The next time I went to the beer store, I took with me an index card with a list of porters and pilsners. This turned out to be a bit of a funny combination, because they are, of course, very different styles of beer. On the other hand, it was a nice pair to have in the house, because between the two of them they cover a lot of ground. After all, I was checking these off my list of versatile beers. Porter is said to be good with roasted or smoked food, sausages, blackened fish, meatloaf, steak, and (intriguingly) brownies or vanilla ice cream. Pilsner is supposed to go with Indian or Vietnamese or Thai food, tinned sardines or kippers, salmon, shrimp, caviar, proscuitto or other ham, and mixed hors d'oeuvres.
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I came home with Samuel Smith's Taddy Porter and Fuller's London Porter, which are both brewed in the UK. Little did I know that, at least according to the folks at Beer Advocate, I was carrying home excellent examples of the style. I liked it: sweeter, deeper, not hoppy; and Mark did too. We compared them, and decided that Samuel Smith's is rounder, and Fuller's dryer; I liked Samuel Smith's, but it's more expensive.
That was all well and good and I was ready to check "porter" off my list, but we had one more thing to try: this notion that porter was a perfect match for vanilla ice cream. "We have some in the freezer," I said. "Let's try it."
"Weird," said Mark. "It's like the beer milkshake in Travels with Charley."
I scooped a bowl of our ordinary grocery-store vanilla ice cream for each of us and opened one of the bottles of the Fuller's, pouring it between two jelly glasses. We took a bite of ice cream and washed it down with a sip of beer and went:
This was, to put it bluntly, a revolution. The stuff went with vanilla ice cream the way that good strong espresso does, or hot fudge sauce. Amazing. It didn't take long for us to polish it off.
The next time, we experimented with a one-vessel version: we made a porter-ice cream float, and a porter affogato (affogato is something you usually do with espresso -- you pour it over vanilla ice cream and eat it with a spoon). The porter-ice cream float was prettier in the glass (WATCH OUT FOR THE HEAD) but it felt like the beer-to-ice-cream ratio was too high. We liked the affogato better -- maybe even more than the espresso kind, as it doesn't melt the ice cream as fast.
I'm telling you, the porter affogato is your next fancy-but-super-easy summer dessert. The only thing it lacks is an appropriate garnish to make up for how ugly it is in the bowl. Maybe a good English shortbread cookie would do the trick.
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The pilsners we brought back were basic examples of the style: Pilsner Urquell (which is sort of the "original" pilsner) and Summit Pilsener, which is local and therefore fairly easy to find around here, sometimes at a discount or as part of a sampler pack. I was familiar with the pilsner style and have had both beers before, but we wanted to compare them. Both are good, and in fact they were very similar, but I thought Urquell was a little bit better. Possibly I would not have been able to tell the difference had it been a blind tasting.
On a second trip we brought home a single bottle of Czechvar, which is what the Czech Budweiser brewery has to call its Budvar when it sells it in the United States (go figure). We decided it was fine but with so many pilsners out there, we would not seek it out again.
That same trip, Mark pointed out a variety 12-pack from Spaten, a Munich-based brewery whose beers are widely distributed in the United States. "This has a hefeweizen in it -- Franziskaner Weissbier -- and it's on sale." We took it home and decided it was indeed a good find. It also included the doppelbock Optimator, another nice beer. (I'm not ready to study doppelbocks yet, so I simply considered it a nice preview of the style. Trying to focus here.)
More interestingly for my purposes, the box included four bottles of Munich Premium Lager, which at first we took to be a type of pilsner. The Brewmaster's Table reviews it in the same section as pilsners. But on additional research, we realized that it is not a pilsner, but a related type called Helles, aka Munich Lager. I was interested, because it reminded me of one of my favorite beers I'd had in the past few months, the local craft brew Hell from the deservingly trendy Twin Cities outfit, Surly Brewing. (The name is a pun: Surly's other beers have names like Furious and Cynic and Abrasive and Schadenfreude, and of course "hell" is German for "light" and the name of the style "helles" is related.)
Surly Hell is supposed to be not a helles but a Zwickel, which is a bit hoppier, but there's a lot of overlap in the classification, and in any case the world of Helles/Zwickel/Keller biers is distinct from the world of pilsners. After a few evenings spent in the company of Spaten Munich Premium Lager, plus a little Hell, I decided that Helles lager is the pilsner I've been waiting for my whole life.
And although that is not, on the whole, particularly insightful, I was excited to learn it. First of all, it counts as something I've really learned, giving me so far two new things I didn't know before:
- Porter + vanilla ice cream = YUM
- When it comes to clear yellow beer, forget the pilsner and give me a Munich-style helles lager.
Second of all, since it's more obscure, it now gives me something to say whenever I want to sound like a genuine beer snob. "Oh, I drink a pilsner now and then, but I much prefer the Munich breweries' take on that basic style."
I am planning to print out a list of top Helles lagers and carry it around for future reference. You never know what you might meet in a restaurant.
Next up: Belgian fruited lambic and saison.