2015 Beer of the Year: Engelberg Pilsner (Upright Brewing)

Craft lagers have exploded in popularity. None betters this basement brew.


Craft lager had a long, slow fermentation in Oregon.

"When I first moved to town, I drank the shit out of that," he says. "German Pilsner was a pretty unusual beer. For year-round Pils, I wanna say Caldera was it."

Five years ago, Ganum's little basement brewery, which is well-known for its delicate Belgian saisons, came into a fresh batch of Tettnang hops. The crew wanted to make something that suited those herbal, German-bred hops, so they adapted one of Ganum's old homebrew recipes. The beer they made was outstanding: crisp and refreshing, but subtly complex. Five years later, we're naming that beer, Engelberg Pilsner, our Beer of the Year.

"We just made it for ourselves, honestly, but it seemed like it sold pretty well, so we just rolled with it," Ganum says. "It was really easy, especially compared to everything else we were doing."

Since 1982, when Bert Grant opened the first new American brewery since Prohibition in Yakima, Wash., the micro movement has fought the mainstream. So maybe it makes sense that underdog craft brewers shunned the lagers favored by all large breweries.

But the balance is tipping. Craft beer now collectively outsells Budweiser. Bud responded by buying up craft brands and airing a defensive Super Bowl commercial blasting fussy boys who sniff their pumpkin peach ales. Now that they don't fear Bud, Miller and Coors, craft brewers are picking up their long-shunned style.

Locally, 2014 was the breakthrough year for craft lagers. The shelf selection exploded, a little-known brewery in Gold Beach won a lager gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. Craft lagers have two of their own festivals. 

Why now? Maybe it was the hangover from all those pine-sticky IPAs, or maybe our beer tastes have matured to the point that we can appreciate a better version of the stuff they drink at NASCAR infields and sports bars.

world’s most popular beers are lagers. Even the black and mealy Guinness stout is made with dark roasted malts and a proprietary lager yeast strain. That strain, and other lager yeasts that ferment in temperatures in the low 50s instead of the high 60s, is a relatively modern discovery, a fluke hybridization researchers have traced to the high mountains of South America. Obscure Patagonian yeast found its way to German bierkellers, chilly caves where the beer matured into a clear, golden brews. Lagers replaced ales as the dominant style of beer in Germany.

Refrigeration allowed the technique to be replicated in the New World and Asia. Today, about 90 percent of the world's beer is lager. Surviving European ales are anachronistic, remaining popular primarily on the British Isles, in Belgium and, of course, in the American craft scene.

Our favorite lager, confirmed through many pints and again in a blind tasting of 26 offerings from across the state, came from Upright’s cramped brewery in the basement of the Leftbank Building on North Broadway. 

Here, Engelberg is made in a tank that's never seen another beer. As in Germany—and unlike those macro lagers shipped between continents—it's found within a few miles of where it's brewed.

"It's almost an all-Portland beer, Ganum says. "Engelberg is the only beer we're hell-bent on keeping fresh. I'd say 97 percent of the kegs are sold in Portland. Occasionally, there'll be one that shows up in 16 Tons in Eugene or wherever in Bend."

Upright's cramped basement space is a spartan affair, a low-slung den of wood barrels and steel tanks. It was originally to be production-only. The tasting room was an afterthought, and that's the way it seems: cash only, with no screens or cushioned chairs. The music is on vinyl, from Frank Zappa and Cal Tjader. On the walls, there's a little Blazers memorabilia and a shelf with a game collection that includes of Yahtzee, Pinochle and three different versions of Rack-O.

It's worth a visit, if only because there's no place you can get Engelberg fresher—which, unlike the Belgian beers Upright makes to age and ship to Nevada and Illinois, is how you want it.

"The beer is at its peak pretty young," Ganum says. "The hop flavor is pretty delicate. If you go two months, you lose the hop flavor."

Those Oregon-grown Tettnang hops, the inspiration for the beer and the root of its name, which means "Angel Mountain," lend Engelberg its slightly spicy character. The rest of the "super-basic recipe" includes French Pilsner malt and Wyeast 2308 Munich Lager yeast.

"The yeast strain is what really separates our lager from the other lagers you see out there," Ganum says. "I've been using it since I was homebrewing, and it's always been my favorite lager yeast. It's got a little bit of sulfur, which gives a nice character to the beer, but not too much. It's nice and smooth, it pulls out the malt, it pulls out the hops, but it's not too neutral, it's not boring."

There's nothing radical about it, but it is unique. Too unique for comfort, actually, given its reliance on those Tettnangs.

"They kinda got a little harder to find than I expected," Ganum says. "We tend to not use really popular hops, so we don't normally have trouble finding them because the hops we use are low-demand varieties. But I guess when they're so low-demand, the growers will just pull them."

One solution would be to expand Engelberg's range by bottling it. That's not an option, Ganum says.

"People ask us, 'Why don't you bottle it?'" he says. "Well, if you get a bottle of this beer that's 6 months old, it's not going to be good."

That focus on quality is, of course, what makes this craft lager the equal of any ale.

"Once we got it out, it sold way more easily than I expected," Ganum says. "It sold a lot easier than our normal saisons."

The Germans learned this lesson long ago. And it's what should scare Big Bud, far more than any pumpkin peach beer. 

Click here for our favorite beers of the year #2-10.

2015 Oregon Beer of the Year | Favorite Oregon Beers # 2-10 | Oregon Beer Awards  

Portland-Area Breweries from A to Z | Astoria  | Bend | Hood River | Portland Beer Bars

An Oral History of Cascade Kriek | Celebrity Oregon Beer Picks | Beer Calendar

Best Growler Spots | Homebrew Shops | Kid-Friendly Brewpubs | Beer Bodegas

Top of the Shelf: Saisons | Imperial Stouts | Imported IPAs | Wheat Beers | Barleywines

WWeek 2015

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