One of the most common, if not ubiquitous styles of beer, is taking a turn as the third annual Common Thread, the collaborative brew made by south-central Wisconsin brewers for Madison Craft Beer Week. Each year, a different style of beer is showcased for the festival, and this year's symbol of teamwork in the among local brewing scene is a Bohemian pilsner. The style is often credited with giving birth to lager brewing, and would become the most popular type of beer in the world.
"Anybody can raise a glass of our pilsner with friends and get caught up in the convivial craft beer week group-hug -- it's a beer for the people who like beer," says Scott Manning, brewmaster at Vintage Brewing, who participated in developing the Common Thread recipe. The beer debuts throughout the city on Friday, May 2 to mark the official opening of Madison Craft Beer Week.
What is it? Common Thread is a beer made through the collaboration of more than a dozen Madison area breweries.
Style: The Bohemian pilsner, sometimes referred to as a Czech pilsner, originated in the 1840s in city of Plzeň in the western regions of the Czech Republic. The style's defining characteristics include its clarity and a color that ranges from light golden to amber, topped with a dense, soft white head. These beers are medium-bodied, with more mouthfeel and a more complex and pronounced flavor than mainstream American lagers made by the big breweries.
The Bohemian pilsner offers moderate bitterness, yet there should still be balance between its malty underpinnings and its aroma and flavor. There may also be a light toasted or biscuit-like character. They will commonly range from 4-5.5% ABV.
Background: "The Bohemian pilsner can be an underappreciated style," says Kirby Nelson, brewmaster and co-owner of Wisconsin Brewing Company. After more than two dozen brewers came together to make Common Thread at the brew house of Wisconsin Brewing back on March 15, he watched over the beer as it fermented and conditioned for nearly six weeks.
"People need to be reminded that there is more to beer, and this is a style that represents why beer has become so special," Nelson says. "When pilsners were introduced, they took the world by storm and in all of the derivations now, they appeal to most of the world's beer drinkers," he says.
As the current generation of beer enthusiasts crave brews that are new, different, and out-of-the-ordinary, the pilsner gets overlooked or sometimes negatively associated with image of the homogenous products turned out by macrobreweries. Nelson says that's not a fair treatment of the Bohemian pilsner.
"It's the quintessential beer, with pleasant depth of malt character, nice clean bittering from the hops, and it isn't overdone with alcohol -- it's a style of beer that you can hang out with and relax with," he notes.
"The Bohemian pilsner is a great beer for Madison Craft Beer Week because it champions what people love most about beer. It stays truer to the spirit of the week because its appeal isn't exclusive," adds Manning.
Common Thread Bohemian Pilsner has at its core German malts and Wisconsin-grown Sterling hops. For the purist, Bohemian and Czech pilsners are made with Saaz hops; Sterling is a North American variety with qualities of bitter aromatics and flavor similar to Saaz. Adding to the local and collaborative nature of the brew is that these hops were provided from Gorst Valley Hops of Mazomanie. This beer finishes around 40 IBUs and 5.5% ABV.
While the Bohemian pilsner seems simple and straightforward, it really isn't. It's a beer that's flavorful yet balanced in its malts and hops. To achieve that requires the ingredients and brewing techniques to be spot-on. All that can be even more complicated when multiple brewers are involved, many with their own strong opinions about the style and how to make it.
Most of the brewers who collaborated on Common Thread in 2014 have much smaller setups than the system at Wisconsin Brewing. Each brewer has their own frame of reference in their knowing how their system responds, the way ingredients work in the process, and their own confidence in making sometimes quick adjustments when needed. Manning explains that when brewers come together for a collaborative beer, some changes inevitably occur. He compares it to a quarterback calling an "audible" play at the line of scrimmage with no time to pause and rewrite the script.
"It's one thing to do that in my own small brewery, making my own recipes, and taking sole responsibility for the resulting beer. It's quite another to have the majority of your local brewing colleagues involved in defining characteristics of 150 kegs of a collaborative effort hanging in the balance," Manning says. "The simple beauty of a well-made pilsner comes from the knowledge and technical skill of the brewer. There is no room for poor choices or technical errors because there is nowhere in the beer for flaws to hide."
Madison Craft Beer Week is marking its fourth year, and has become a major event that's all things for the beer enthusiast. Running over May 2-11 with hundreds of events, the festivities include unique tappings, more collaborative brews, beer dinners and special restaurant beer releases, educational events and personal appearances by brewers at parties across the city.
While Common Thread Bohemian Pilsner will be found at many of Madison's best beer bars over the 10 days of Madison Craft Beer Week, it will also be offered in the brewery taproom and brewpubs that participated in making it. This year those include: Capital Brewery, the Great Dane, the Grumpy Troll, House of Brews, Karben4 Brewing, Lake Louie Brewing, MobCraft, New Glarus Brewing, Next Door Brewing, One Barrel Brewing, O'so Brewing, Vintage Brewing and Wisconsin Brewing Company. Also taking part in brew day festivities were Gorst Valley Hops and the founders of Hop Head Beer Tours and Madison Craft Beer Week.
- Aroma: Light floral maltiness.
- Appearance: Rich, deep, yellow-golden color, with a dense, soft, lightly-tan head.
- Texture: Medium bodied, bubbly with a roundness and subtle softness.
- Taste: Great balance with hops providing a crisp bitterness than lends a clean impression to the overall flavor profile.
- Finish/Aftertaste: A firm, moderate lingering bitterness that adds to the crispness of the beer. It's has a light dryness in the finish that doesn’t stay around too long. This is just a nice, well balanced beer, that's flavorful and clean.
Glassware: The pilsner glass is best for appreciating the beer's color and effervescence. Serve it cold, below 40 °F, to bring out the clean, crisp and dry qualities.
Pairs well with: This is a very versatile beer. It's great for a range of food from burgers, veggies, to moderately spicy cuisine. When done well, it's hard to find something that doesn't go well with a full-flavored Bohemian Pilsner.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Common Thread is an excellent Bohemian pilsner. It's balanced, crisp and flavorful. More than well-made, it's a beer that speaks to the common experience shared by all those who came to brew day back on March 15, and to all those who share a pint of it with friends during Madison Craft Beer Week.
Common Thread Bohemian Pilsner is nice and pleasant with the bitterness from local Sterling hops and the firm underpinning of smooth-biscuity German malt. Its level of alcohol is kept modest at 5.5%, so it can join the conversations among friends who want to share a beer or two without getting filled-up or having palates wrecked. Kirby Nelson calls it a "companion and buddy," because of its easy drinking nature. I agree.
As a beer enthusiast who is always looking for the next new brew, this is one that caused me to step back and rethink my impression of pilsners. If you appreciate the crispness and flavor of Pilsner Urquell, a beer that's often cited as the reference point for the style, then you'll be pleasantly surprised with Common Thread. After tasting it just prior to this year's release and personally witnessing the brew day, I appreciate the beer even more for all that went into making it.
To think, these brewers make beer day in-and-out for a competitive Madison market, and they all were able to come together to collaborate and solve problems on a tricky beer to create. It was fun see them get really excited about meeting those challenges, as well as how they appreciate the rich history of the style. Now we all get to enjoy the fruits of their labor.