Making ends meet as a New York City writer requires persistence, pluck, and plenty of alcohol. During my twenties, when my pitches disappeared inside editors’ inboxes, I paid my rent as a receptionist, file clerk, and Gucci doorman. I sold myself to science, subjecting my body to MRIs, sleep-deprivation experiments, and brain shocks. I copyedited for celebrity weeklies, wrote for doll magazines, and edited porn. Trust me when I say it was hard work.
Though the drudgery varied, the salve was the same: beer, mostly by the prime number. Two, three, five, seven—wasn’t youth supposed to be wasted? Nights meant exploring downtown dives where $10 bought relief from my crappy jobs and constant rejection. I began writing about my beloved bars, my stories in time finding homes in magazines and newspapers. I carved out a bar-writing beat, staying out till last call and awakening not long after sunrise. My writing regimen required blowtorching both ends of the candle, a scorched path to burnout. As months passed, I cared less about bars and more about beers, finding stories hidden inside the bottle.
As months passed, I cared less about bars and more about beers, finding stories hidden inside the bottle.
My focus became craft beer, and I drank in the extremes of dank double IPAs, barrel-aged imperial stouts, and high-octane brews that tasted like port. The thrilling flavors were a day-night departure from the Natty Light I shotgunned in my college dorm. I sought out new taste experiences, turning my back on mass-market lagers. You might know it as the world’s most popular beer style.
Corona, Coors Light, Bud, Miller, Tecate, Heineken—they’re all lagers, which are fermented with yeast strains that best function at colder temperatures. Compared to ales, which ferment at warmer temperatures, lagers require longer periods of fermentation. (Lagern is German for "to rest.") The result is beers that are equally crisp and refreshing. On a sweltering summer afternoon, that first sip of frosty Coors Light is as thirst quenching as boozy seltzer. This is both amazing and my main problem with mainstream lagers.
Way back in mid-nineteenth century, lagers—especially the fragrant golden pilsner that originated in what is currently the Czech Republic—were revolutionary beers. As time passed in the States, they were whittled down to appeal to the widest band of beer drinkers. These days, little differentiates the likes of Coors Light and Bud Light save for advertising campaigns. Now, megabrewers’ lagers are not shoddily made. Enormous skill is required to create colossal-scale lagers that tastes the same no matter where they’re sold, be it Alaska or Alabama. But the era of one-size-fits-all beer is ending. This month, the Brewers Association announced that, volume-wise, craft beer now accounts for 11 percent of the U.S. market and nearly 20 percent of the dollars spent on beer.
Bitter, aromatic IPAs continue leading the charge, but lately craft brewers have begun to attack brewing conglomerates’ breadwinner: the lager. New Belgium Shift, Anchor California Lager, and Sierra Nevada Nooner Pilsner are prime examples of new-breed lagers that unite flavor and refreshment in a low-alcohol format. They’re the kind of beers you drink when you want more than one—and I always want more than one.
The hopped-up pilsner drinks light, crisp, and daintily sweet, with a grassy finish that gently lingers like a bitter kiss.
In recent months, the lager most often filling my fridge is Firestone Walker’s Pivo Hoppy Pils. Under brewmaster Matt Brynildson, the Paso Robles, California, brewery has become one of America’s most medal-winning and versatile beer makers. From Velvet Merlin Oatmeal Stout to Opal Saison, Union Jack IPA and a line of experimental barrel-aged ales, Firestone Walker rarely makes a wrong turn. And the German-inspired Pivo is no exception.
Poured into a glass (yup, I always decant into glassware), the clear Pivo is as golden as a magic-hour sunset. There’s plenty of nose-prickling carbonation and fluffy eggshell foam. Ho-hum, you say. It’s just another lager. Take a taste, though, and you’ll see how Pivo supersedes the status quo. The key is German-grown hops, done in the lavish manner of new-school American IPAs. These special little flowers supply clean baseline bitterness, a gently spicy, herbaceous edge, and an elegant floral aroma. The hopped-up pilsner drinks light, crisp, and daintily sweet, with a grassy finish that gently lingers like a bitter kiss. At 5.3 percent alcohol by volume (Bud, by comparison, is 5 percent ABV), Pivo will keep you upright for the better part of a six-pack.
It’s pure cold comfort, a pilsner designed for the flavor-craving modern palate.