WORLD SERIES OF PILSNER
This project conducted a series of taste-tests on pilsner-style lagers from around the world.
Beer is an alcoholic beverage brewed from grains, primarily barley, malted. Hops, a flower commonly added as a stabilizing agent, provide a distinctive bitter taste that balances out the sweetness of the malt. Most beers range in alcoholic content between 4% to as high as 8%. The two broad categories of beer are ale (warm fermentation) and lager (cold-fermentation). Among lager styles, pilsner is a pale lager characterized by a golden color, light texture, and dry hoppy flavor. Pilsner was developed in the mid-1800s by the Pilsner Urquell Brewery in the city of Pilsen, now in the Czech Republic. Pilsner, often referred to as “lager,” is the predominant type of beer in the world.
Following a taste test of milks (see 12.122 Taste Test: Korean Milk), Number One Swedish Fan GK had suggested testing beers: “preferably bland, mass-produced lager-style Korean beer.” I liked the general idea, not so much the bland/Korean part of it, so I decided to take the competition global.
The contenders comprised 16 mass-market brands widely available in Korea, each selected with personal preference or general popularity in mind: 4 from Korea, 4 from Europe, 5 from Asia, 3 from the Americas.
The tests were conducted piecemeal over a period of roughly 2 months, whenever I had some free time and the accompanying meal seemed appropriate.
For the quarterfinal rounds, the contenders were placed into 4 groups. Each group included 1 randomly selected Korean beer + 1 European beer + 1 Asian beer + 1 American beer. The beers were blind-tasted on a 4-point scale for taste + 4-point scale for texture, repeated, tallied to a maxim score of 16 points. The winning beer moved on to the semifinals, along with winners from the other testing groups.
- Cass (Korea): Produced by Oriental Brewery, Cass is Korea’s leading brand, possibly in history, currently holding approximately 21% of the domestic market. It’s the one beer that will almost always be available in any restaurant that serves beer. Makes me think that they give a special wholesale discount to restaurants (KIT told me that Sin Ramyeon does this, hence the ubiquity). Prior to this tasting, my long-held opinion has been that it tastes like cASS.
- Heineken (Netherlands): A colleague once told me about a book on psychology that claimed Heineken to be the world’s best-selling beer because it’s the easiest name to pronounce – neither point is true. Anyway, I’ve always had a generally favorable impression of the brand, always satisfied to order it if nothing better. During a layover at the airport in Amsterdam, I once had Heineken draft beer served at 0 degrees. In the Netherlands, it’s referred to as a “pilsener,” though export bottles are labelled as “lager.”
- Miller Genuine Draft (USA): For some reason, MGD was really popular in Korea when I was in college, one of the few available/affordable import brands, so I would drink it here while on vacation, and go back to the States and drink it there because it reminded me of Korea.
- Tsingtao (China): This will always remind me of my father, who used to love Tsingtao before it went international. During college, when I flew back to Korea for winter/summer vacations, I used to bring my father a 6-pack of Tsingtao, the old school white cans with pop tabs. I was intrigued by his explanation – no Google then to confirm, so I had to take his word for it – that the brewery was founded by Germans in China, so it had the richer flavor of a European beer with the crisper texture of an Asian beer.
- Heineken (5.5 + 6.0) (11.5): though not significantly different from the others, it did stand out, in a very subtle way, with a deep dry flavor and long satisfying finish – quite pleased to confirm that the brand respectfully delivers on its reputation as a global.
- Miller Genuine Draft (4.5 + 4.0) (8.5): okay at first, but less so on second sip, weak finish.
- Tsingtao (3.5 + 5.0) (8.0): pissy, watery in the first tasting (3.5), but it fooled me in the second (5.0), eking out a couple points that pulled it out from last place – the biggest takeaway is that I’ll never again pay more for Tsingtao at a restaurant.
- Cass (4.0 + 3.5) (7.5): flavorless, flat finish – exactly as I’ve always thought.
- Budweiser (USA): The flagship product of Anheuser-Busch, America’s most iconic brewery, one of the top-selling beers in the world, likely the best-selling beer of all time. I’ve never been a fan, though I don’t have anything against it. When I was pledging a fraternity in college, we were made to memorize the blurb on the label bottle: “This is the famous Budweiser beer. We know of no other brand produced by any other brewer that costs so much to brew and age….” (We also had to memorize the blurb on the Absolut Vodka bottle.)
