Positively Pilsner Madison's lager legacy


“My favorite brew ever,” says Dean Coffey, brewmaster of the Ale Asylum, speaking of the full experience, not of the beer itself, “was a car-warm Pabst Blue Ribbon after a daylong hike out of the Grand Canyon in a freaky flash flood snowy sleet storm.”

PBR, MGD and Blatz are bohunk beloveds, American lagers (which include pilsners and bocks) of the macro vein. Germans brought lagers to America with their early nineteenth-century emigration. Beer barons meléed in Milwaukee, with the Miller, Pabst and Schlitz families dominating the market.

Teutons are titans of the tun, lords of lagering; their largess largely from historic access to strategic resources. Lagers flourished in Germany and Wisconsin partly due to surfeit supplies of ice and caves to facilitate cold fermentation. In the forests of the north grew a renewable crop of barrels-in-the-making; trees kept coopers occupied.

Madison-area breweries have produced pilsners and other lagers since statehood. Huber has been continuously brewing since 1848, Gray’s since 1856 and Cross Plains since 1863. Madison’s Hausmann and Fauerbach started in 1848 only to finally bow out in 1966 (Gray’s serves the old styles at their Verona Tied House).

Madison’s and Dane County’s regional breweries have preserved the traditional recipes and flavors. Diverse from light to dark, from thin to thick, through thick and thin, a chilled European or American lager can be most refreshing on a hot summer’s eve.

How They Do It

Lager yeasts ferment on the bottom at temperatures near freezing, as opposed to warmer top-fermenting ales.

How to Serve It

The glass is called a pilsner, after the beer that goes best in it. Thin-walled, sometimes with a disc base, with condensation that’s cold to the touch. Cool it … in your fridge, or put some on ice.

What to Pair with It

A lusty lager will wick the wicked heat off a Thai Pad Bai Ka Prao. Cheese it with a hearty havarti. Boil your brats and onions in it. Plus a pilsner goes great with a hot or veggie dog, relish and mustard.

Where to Get It

Great Dane has two top-notch pilsners, a charming Czech called Peck’s and a genuine German. In the summer you might find a tri-pepper pils. Capital Brewery’s beers are all lagers (except for their new Island Wheat); find them, especially the Special Pilsner, in bottles at liquor stores everywhere. Try a Hausmann or Fauerbach on tap at the Gray’s Tied House. To paraphrase a friend’s sainted grandfather, “Do everything with a pilsner. Just don’t take it in the can.”

Entertain with It

Hey, hey! Take me out to a ball game and pour me a cool one. Or watch the Boys of Summer streaming on the web. Damn, I miss Jack Brickhouse and Harry Carey. I guess Uecker’ll do.

Kent Palmer is circulation director for Madison Magazine, a former Madison alderperson, and a Madison beer lover. He can be reached at kpalmer@madisonmagazine.com.

Madison Magazine - August 2007
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