Judging the qualities of a brewer

Discussion in 'Beer Talk' started by HopsAreDaMan, Mar 17, 2019.

  1. HopsAreDaMan

    HopsAreDaMan Defender (667) Jul 28, 2015 Missouri

    I've heard a number of times that one simple way to determine if a brewer knows their 'stuff' is to try their pilsner first, as it is one of the hardest beers to brew well.

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  2. nesarebad

    nesarebad Devotee (448) Feb 4, 2012 Massachusetts

    What if they don't brew a pilsner? Cantillon is big time f'd...
  3. HopsAreDaMan

    HopsAreDaMan Defender (667) Jul 28, 2015 Missouri

    Right. I'm making a number of assumptions: do they even brew a pilsner, do I like AND know what a good pilsner even tastes like? They are perhaps the big ones. Further, there are questions like: do they mostly brew sours, or stouts, or IPAs, etc. And so aren't interested in brewing a good pilsner. Still, for many breweries that have a, um, broad or diverse portfolio, it seems like a good approach--that is, if it is indeed hard to brew a good pilsner, and if that way demonstrates that they understand the fundamentals of brewing.
    BeastOfTheNortheast likes this.
  4. nesarebad

    nesarebad Devotee (448) Feb 4, 2012 Massachusetts

    Some breweries brew good pilsners, some are the BEST breweries in the world and don't even brew a pilsner. So, what's the point? :thinking_face:
  5. Sarah_Bearah

    Sarah_Bearah Initiate (177) Feb 5, 2019 California
    Society Trader

    I think the hallmark of a good brewer is the ability to instill nuance and balance into every beer, from Pilsner to Porter and everything in between. It shouldn't matter what brewing passions they are following at the moment as long as they're brewing dynamic beer that's both interesting and delicious.
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  6. Zorro

    Zorro Poo-Bah (4,453) Dec 25, 2003 California


    Brewers most Valuable thing is their reputations.

    Stone lost theirs. Lagunitas kept theirs.
  7. drtth

    drtth Poo-Bah (4,006) Nov 25, 2007 Pennsylvania

    Why then you can’t apply that guideline and will use another.
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  8. drtth

    drtth Poo-Bah (4,006) Nov 25, 2007 Pennsylvania

    Why the point is that one of the beers they brew is a Pilsner you can judge them on it because it’s harder to conceal brewing faults in a Pilsner than say an IPA. If they don’t brew a Pilsner you use something else.
  9. drtth

    drtth Poo-Bah (4,006) Nov 25, 2007 Pennsylvania

    Perhaps what you missed is a bit of background. A Pilsner is widely considered by many pro brewers themselves to be a measure of a brewer’s skill because there’s “no place to hide the flaws” as can be done with many other beer styles.
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  10. drtth

    drtth Poo-Bah (4,006) Nov 25, 2007 Pennsylvania

    Stone didn’t sell to big beer and Lagunitas did. Hmmm, lots of breweries have lost their reputation then.
  11. drtth

    drtth Poo-Bah (4,006) Nov 25, 2007 Pennsylvania

    I’d agree with that general rule.

    I’ve heard if from some pro brewers who do lots of really good beers that the challenge is that pilsners is there’s no place to hide the faults. One brewer compared it to wearing a skimpy bathing suit. You have to have a beach body because people can easily tell if you’ve got six pack abs or not.
  12. dennis3951

    dennis3951 Savant (919) Mar 6, 2008 New Jersey

    When did that happen?
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  13. hopfenunmaltz

    hopfenunmaltz Meyvn (1,465) Jun 8, 2005 Michigan

    I read that when Mattias Heller-Trum went to brewing school at Weihenstephan he was taught how to make a Pilsner. The message was that if he could master that, he could brew anything. He does a good job on Sclenkerla's Rauchbier. ;-)

    Pilsners have a simple ingredient list, essentially Pils malt and Noble hops. The process is very involved. There are many opportunities to screw up.
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  14. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (4,151) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania

    You should drink the 'lightest' beer (light in flavor) that the brewer produces. A Pilsner would be a good choice. You want to see if the brewer is capable of brewing a beer with a proper balance to the beer with no technical brewing flaws. As has been previously discussed 'bigger' beers (e.g., IPAs, Sours, Imperial Stouts,...) can obfuscate aspects (e.g., brewing flaws).

