it up. Starting with IPAs it has progressed into other styles. It only gets weird when it encounters a style where imperializing obfuscates the original intent. Don't read this as a screed against imperial styles, far from it, I appreciate the effort and willingness of craft brewers to push the boundaries and to create challenging new brews. I enjoy drinking them even more, but we do have to recognize the problems that arise when we mislabel or confuse. Today we are looking at two different imperial pilsners with a closer view of what they are trying to do and whether they promote or defeat the pilsner style. 

Our candidates:
Dogfish Head My Antonia
The first noticeable thing is that this beer is more creamy and smoother than a standard pilsner. There is a bite but not as crisp or sharp. Since this is a Dogfish Head beer there are hops, noticeable in the floral nose, and in the earthy taste, but it is not as pronounced. There is more body to the beer, it's heavier on the tongue and it is not as effervescent on the palette even though it is highly carbonated. While the aftertaste isn’t as bitter it does stick around forever, it was still present a good fifteen minutes after my final drink. Describing the traits of this beer is difficult compared to the other pilsners we have encountered. Mature is an apt word to describe this. My Antonia has taken all the characteristics of a pilsner and refined them, forced then to grow up. You could say this is subdued, but that misses the point, it is an easy drinking beer with more refinement and complexity in the glass. Take the basics and square them but mute them also. If that makes any sense to you then you have cracked the code on this brew. It has a bigger 7.5% ABV. The final verdict is this is a richer, more full bodied pilsner beer but still recognizable as a member that style. 

Uinta Crooked Line Tilted Smile Imperial Pilsner

Immediately you are confronted with the fact that none of the pilsner characteristics are present. Even the golden color is darker that you would find normally. It does not have a clear, but hazy appearance, the only shred of pilsner identity overtly present is the fluffy white head but even that disappears rapidly. This reminds me of a baryled version of a chardonney. It has that same butteriness that your would find in that particular style of wine only blended with a hoppy character. It has a good carbonation but not the bite you would expect, the aftertaste on this is rather grassy and barnyard-like, and it clears off the palette very quickly. We have some cool things going on in the glass and interestingly enough they become more and more apparent as this beer warms up/ once again opposite what you would want out of a traditional pilsner. A more floral taste becomes evident as the temp rises. This is different and I'll admit a slightly confusing beer to me, it's not what I would expect out of an imperial pilsner so once I threw out all my pilsner-centric expectations I started to enjoy this beer a whole lot more. It is a big puncher at 9% ABV. I enjoyed the whole bottle, and Uinta Brewing has brewed a fine beer that is worth seeking out.

Out of both of these the Dogfish Head My Antonia is the better representation of a pumped up pilsner but neither of these beers are ones that you are going to session with or have on a hot summer afternoon as refreshment. In the end while I appreciate what the brewers are doing and the willingness to stretch the boundaries they are a representation of the problem. Imperial Pilsners are a conundrum, and I think it is twofold. One part comes from actually comes from using Imperial in the name. Doing that means it gets associated with the likes of Imperial IPAs and Stouts, both styles that have characteristics that can easily amplified and are now well established in the craft beer world. Pilsners rely on subtly and nuance which makes "imperializing" a much more challenging prospect. In other words it is an unfavorable comparison. The description ends up confusing beer drinkers and could lead to some disappointment with what they are actually drinking thereby defeating the purpose of what the brewer is trying to accomplish here.

The second problem with imperial pilsners is pilsner itself. Pilsner beers have distinct characteristics and their primary purpose is to be refreshing. Imperial pilsners have not become more refreshing, quite the contrary, the are creeping towards heaviness. The fact is both of these beers are stepping beyond the bounds of pilsner's definition. They are using standard pilsner ingredients but we aren't getting the expected result. Are we accurately calling them what they really are? I would argue the answer is no, instead I propose a different name, both of the beers we looked at today I would hold up and say, "Welcome to pilsnerbock!" Appending bock to the end provides a better expectation of the brewer's intent and what the beer drinker is about to enjoy. Looking at the Tilted Smile from this perspective definitely increases my appreciation for it. The end result is here beers,even with all the confusion they cause, are to applauded are providing another path of appreciation for a style of beer that has been dragged down in mediocrity. The bonus is both of them are worth tracking down and enjoying.

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