The basics aren’t basic: Pilsner

Josef Groll had a big head. Arrogance was one of the brewer’s defining characteristics. His own father dubbed him “the rudest man in Bavaria.” But even Groll couldn’t have imagined — when he brewed the first Pilsner on October 5, 1842, in a small Bohemian city — his new pale lager would become a global mainstay.

The people of Pilsen, in what’s now Czechia, recruited Groll to create an alternative to the terrible ales they regularly dumped. They built a state-of-the-art brewery, now called Pilsner Urquell. Czech Pilsners retain much of the sweetness, hefty Bavarian malt mouthfeel, spicy bitterness from Saaz hops and golden color of the original.

Fair State Pils can with a full pilsner glass next to it
Fair State Pils draws on aspects of the north German and original Czech Pilsner. (Fair State)

In the late 1800s, advances in refrigeration and yeast accelerated the style’s popularity. Pilsner spread, adjusting to local tastes, agriculture and water. First it moved south into Austria and Bavaria where it spawned the Helles lager. Then it went north, creating the crispier northern German Pilsner and another spinoff: Dortmund export.

What about now? Unfortunately, Pilsner is no longer seen as Groll’s revolution, but too often as a macro style that breweries carry as a gateway to more exciting styles.

In this column, I want to occasionally revisit the basics, highlighting a Minnesota offering that’s a standard bearer of the style. For Pilsner, I spoke with Niko Tonks, founding brewer at Fair State Brewing Cooperative. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, runs the gamut between what the beer was and what it might become again.

James Figy: Are Pilsners nowadays just something for the not-a-beer-drinker to sip?

Niko Tonks: Pilsners, in particular, are gaining ground. We always have Pils in the taproom, and when we have a second Pilsner, it often moves faster than IPAs at that time. But Pilsner is just one kind of pale lager. The lager in general has further to go. 

JF: You once said brewers, rather than being beer snobs, prefer pale lager. Why?

NT: Taste among brewers is a diverse thing. But it’s a truism that the longer you’re in the industry, the more likely you drink pale lager at the end of the day, oftentimes not even craft beer. 

At a base level, it tastes good, and you can have two or three. If you’re working in the “kettle sour mines” all day, cutting bags of fruit puree into a fermenter, you’ll probably crave a “regular beer.” On a technical level, Pilsners require consistency and are difficult to do well. That’s another truism.

JF: What makes Pilsners so difficult?

NT: The old story is there are fewer things to hide behind. That’s true to an extent. Material selection is important, but that applies to any style. Really, reaching the pinnacle of IPA is as hard as getting to the pinnacle of Pilsner. 

Fair State Brewing Cooperative's taproom in Minneapolis
Fair State Brewing Cooperative is a Union brewery with a Northeast Minneapolis taproom and St. Paul brewhouse. (Fair State)

But the opportunity cost is huge: In our peak season, we could put two or three batches of IPA through a tank in the time it takes to do one of Pils.

We use some old school, continental techniques, too. Much American brewing equipment isn’t set up for them, though many new breweries are building in these capabilities. You need to do a temperature program mash or decoction if you want to get to the next level. 

And we keep Pils simple, which is the nature of the beast. As a brewer, you have to resist complicating recipes for beers like this.

JF: Which pale lager ancestor does it most closely resemble?

NT: Fair State Pils is a mashup of the Czech and northern German versions. It’s maltier and less dry than the latter because we use Bohemian Pilsner malt. But we pair it with a lot of classic German aroma hops from the Hallertau region of Bavaria, so it’s more bitter and hop aromatic than the former. We aimed for an authentic continental style.

JF: Why have you focused so much on craft lagers, like Pils, Crankin’ Foamers, Union Lager and Vienna Lager?

Exterior of Fair State Brewing Cooperative in Minneapolis
While Fair State received early attention for its sour program, including the ubiquitous, hibiscus-infused Roselle, the brewery’s focus remains on low-ABV lagers and other easy-drinking styles. (Fair State)

NT: Our concept when we opened in 2014 was to make low-alcohol beers. Early on, our sour beers got more attention, so we leaned into that. And we’ve definitely chased a trend or two. 

But during the pandemic, we had some downtime to think. We realized we’re technically proficient enough to make almost any style, but people can really tell when you’re excited and care about the beer. 

We’ll keep brewing as many lagers as possible, and if that’s our niche, we’ll still sleep well.

JF: Will the industry overall trend in that direction?

NT: Everything’s possible on small scales. To stay alive in Minnesota’s beer scene, most breweries must cater to everybody. I hope we see greater differentiation, with go-to places for English pub ales or brown ales or Belgians.

