A few years back, long before the term ‘Yeast Van’ had been coined or Vancouver and its surrounding suburbs had become the bourgeoning craft beer beacons that they are today, I found myself at a local tap takeover featuring a slew of top-drawer Portland brewers (think Upright, The Commons, Deschutes, and Breakside). As one would expect, the IPA game was pretty strong that night, but so too was the solid lineup of farmhouse ales, imperial stouts and sours on offer. As the evening progressed and the attendees made their way through the comprehensive tap list, many of us naturally started asking our friends and table neighbours for their top picks of the night. Well, after making the rounds, it became clear that one beer definitely ranked as many people’s ‘best in show’. What stood out for me was not the actual beer itself (which was quite delicious, I must say), but instead the way people disclosed their preference. You see, more often than not, my question was met with a pause, a shift of the eyes, a lean in, and a faint, almost inaudible admission: “Occidental Pilsner”.
Pilsner? Yes, you read that right. Despite all the hop bombs, delectably balanced pale ales, and brett-conditioned saisons the organizers had secured, many of the bearded beer geek set in attendance preferred the nuanced charms of Occidental’s perfectly executed Bohemian-style lager.
To be honest, people’s reactions shouldn’t really be that surprising. Due to the global dominance of awful, homogeneous, standard American lagers, cold fermented beers have often been unfairly derided and disregarded by many with a serious interest in quality, artisanal beer.
Plus, as you may have already noticed, craft breweries don’t often start up with a lager as one of their core offerings. There are myriad reasons for this, but they often boil down to just three. First, lagers take a lot longer to ferment than ales, so breweries (without revenue during their long build-out) don’t want to tie up their tank space with them. Secondly, they can be really hard to make well, and even accomplished brewers can be a little reluctant to take them on. And finally, due to stylistic focus or personal preferences, some new breweries just like to distinguish their finely crafted liquid from the fizzy, yellow swill that most people think of as ‘beer’.
Not the good folks at Steel & Oak though.
With a focus right out of the gate on noble Germanic beers like hefeweizens and pilsners, this small, New West outfit conscientiously decided to buck the new world stylistic leanings of most west coast craft brewers, and instead drew their inspiration from the storied brewing traditions of Bavaria and the Rhineland. Their Red Pilsner (which I had the pleasure of trying a test batch of months before they opened), has been an S & O staple from day one, and has been a local favourite ever since.
Comparisons with the bland, golden ‘suds’ found in your dad’s fridge when you were growing up fade pretty quickly as you take in the prominence of caramel and toffee on the nose. Bready, doughy aromas, hints of Valencia orange and lavender, and a subtle minerality all mingle effortlessly. The bright crispness that you’ve come to expect in pilsners features prominently, but what really sets S & O’s brilliant take on the style apart is their use of caramel malts.
Although utilized in some German lagers, this type of malted barley is more commonly associated with English and American ales. It undergoes a unique post-malting process that crystallizes sugars, causing them to caramelize, and stopping them from converting into sugar during the mash stage of the brewing process. Resulting in the beer’s brilliant copper colour, caramel malts take centre stage in S & O’s Red Pilsner, giving it a sweet, bready, chewy malt base, and a full, robust mouth feel. Along with the aforementioned crispness, the nutty maltiness and the sweet caramels and toffees eventually subside, culminating in a mild tartness characterized by hints of black pepper and pink grapefruit.
Widely available and ever-dependable, S & O’s Red Pilsner is a solid go-to in an ever-changing craft beer landscape. Plus, as one of their flagship beers, it’s always fresh for growler fills and glasses at their awesome New West tasting room (which you really should visit if you haven’t already). Throw in some Gai Lan with Crispy Pork Belly on Rice from Longtail Kitchen or a classic Pulled Pork Sandwich from Re-Up BBQ (both of which pair effortlessly with this beer) and you have the makings of a pretty solid Royal City outing.
Hat tip to Andres Markwart for the great photo!