We all know the story by this stage. The ‘Craft Beer’ moniker was formulated in the U.S. in the 1980s to distinguish beers from new, small microbreweries from the lager beer being brewed at an industrial scale by the three large breweries.
That large breweries cannot produce anything but an inferior product has become a mantra of the craft beer movement. This has also become an accepted truth amongst beer-enthusiasts in Germany, where many large brands dominate in the market, often at the expense of many smaller regional brewers. Due to competition for the German pils market, the mass-produced pils is often sold at staggering low prices (e.g. €0.24 for a 0.5L bottle). All of this contributes to the reputation of these macro-brewed beers: that they are all inferior – some with defects – and that any pils from a smaller brewery is always an improvement.
Berlin, represented both large and small
In order to put this thesis to the test, last Friday, Ludger Berges and I co-hosted a German Pils blind tasting evening at his German speciality beer store Hopfen und Malz. Around the table were twelve experienced beer enthusiasts, who were willing to put their palates to the test, including brewers, home-brewers and other beer professionals.
In total, eight German pilsners were tested, all poured from the bottle. Four from large breweries (three of the national best-sellers and one from Berlin) and four from smaller regional breweries of different sizes (including one from Berlin). None of the participants knew in what order the beers would be served, so there was no safety net.
Eight German Pils
The following are the combined group results from all twelve participants, using the German scoring system (1=very good, 6=very bad). When the beers were unveiled at the end of the tasting, there was a gasp. It’s safe to say that everyone was surprised:
- Flessa Bräu Pils (average score: 1,7)
- Oettinger Pils (average score: 2,25)
- Waldhaus Diplom Pils (average score: 2,4)
- Krombacher Pils (average score: 3,1)
- Wagner-Bräu Kemmern Pils (average score: 3,8)
- Hummel-Bräu Pils (average score: 3,9)
- Becks Pils (average score: 4,2)
- Berliner Pilsner (average score: 4,3)
My own results broadly aligned with the averages:
- Waldhaus & Flessa Bräu (both scored 2)
- Oettinger, Krombacher, Becks & Berliner Pilser (all scores of 3)
- Wagner Pils (4)
- Hummel Pils (5)
This was a very interesting exercise. What I cannot emphasise enough is just how difficult it is to identify these beers or tell them apart when you don’t have the bottle in front of you.
What I found most interesting about the group results is how consistent they were and how the most despised beer prior to the tasting (Oettinger) became one of the group favourites when the brand wasn’t known. Of the industrial beers, Oettinger and Krombacher were preferred to Becks and Berliner Pilsner, that were considered the worst by most participants (scores of 4,2 and 4,3 respectively).
From my own results, my favourites were the Waldhaus Diplom Pils (a delicious peppery spiciness in the nose, dry and crisp body, with a wonderful malty finish) and the Flessa Bräu (well balanced, hints of lemon and a nice bitter finish). All four industrial/macro-beers all came in the middle positions. None of the four was a good example of a German pils; however, none was flawed either; all four were quite bland and innocuous with minor variations in terms of sweetness or bitterness in the finish. For me, the worst beers of the evening – by far – were the Hummel Pils (5) and the Wagner Pils (4); both were insipid and had unpleasant aftertastes.
So, the best beers were produced by small breweries working by hand. The worst beers were also produced by small breweries, without the palates or the quality control. In my opinion, the reputation of the mass-produced German Pils is only half-true.
Thanks to Ludger for hosting and to the participants for contributing their palates.
……. and do try this at home!