- OB Lager (Korea): The flagship product of Oriental Brewery, Korea’s oldest brewery, founded 1952, now part of Anheuser-Busch InBev. Made of rice, rather than barley. What bugs me about Korean beer companies is that they seem incapable or unwilling to improve the product itself, instead redesigning the packaging and renaming the brand every few years: OB Lager –> OB Golden Lager –> OB –> OB Blue –> OB Lager.
- Pilsner Urquell (Czech): The one that started it all in 1842, an overnight sensation, the style quickly spreading across Europe and over to America, eventually becoming the standard for beer across the world. I had never given much thought to this brand until very recently, after our return to Korea, where I was suckered into buying it because of the can, which is made in a pleasing matte finish. It’s now 1 of 2 beers in my regular rotation (the other is Singha).
- San Miguel Pale Pilsen (Philippines): The Filipino classic, which I was privileged to drink at the source while I was stationed in Manila for 6.5 years. TIP: in the Philippines, where several brands by the San Miguel Brewery are available (see 5.076 Taste Test: the San Miguel Family (GK had also suggested a taste test back then)), the beer would not be ordered as “San Miguel” but rather as “Pale Pilsen” or just “Pale.”
- Pilsner Urquell (6.5 + 5.5) (12): hoppy, rich, delicious, long strong finish – undisputed winner of this round – glad that it’s not just about the fancy can.
- San Miguel Pale Pilsen (5.0 + 5.0) (10): full flavor, solid finish – proud runner up.
- Budweiser (4.0 + 4.0) (8.0): bland yet balanced in flavor, refreshing, nothing to rant or rave about – no wonder it’s so popular among the masses.
- OB Lager (3.5 + 2.5) (6): sour, pissy, gross.
- Corona Extra (Mexico): Whereas Corona Extra is among the best-selling beers in the world, possibly the best-selling import beer in America, it’s absolutely ubiquitous in California, especially Southern California. Having attended both college and grad school in California, including Southern California, I can attest that Corona Extra is the default beer for students in bars (where they often do that dumb lime thing). I can’t think of another beer that is so singularly associated with its national cuisine. As I speculated during the initial outbreak of the pandemic (see 11.099 Extra-Crunchy Fried Chicken with Mashed Potatoes), I wonder whether sales have dropped due to the name.
- Estrella Damm (Spain): The oldest beer in Spain, first launched in 1876. I don’t have a long personal history with this brand, but I do have amazing memories of drinking the beer in Spain (see for example 5.197 Pintxos).
- Singha (Thailand): Regarded as the “original Thai beer,” founded in 1933. I was so pleased to discover the beer on my first visit to Thailand in 1992, my very first “exotic” vacation. I also have fond memories of drinking Singha at Thai restaurants during college, thinking myself very sophisticated. It remains 1 of 2 beers in my regular rotation (the other is Pilsner Urquell). TIP: it’s pronounced “SING” in Thai, omitting the “HA,” though that really works only in Thailand, or maybe in a Thai restaurant run by Thai-speaking Thais.
- Terra (Korea): Produced by Hite Jinro, launched in 2019, but already a major player in the domestic market, 1 of 3 beers mostly likely to be served in restaurants (others are Cass, Kloud). Supposedly made with Australian malt (I just realized that Australian beer is not readily sold in Korea, which is why none were included in the Sweet Sixteen).
- Estrella Damm (6.0+6.0) (12): bitter, tasty, solid finish – just as I remembered it.
- Singha (6.5+4.0) (10.5): fruity and rich, refreshing finish – exactly as I like it.
- Terra (3.5+6.5) (10): “sour and flabby” on the first tasting (3.5), somehow flipped to “tasty and crisp” on the second tasting (6.5).
- Corona Extra (4.5+3.5) (8): bland, flat – no wonder American students like it.
