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Thirsting for some better pilsners

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Updated: August 17, 2012 6:35AM



As a longtime home brewer and a beer fan who applauds the booming popularity of David (craft beers) vs. the Goliaths (MillerCoors and Budweiser), I was surprised to find myself nodding in agreement with a commentary piece in the Chicago Sun-Times on July 4.

Because it was written by David Ryder, vice president for brewing and research at MillerCoors. I will drink MillerCoors or Budweiser products, but only if more ambitious choices are not available, which is often the case.

I’m not a beer snob. I simply like beers that, well, taste better than what the Big Two offer.

That said, Ryder presented an insightful and much-needed defense of American pilsners. As he said, it’s an American classic. When you’re watching a ballgame on a hot day, when you’re enjoying a big steak, or a nice piece of salmon, nothing’s better than a well-bittered but not too heavy lager.

All credit to the myriad small breweries that are coming up with complex Belgians, hoppy IPAs and alcohol-laden imperial stouts.

But having been to a couple of beer fests this summer, I came away surprised that the little breweries don’t seem interested in making a nice pilsner — or a better version of Budweiser or Miller High Life.

I like the creative beers. Heck, I make them myself. My basement brewery has turned out pumpkin ale. Coconut porter. A berry pilsner with purple foam!

But when I’m reading a page-turner at the beach, or need something to go with burgers and chicken on the grill, I don’t necessarily want a sweet-edged Belgian or a hops fest or 10 percent alcohol.

I want a quality pilsner — a beer that’s on the lighter side but has nothing to be ashamed of. A beer that’s got a little bite, has a nice layer of flavor but doesn’t shout out anything fancy.

There are places where I don’t agree with Ryder. I’ve always thought low-calorie beers were a wrong turn conjured by the marketing department on a public that doesn’t know the calorie savings isn’t that big of a deal. A Bud or Miller Genuine Draft is about 145 calories; Bud Light and MGD Light go about 110. If you’re worried about calories, try drinking less.

I’ll take his word for it that light beers are more difficult for big breweries to make because imperfections are more apparent than they are in heavy beers.

In my basement laboratory, though, light beers are no more difficult to produce than stouts or Octoberfests.

Why would a brewer from a juggernaut like MillerCoors feel the need to chide craft brewers and aficionados for turning up their noses at light beers?

Obviously, the pilsner is the stock in trade of Big Beer.

My challenge to both sides — the Miller/Busch juggernauts and the earnest little micro-breweries — is this: Give us more and better All-American pilsners.

Big boys, give us a premium Budweiser to savor, the way Scotch and bourbon distillers have added a high-end layer. Little guys, dial down the wild and crazy stuff occasionally and make room for some beer that harkens to our roots.

Some of my favorite beers, especially at this time of year, are somewhat-forgotten labels that have been revived. The original-formula Pabst Blue Ribbon is vastly under-appreciated.

Blatz and Grain Belt, a couple of beers that we ridiculed in our youth but drank because they were cheap, are now back as quality versions of the kind of light beer MillerCoors brewer Ryder defended.

No doubt, the Miller and Busch people think they’re already making excellent American pilsners. The rise of micro-breweries says drinkers thirst for something better.

I’m simply asking for assistance from both sides. Give me more Great American Pilsners. I need help. I can only make them five gallons at a time.

Editor’s note: When he’s not making beer, Herb Gould covers college sports and golf for the Chicago Sun-Times. When Prohibition returns, though, he plans to leave the newspaper business.



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