Last week, Halifax's first modern-era microbrewery unveiled Propeller Pilsener, its latest in a recent slew of new brands aimed at serious beer lovers.
Bottled with the iconic ship's propeller on a blue background, Propeller Pilsener is the brainchild of head brewer Don Harms.
"Don is a Pilsener aficionado," explains John Allen, owner of the Propeller Brewing Company on Gottingen. This is the first bottled premium lager to be produced in Atlantic Canada, although some might argue with that claim. It is not Propeller's claim—it is mine.
Moosehead positions its lager (the one New Brunswickers call "Moose Green") as premium, but those in the know realize it's a standard Canadian lager, not in the realm of the Czech or Northern German styles, considered to be classic Pilsner (AKA Pilsener, or Pils for short).
Moosehead did make a decent all-barley, hoppy Clancy's Premium Lager a couple of years ago—draft only. It disappeared after a short run.
In-Bev's Labatt Blue has Pilsener on the label, but no one who knows their barley from their corn would call it a true Pilsener. Maritime's Frosted Frog was a microlager, but hardly premium—more of a toad in frog's clothing.
Small Atlantic brewers have dabbled in lager, including Gaspereau Pils from Paddy's in Kentville and Wolfville, the Oktoberfest from Pump House in Moncton and various lagers from defunct Shippey's, but Propeller seems to have taken the first crack at a bona fide Pils. Garrison also released Strong Black Lager, a stout-like German-style lager with more than eight percent alcohol.
Why has it taken so long for Atlantic breweries to follow Ontario's Upper Canada, Creemore Springs (once micro, now Molson-Coors), Steamwhistle and King Pils, or Montreal's Belle Gueule? Several reasons.
True lager beers must be cold-fermented with special lager yeast, then cold-aged in tanks to smooth out the flavours. This is called lagering, from the German word lager ("to store"). This costs money. You need space, tanks and energy. "Many craft breweries started because all that was available was lager beer from the larger breweries," explains Harms. "But you will find now that most craft brewers have at least one lager in their stable. Lager production is longer than ale production, so tying up tanks for lager beer can put a strain on full capacity breweries that specialize in ale production."
Lager beer needs cold because cold- fermentation and storage produce unique character. Warm-fermented ale has fruity esters (although mass-produced Canadian ales seldom do), while lager should not. That's why lagers are "clean and crisp."
Also, there are complex sugars (mainly raffinose) which lager yeasts eat while ale yeasts do not, making the beer drier. Lager also tends to have subtle notes of sulphur, which do not ruin the beer but, in fact, mark it as a lager.
So, does Propeller Pilsner fit the style guidelines for premium lager?
The verdict seems to be a yes. "We had a tasting panel yesterday and it fared very well compared to Czechvar and Urquell, the only Czech ones we can get here," says Allen. That's pretty esteemed company.
The beer definitely has classic Euro-lager flavours and aromas: a slightly sulphurous nose, spicy Saaz (a Czech variety) hops and malty notes. It also has light malt sweetness and a refreshing sharp bitter finish.
The only negative aspect of the new lager is availability. For now it can only be purchased (for $2 a bottle, or by the "Growler"—a carry-out jug) at Propeller's own store, but the private stores can sell it, too. "The NSLC only lists new products once a year," explains sales and marketing director Rob Poirer, "so it would be impossible to obtain a listing for every seasonal we make."
Craig Pinhey is a certified beer judge, sommelier and freelance writer. Visit him at http://frogspad.ca