- Asahi Super Dry (Japan): The flagship beer of Asahi Breweries, which was founded in 1889 and yet is only the 4th oldest brewery in Japan. From my experiences 20 years ago helping out at my uncle’s sushi restaurant in San Diego, where Asahi, Sapporo, and Kirin were on the menu, I recall that Kirin was hoppiest and most European in character (my favorite), Asahi was lightest and most refreshing (good for end-of-shift), Sapporo was most balanced (best for food). Asahi Super Dry is currently the most widely available Japanese beer in Korea.
- Beck’s (Germany): My favorite beer when I was a freshman in college, exactly 30 years ago, when I was rushing a fraternity, when “favorite beer” seemed like an important part of one’s character. For no particular reason, I don’t really drink Beck’s these days.
- Kloud (Korea): Produced by Lotte Chilsung, launched in 2014, a major player in the domestic market, 1 of 3 beers mostly likely to be served in restaurants (others are Cass, Terra). According to the website: “Kloud is made with fermented concentrate without dilution with water, using the original gravity method. It is made with raw materials chosen through a strict selection process, providing an authentic European-style beer flavor.” My initial impressions of Kloud have been favorable, making it my current go-to beer in local restaurants.
- Tiger (Singapore): Launched in 1932, when Singapore was still a British colony, now the country’s flagship beer, even though it’s owned by the Heineken group and produced throughout the world. I have extremely fond memories of drinking Tiger in Singapore (see for example 4.265 Chilli Crab), as well as on a liveaboard in the Maldives (see 9.185 Chili Spaghetti).
- Tiger (5.5+6.5) (12.0): rich flavor with a hint of barley, crisp finish – the only non-European to win the group!
- Beck’s (7.0+4.0) (11.0): balanced, dry flavor, solid finish – exactly as I remembered it.
- Kloud (5.5+5.5) (11.0): honey + hoppy, tangy aftertaste – the highest score of all Korean beers tested, though in retrospect I wonder if I was a bit generous in the numbers.
- Asahi Super Dry (6.0+4.5) (10.5): hoppy + bitter, full long finish, but strangely sour in the second tasting – solid performance, even if it came in last.
I have to disclose that bias may have played a role in Tiger’s win. Because I conducted the test by myself, I had to look at the brands after the first tasting to assign the scores. I was thus aware that the “hint of barley” was Tiger, which was easily detectable in the second tasting. I don’t know if I gave a higher score as a result (6.5), though at the time I did recognize the potential bias and tried to be objective. Even if it had received the same score as in the first tasting (5.5), it would’ve tied for first, at which point it likely would’ve won in a tie-breaker.
On 28 May 2021, the day that I completed the Group D tasting, The New York Times printed an article on pilsners, which notes Pilsner Urquell.
In the interest of parity, and in case some beers had been unfairly eliminated, the 6 highest scoring contenders from the quarterfinals were retested.
They were split into 2 groups, blind-tasted on a 4-point scale, repeated, tallied to a maxim score of 8 points. The winning beer moved on to the semifinals, along with winner from the other wild card group and winners from the quarterfinals.
During the quarterfinals, I had tested 4 beers in one sitting, without rinsing in between, testing the group twice back-to-back, which seemed to result in palate fatigue, skewing the results in the second test. So this time, I limited the group to 3 beers, rinsed with water between each tasting, and took a long break in between the two tests. This time, the results were consistent across the two tests.
- San Miguel (7.0): rich, well-balanced, suave.
- Asahi Super Dry (6.0): flat flavor but balanced, austere.
- Kloud (5.0): aggressively hoppy, sweetish, playful.
- Beck’s (7.5): rich, balanced, long finish, classy.
- Terra (7.0): tasty, long, solid.
- Singha (6.5): clean, refreshing, dignified.
SIDE TASTING: BACKSHELF BEERS
While the official Sweet Sixteen tastings were in still progress, I was at E-Mart and came across a display of beers that I hadn’t noticed before. I had never heard of the brands, many of which were written in Korean, so I assumed them to be independent breweries from Korea.
I grabbed the ones that were labelled as lager/pilsner, thinking they might be included somehow in the World Series. I took them to the cabin for a taste test.
A closer reading of the labels – after the tasting was conducted – revealed that only 1 is Korean (Gentleman Lager by Playground Brewery), 2 are American (Bohemian Pilsener by Patagonia Cerveza, Longboard Island Lager by Kona Brewing Co.), and 1 is Indonesian (Romantic Day Lager by Bali Hai).