    A good brewer should be capable of brewing a tasty, well balanced 'basic' beer.

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  15. islay

    islay Aspirant (288) Jan 6, 2008 Minnesota

    I hear that claim frequently. Brewers (of the professional or home variety), is there a reason that people make that claim about pilsners instead of other pale-in-color lager styles such as helles, Dortmunder export, American adjunct lager, or light lager? Is it just some combination of the fact that pilsner is a big name in beer styles and that the other styles are uncommonly tackled by homebrewers and craft breweries? Or is there something special specifically about pilsners that makes them difficult to execute and a good indicator of brewer skill? I'd tend to think that the relatively heavy hopping in pilsners compared to the other styles I mentioned would be a good way to distract from minor flaws and that the perceptible diacetyl that's permitted in at least Bohemian pilsners gives brewers an out for one of the most common beer faults, regardless of whether it's intended in any given brew.
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  16. CheapHysterics

    CheapHysterics Aspirant (228) Apr 1, 2009 Pennsylvania

    Were you thinking about evaluating the quality of the brewers at Cantillon and them not brewing a pilsener was standing in your way? :wink:

    I know you were being facetious, but it is a good rule of thumb for evaluating new breweries. One that's been around for 120 years though? Their reputation is already established.
    HopsAreDaMan likes this.
  17. hopfenunmaltz

    hopfenunmaltz Meyvn (1,465) Jun 8, 2005 Michigan

    Helles is difficult.

    AAL can have aromas of corn and yeast esters. Dortmunders have similar hopping rates to German Pilsners, and more mineral character.
  18. SABERG

    SABERG Poo-Bah (2,130) Sep 16, 2007 Massachusetts

    Building of of Jacks comments, a local brewer of over 20 years said of his ESB
    "its a canvas that any flaw will show up, that's why I love to brew it" For the record the ESB is always excellent, as well as the breath of the other styles they brew.
    So I always head for the basics to form my opinion on a brewer.
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  19. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (4,151) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania

    As I stated in post #15:

    "You should drink the 'lightest' beer (light in flavor) that the brewer produces. A Pilsner would be a good choice."

    So, it does not have to specifically be a Pilsner but a Pilsner would be an acceptable beer to judge to brewer/brewery.

    Not all breweries heavily hop their Pilsners. For example Sierra Nevada produces the Pilsner of Summerfest and that beer is not heavily hopped - low/moderate bitterness (28 IBUs) and subtle hop flavor/aroma.

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  20. rightcoast7

    rightcoast7 Disciple (329) Apr 2, 2011 Maine

    I’ve heard this plenty of times but think it’s dumb. If a brewer can’t brew a good Pilsner, what that tells you is that he or she can’t brew a good Pilsner. No more, no less. If that same brewer brews a world class IPA or stout or porter or Belgian quad, etc., I’m supposed to think less of them because they don’t brew that one style well? What if a world class pilsner brewer can’t brew anything else, I’m supposed to think they’re a better brewer than the world class IPA or lambic brewer? Nonsense.

    This is nothing more than a way for certain purists to look down at others who may not share their view on what constitutes the “correct” or “best” way to make beer.

    I don’t buy this either. Any experienced beer drinker should be able to tell the difference between a world class IPA or stout and a half assed one that is hiding obvious flaws. World class beer is world class beer, regardless of style. I’d venture that most elite lager brewers do not also brew world class IPAs and stouts. That doesn’t make one skill set superior to the other, just different.
    nw2571, Roguer and ElmerLovejoy like this.
  21. drtth

    drtth Poo-Bah (4,006) Nov 25, 2007 Pennsylvania

    You really should be explaining all that to the pros who told us these things. (And to the other folks with brewing experience who share the same opinions.)

