Note: This is my first time contributing to The Session, a monthly blogging challenge for beer aficionados. For The Session #125, Mark Linder chose the topic of SMaSH (single malt and single hop) beers.
SMaSH beers–those brews marrying a Single Malt variety and a Single Hop variety–are often promoted as something that’s interesting to try but not particularly versatile. As a homebrewer, I’ve usually thought of them as a tool to explore ingredients, perhaps fun as a technical gimmick but not necessarily a pathway to truly exceptional beer. Sure, you could get some good stuff, but it would lack complexity and get boring after a few pints. SMaSH beers were a way to turn out some pale ales with funky new hop varieties, but these were only a brief stop along the journey to a more worthy recipe. Don’t even bother entering them in a BJCP competition, because they won’t hold up well relative to their rivals with a longer ingredient list.
Then I discovered the Bohemian pilsner.
When I first sampled American-style craft beer, the cheap American lagers of my early days faded into mental oblivion. Why even bother with a watery fizz-drink, when you could blast your taste buds with a triple imperial IPA touting 190 IBUs, 12 percent alcohol, and five varieties of hops? Or what about a delightful English porter, with its malty backbone and slightly fruity yeast character? Clear beers were for quitters and college students. European lagers were mildly intriguing, but typified by badly aged and skunky six packs in green bottles. Why bother with that, when there was a world of fresh local craft brew and homebrew to explore?
Not too long ago, though, I decided to dip my homebrewing toes into the lagered waters. Bohemian pilsner (a.k.a., Czech pilsner, a.k.a., Czech premium pale lager in the 2015 BJCP guidelines) caught my attention early on…it was the original pilsner, after all! What better way to learn what this beer is all about?
Yet, I was shocked by the simplicity of the classic recipes! Bohemian pilsner malt. Czech-sourced Saaz hops. Soft water. Clean lager yeast. The rest is just up to technique–in particular, a good decoction mash was apparently the key to success.
My first attempt at a Bohemian pilsner wasn’t perfect, but wow, it was pretty darned good. This was the first time I consciously experienced Saaz hops, finally getting a name to match with that distinctive aroma and flavor. It was also the first time I experienced a genuinely fresh European-style lager in the United States, and I finally knew what the big deal was all about.
This spurred a realization. SMaSH beers weren’t just for pale ales. In fact, pale lagers are the most reliable ticket to SMaSH success. Quality malt. Quality hops. Careful water chemistry. A clean fermenting lager yeast. A bit of skill. All of this combines to a memorable and surprisingly complex brew. Of course, Czech pilsner isn’t the only lager style with a simple recipe. Munich helles, German pils, and others jostle alongside in the running. Any of these can be done quite well with a short shopping list. This is what makes them so hard to do exceptionally well, perhaps–any flaws can’t hide behind crystal malt and yeast esters.
So, what’s the style best suited to a SMaSH beer? I love all of my European pale lagers, but Bohemian pilsner wins for me every time.