- Bohemian Lager (5.0+5.0) (10.0): dry, balanced flavor, flat finish – the only one that tasted like an actual lager/pilsner, though otherwise unremarkable; turns out that Patagonia is part of the Anheuser-Busch family, a spin-off “premium” brand, which would explain the high production quality.
- Longboard Island Lager (4.5+4.5) (9.0): okay but a hint of peach, like Snapple – as a Hawaiian brewery, perhaps the beer was intended to taste “tropical?”
- Gentleman Lager (3.0+3.5) (6.5): sweet, honeyish, jammy aftertaste – like “craft beer” by Korean microbreweries these days (see for example 12.125 Garlic Mayo Burger), making me wonder if this is an actual style or just a sign of inexperience.
- Romantic Day Lager (2.5+2.5) (5.0): yuck – during the tasting, I assumed that this was the Korean beer.
None of the beers were deemed interesting enough to be entered into the World Series, though the photos and notes are included here.
On 31 May 2021, two days after I’d conducted the Backshelf Beer tasting, Joongang Daily printed an article on craft beers.
The semifinals and finals were conducted back-to-back.
I was happy to be joined by my cousin PJS. As the earlier rounds clearly indicate, my tastes run towards the richer, deeper, hoppier European styles, so perhaps PJS – who is as Korean as they come – would provide a counterbalance. I even added Cass, long ago eliminated in the quarterfinals, just to see how far it would get with a Korean judge on the panel.
The semifinalists were divided into 2 groups:
Group 1: Beck’s vs Estrella Damm vs Tiger
Group 1: Heineken vs Pilsner Urquell vs San Miguel (vs Cass)
In the groupings, each beer was tasted blind and scored once on an overall 4.0-scale. The beer with the highest score, combined from both judges, moved on to the final round.
After the conclusion of Group 1, we took a 1-hour break and conducted Group 2.
Group 1 (me + PJS)
- Beck’s (3.0 + 3.0 = 6.0)
- Tiger (3.5 + 2.0 = 5.5)
- Estrella Damm (2.5 + 2.5 = 5.0)
Group 2 (me + PJS)
- Pilsner Urquell (3.5 + 2.0 = 5.5)
- Heineken (3.0 + 2.5 = 5.5)
- San Miguel (2.5 + 2.0 = 4.5)
- Cass (2.0 + 2.0 = 4.0)
Whereas Pilsner Urquell and Heineken tied in combined points, and I didn’t have enough beer for a tie-breaker (I had only brought 1 can of each contender), I called for both to advance to the finals.
Individually, we blind-tasted the final three beers and ranked them first, second, and third. The top choice was allocated 3 points, the middle choice 1 point, and the last choice 0 points, then the points from both judges were combined.
- Pilsner Urquell (3 + 3 = 6)
- Beck’s (1 + 0 = 1)
- Heineken (0 + 1 = 1)
How perfectly poetic that the inventor of pilsner should win the World Series of Pilsner, 180 years later. It has long been one of my favorites, so I was glad to secure affirmation. The outcome would’ve turned out the same had I done the tasting alone, so the win is even more convincing with my cousin’s vote.
Throughout the competition, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see Heineken consistently win high points. The brand is sometimes dismissed by cynics, just because of its global ubiquity. As WSP suggests, perhaps the popularity is well-deserved.
The Top 3 finish of Beck’s shows that I had good taste in beers even as a college student.
Overall, I was comforted to confirm that most of the beers were just fine to drink. I won’t complain to find them on a menu.
Generally, I was disappointed but not surprised to see the Korean contenders do so poorly. This was largely a reflection of my own dislike of thin, bland beers, though my cousin seemed to agree. I was pleased to discover that newcomer Terra is quite good: rich, balanced, unlike any Korean beer in history. I realized that most Korean beers have silly names that sound vaguely like words, but aren’t: e.g., Cass, Terra, Kloud, Hite, Fitz, Filite, Filgood. (Same with Korean cars names: e.g., Sorento, Avante, Elantra, Veracruz, Atoz, Starex, Starius, Korando, Equus, Actyon, Rexton, Kyron.)
(See also BOOZE)
(See also FOOD GLOSSARY)
(See also RESTAURANTS IN KOREA)