    BTW if you are an Industry professional shouldn't you be getting a banner activated on your avatar?
  22. Squire

    Squire Poo-Bah (2,306) Jul 16, 2015 Mississippi
    Society Trader

    That's what I've been doing for a lot of years now, or asking for their Golden Ale if they don't brew lagers. The simple beers are often the most difficult to pull off technically so how well they do that is my measure of what they can do with other styles.
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  23. rightcoast7

    rightcoast7 Disciple (329) Apr 2, 2011 Maine

    Were any of the brewers who told you this known for their world class IPAs, stouts, lambic, abbey, etc styles? Because I also think there’s a jealousy component at play. As in, “sure, Tree House gets all the hype, but I’m really just as good. I mean, can they even brew a decent Pilsner?” This sentiment coming from brewers doesn’t make it any less wrong.

    A lot of chefs will tell you that you aren’t a real chef unless you’ve mastered the French mother sauces, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still make world class tacos that would knock the socks off the tacos made by a classically trained French chef. If I’m in the mood for tacos, guess who’s the better chef?

    The whole idea just smacks of old world snobbery and a bit of sour grapes.
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  24. islay

    islay Aspirant (288) Jan 6, 2008 Minnesota

    If a style is capable of covering up or distracting from flaws, that's a big plus for the style. If a style allows flaws to shine through, that's a big minus. I used to say that one of the great things about imperial stouts is that even the bad ones tend to be good because the sheer mass of flavor tends to cover up any problems. I actually don't say that much anymore, since some of the sickly sweet, flavoring-adjunct-laden examples can be very bad indeed, but what's making some of those beers so bad is flavors not historically associated with beer as well as intentionally (not inadvertently) low attenuation.

    We should indeed keep in mind that many breweries rarely brew lagers. If you're going to employ this sort of standard, those breweries probably are better judged by a difficult-to-execute ale style (golden ale? bitter?).

    I do think brewing flawless beer is a major test of brewer technical skill, but, especially in craft beer, people tend to respond more to the presence of welcome flavors (based on their own palate preferences) than the absence of offensive flavors, and that's okay. It's not good enough merely to be perfect (i.e., completing without error); you need to give people an extra pop of flavor that they'll actively enjoy. I think people should keep in mind that technical perfection is a way (but not the only way) to judge brewer skill, but hedonic enjoyment is ultimately the best way to judge the beer itself, outside of a BJCP-type competitive setting. If you don't mind, heck maybe even enjoy, a little bit of perceptible diacetyl, then, even if the style guidelines forbid it, don't let that stop you from loving a beer. On the flip side, many a technically sound, flawlessly executed beer is bland and boring (Budweiser, anyone?).

    "Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without." - Confucius
  25. drtth

    drtth Poo-Bah (4,006) Nov 25, 2007 Pennsylvania

  26. meefmoff

    meefmoff Devotee (417) Jul 6, 2014 Massachusetts

    I do understand what you're saying a bit, especially regarding the notion that it's silly (and indeed snobby) to criticize an expert taco maker for not also being an expert at other things. But I'd offer another cooking example that comes without the historical importance/snobbery angle and is more comparable to the brewing example.

    I watch a lot of cooking shows, and rather than something fancy like mother sauces, the equivalent version of judging a brewer by their pilsner seems to be the ability to properly fry an egg. Nothing fancy, just a very basic dish that deceptively takes a lot of skill to do perfectly and is widely relevant to the repertoire of most chefs.