But I take it with a grain of salt. My first brewing job was at Live Oak Brewing in Austin, Texas, which makes Pilz — a very Czech Pilsner. Every year since, articles have said, “This is the year of the craft lager!” The only difference now is I sort of believe it.


James Figy is a writer and beer enthusiast based in St. Paul. In Mankato, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University and a World Beer Cruise captain’s jacket from Pub 500.

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Mankato Magazine.

Lara Parker: BuzzFeed staff lister extraordinaire

Indian Creek graduate Lara Parker is shown at the Los Angeles office of the popular website BuzzFeed. Parker worked at BuzzFeed as an intern and now has a job as a staff writer for the company. (Courtesy Photo)

Indian Creek graduate Lara Parker is shown at the Los Angeles office of the popular website BuzzFeed. Parker worked at BuzzFeed as an intern and now has a job as a staff writer for the company. (Courtesy Photo)

As a staff writer at BuzzFeed, Lara Parker spends her days figuring out how to make list articles—”listicles”— that will go viral. And she loves it. Just last year, though, she was a recent UIndy grad trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life.

I was working at a PR agency at the time, and I absolutely hated it. I would spend most of my day wondering if this was what I was supposed to do for the rest of my life, and if so, how I was supposed to get through that, because I just felt like this cannot be what the real world is like.

When she started posting on BuzzFeed, Lara’s content kept getting promoted from the community page to the main homepage. Eventually, she scored an internship in L.A., at the end of which she was hired on as a staff writer. She loves working there because of the variety of things the website publishes.

We’re like the place that everyone can go to for all sorts of things. If you want to read about hard news, you can go to BuzzFeed; if you want to learn about politics, you can go to BuzzFeed; if you want to get recipes, you can go to BuzzFeed; and if you want to look at pictures of cats, you can go to BuzzFeed.

On top of the softer, 90s nostalgia lists that she loves writing, Lara wrote a bold essay about her personal health on BuzzFeed. It’s entitled “Learning To Love Life Without Sex.”

Check out my full article from The Reporter-Times about her, and the BuzzFeed itself.

 

Essay advice from Franz Kafka

When it comes to fiction, Franz Kafka is amazing. He was ahead of his time, and in some respects, is ahead of ours. However, he wasn’t that much of an essayist, according to some personal reflections in Franz Kafka: Diaries, 1910-1923.

In his journalKafka comments on some lines from Goethe, saying:

The difficulties of bringing to an end even a short essay lie not in the fact that we feel the end of the piece demands a fire which the actual content up to that point has not been able to produce out of itself, they arise from the fact that even the shortest essay demands of the author a degree of self-satisfaction and of being lost in himself out of which it is difficult to step into everyday air without great determination and an external incentive, so that, before the essay is rounded to a close and one might quietly slip away, one bolts, driven by unrest, and then the end must be completed from the outside with hands which must not only do the work but hold on as well.

Writing personal, memoir-style essays is not my thing either. It’s not that I haven’t tried it. It’s just that I always think it’s boring, that no one would want to read about my life. I feel like there’s no great, didactic point to be made of my own mundane experiences.

I feel sort of like Joaquin Phoenix on Fresh Air. In the middle of telling Terry Gross about his acting method, he stopped himself and complained:

It’s not interesting. It’s just so stupid. … If I was driving and I heard this, I’d be – I’d change the channel. … I’d be like, why – can you shut up?

 I have the same anxiety. But I’m not a movie star—or anything else important or interesting. So on the rare occasion when I sit down to write something personal or introspective, I choke. But I’m going to think about Kafka from now on and try not to bolt at the end. Instead of leaving it up to outside hands, I’ll do the work and try to keep holding on.

Lugar and Nunn speak at UIndy

Steve Inskeep, host of NPR's Morning Edition, shows a video highlighting the senators' careers and explaining the milieu in which they served.

Steve Inskeep, host of NPR’s Morning Edition, shows a video highlighting the senators’ careers and explaining the milieu in which they served. (James Figy/The Reflector)

In case you missed it, former Senators Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn spoke at the University of Indianapolis on Feb. 25. I had the privilege of talking to them, sitting in on the conversation and photographing the “Diplomacy in a Dangerous World” event. Lugar and Nunn spoke about turning nuclear weapons that were aimed at U.S. cities during the Cold War into fuel for U.S. power plants.

It is a parable of hope, Nunn said, like “beating swords into plowshares.”

Steve Inskeep, host of NPR’s Morning Edition and a Hoosier native, moderated the event. Before introducing the senators to the audience, he mirthfully noted, “These are gentlemen who are deeply respected for their intellectual ability and their commitment to their country, despite having served a long time in the United States Congress.”

You can read my full article here.