    A related point is that cooking is more multi-faceted than brewing, so I don't think it's actually analagous to compare the taco guy to a french chef and his ability to make mother sauces. I think the equivalent comparison would be whether the taco guy can make a tortilla that tastes good without anything else on it. Or whether a pizza guy can make dough that you'd be happy to eat without the cheese and sauce on it.
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  27. nc41

    nc41 Poo-Bah (1,938) Sep 25, 2008 North Carolina

    I think that a well made Lager is a thing of beauty, I don’t know a brew pub here that doesn’t offer one up in their rotation. You need to offer up lighter styles to appeal to the many, even brew pubs I’ve been to that are famous for their ipas and such brew up a nice Pils. I think it shows off a brewers skills, but it’s also time consuming and probably costs more for not a whole lot of glory.
  28. HopsAreDaMan

    HopsAreDaMan Defender (667) Jul 28, 2015 Missouri

    Wow, this was more responses than I was expecting, let alone hoping for. Thank you all for your responses.

    years ago my buddy and I brewed a handful of batches, and we got lots of compliment s. We never brewed a lager, though, let alone apilsner. recently I heard someone I consider to be experienced in craft beer mention what I posted i n my OP. And got me wondering how much I value there was to that approach.
    I certainly appreciate the thoughts of those that think it is not the only, or best approach. :slight_smile:

    However, I think there is credibility to the most frequent reason given here: with a pilsner, being that it is so simple, it is difficult to hide any flaws (not impossible). SO, if you can brew a good pilsner, it is a good indicator that you understand the fundamentals of brewing .

    I have limited typing ability right now. I apologize in advance for any typos or short responses. :grin:
  29. nc41

    nc41 Poo-Bah (1,938) Sep 25, 2008 North Carolina

    Along the same line, aals catch a lot of flack, but it takes some serious skills and very expensive equipment to make them so marvelously consistent. I’m sure it’s not so easy and I’d assume a catastrophic event in the volume they brew if a batch goes south for whatever reason, or not even completely off just a small miss. With these light lagers there’s not much room for error.
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  30. rightcoast7

    rightcoast7 Disciple (329) Apr 2, 2011 Maine

    This article quotes brewers talking about what a great style the Pilsner is and how it can be difficult to brew. No one suggested that the failure to be able to brew a great one means you aren’t a good brewer or don’t brew other styles exceptionally well. And that is sort of what you and others are suggesting when you say that a pilsner is the only way to truly test a brewer’s skill. The implication is that any brewer can make an excellent IPA or stout or whatever, but only the great ones can brew great Pilsner. That’s what I’m calling out as nonsense. If everyone could brew ale styles exceptionally well, we’d certainly see them doing it, particularly since that’s where most of the money is in brewing today.

    Much of what passes for conventional wisdom is parroted for decades by professionals in a particular industry without it ever being rigorously analyzed or challenged. Much of what passes for conventional wisdom also turns out to be wrong.

    I would suggest we’d be better served by evaluating brewers on the styles they most enjoy brewing and most excel at, not judging them harshly for failing to do something they may not even have a particular interest in just because the old guard considers it the epitome of the art form.

    I can appreciate this point and agree there isn’t a perfect analogy from cooking to brewing, but brewing is pretty multifaceted as well. A Pilsner is as different from an IPA as a taco is from ratatouille IMO. I just think we are wasting our time judging brewers of modern American ale styles by how well they brew an old school European style. Jack’s Abby, for example, does a great job with crisp clean lagers, but their IPLs and stouts are pretty average. Does that make them more talented brewers just because of the style they love and elected to focus on? I would suggest that the reason more brewers aren’t better at brewing pilsners has more to do with them not spending a lot of time trying to perfect their Pilsner, rather than them just not being good brewers in general.
    ElmerLovejoy, nc41 and HopsAreDaMan like this.
  31. HopsAreDaMan

    HopsAreDaMan Defender (667) Jul 28, 2015 Missouri

    Another assumption I am making in my OP is that the brewer in question is fairly new to the public, and thus doesn't really have a reputation. So, Cantillion? We already know they are quality brewers.:grin:
  32. HopsAreDaMan

    HopsAreDaMan Defender (667) Jul 28, 2015 Missouri

    Agreed. I think the absence of a pilsner in their portfolio is not an indicator that they are NOT good brewers. Just that if they can brew a good pilsner, they know some (perhaps many) of the fundamentals.

    And believe me, I am with you on the whole skepticism of the so-called wisdo m of the 'old guard'.:slight_smile:
    rightcoast7 likes this.
  33. nc41

    nc41 Poo-Bah (1,938) Sep 25, 2008 North Carolina

    I don’t brew, I don’t understand brewing. But... the beers I get from breweries that are Lager only kinda places include Red Oak and Old Mecklenburg. The brewers are classically trained with many years experience brewing in Germany before picking up here in NC. It’s what they were taught and now teach so it’s really what these guys know, and not being able to brew an outstanding Pils might simply come down to training and experience. No doubt they could crush an ipa is they chose to do so.
  34. HopsAreDaMan

    HopsAreDaMan Defender (667) Jul 28, 2015 Missouri

    Another reason I find this interesting is from a n education standpoint. Perhaps I am restating here: Although understanding fundamentals (and demonstrating knowledge of them) isn't everything, it is a really good indicator of competence in that 'field' IMJ.
    herrburgess likes this.
  35. herrburgess

    herrburgess Meyvn (1,100) Nov 4, 2009 South Carolina

    agree that it's nice -- if not necessarily essential -- to have some kind of baseline. otherwise consumers are frequently at the mercy of things like hype, rarity, or (worst of all) review sites like Untappd. how many times have I read there about a world-class Pilsner, "eh...it's a Pilsner..."
  36. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (4,151) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania

    Dale, I would suggest that homebrewing an AAL is indeed a challenging task. I have never brewed a contemporary AAL beer but I do homebrew a Classic American Pilsner (20% adjunct - corn/rice) every year and attention to detail and patience is indeed needed here.

    In all fairness I exhibit attention to detail when brewing my other beers (e.g., ales) but there are just more steps in producing a beer such as a CAP so more places for things to potentially 'go wrong'.

  37. nc41

    nc41 Poo-Bah (1,938) Sep 25, 2008 North Carolina

    Yep, no one stands in line for Pils release.
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  38. nc41

    nc41 Poo-Bah (1,938) Sep 25, 2008 North Carolina

    Time is money, so it takes more time and space so it’s not a cheap beer to make even without dumping in 5 lbs of hops. I think more importantly even a great Pils flies under the radar, so your not going to have lines at your doors, or lines for special release cans. You won’t be famous for brewing great lagers , but you will have a successful business if your doing it right. Old Meck and Red Oak do it right and they are busy, so people who vote it’s their money are voting positively. I didn’t think Red Oak would be all that popular to be honest and boy was I wrong.
  39. rightcoast7

    rightcoast7 Disciple (329) Apr 2, 2011 Maine

    Probably fair to assume they could brew a decent IPA, but it’s a stretch to assume they’d “crush” it. Plenty of lager-centric brewers have also brewed IPAs (think Sam Adams or Jacks Abby), but I doubt anyone thinks those breweries’ attempts at IPA are the epitome of the style. Which is sort of my point. Doing anything really well takes skill and a lot of practice. Putting lager brewers on some sort of pedestal and declaring them better than brewers who focus on other styles is silly.
    ElmerLovejoy and HopsAreDaMan like this.
  40. stevepat

    stevepat Crusader (768) Mar 12, 2013 California

    @rightcoast7, it seems to me that where you and the pro-pilsner-as-metric folks are talking past eachother is that you are hearing them say "if a brewer doesn't/can't make a good pilsner then they are a bad brewer". But I think what they are really trying to say is "if you find yourself in an unknown brewery, trying to evaluate if it's worth staying around for a few or moving on, giving their pilsner (or other light and simply flavored style) a try will tell you a lot about the technical skill of the brewers".

    I personally tend to ask the bartender what they are known for or what the brewers' favorite beer is. I also just tend to go with what looks interesting to me, in my mind a good brewer is someone who can consistently produce balanced beers in whatever style. If I try a beer you brewed in a conventional style and it is downright bad I am not likely to explore more or return because I can tell that, at the very least, you don't have enough pride to dump a failed batch and instead will hope to just pass it off to the consumer.