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Cristal Alken

A Czech-style classic from Belgium

The world's first golden beer was made in 1842 in the Czech City of Pilsen, in the state of Bohemia. Almost every well-known golden beer made anywhere in the world is a copy, often very distant, of that original Pilsener brew.

But how many are worth of the name? The original, and several others, from the Czech Republic; many from Germany; and a handful from each of several other countries.

A good Pilsener beer should have a cleanly sweetish malt background but a hop emphasis in its flowery, herbal, aroma, and its dry, bitter, appetising finish. Although it should be well-balanced, the emphasis should be on dryness.

This description still leaves some room for local interpretations. For example, beers in this style from Bohemia sometimes have a fractionally fuller gold color, emphatic floweriness of aroma, and slight oiliness in their malty smoothness. Those from the South German state of Bavaria can be spicier in their hop aroma, with a more cookie-like maltiness. Northern German examples can be firmer, leaner, drier and more bitter.

Within Europe, Pilsener beers spread only slowly to the more westerly cities, states and countries. Germany has a westerly city called Limburg, while there are states (known locally as provinces) of the same name not far away in The Netherlands and Belgium. (The three Limburgs argue as to which deserves credit - or blame? - for the famously smelly cheese of that region. Belgium's claim seems to be the strongest, so to speak).

In beer-rich Belgium, the province of Limburg has relatively few breweries, but produces several of the country's better Pilseners. One of its breweries, in the village of Alken, is principally known for a Pilsener called Cristal.

The name Cristal reflects the novelty of golden beers when they first appeared. Although one of the founding families of this brewery has been in the business since 1881, the present establishment dates from 1923, and the name of Cristal from 1929. The brewery, and this beer, grew during a boom in coal-mining in the area.

The brewery at Alken still operates, though in the past 20-odd years it was in a couple of mergers. One linked it with another Belgian brewery specialising in a Pilsener beer, Maes, near Antwerp. The other places both of those breweries in the French group Kronenbourg.

True to its name, Cristal tastes at first almost like spring water; then comes a clean bit of hop bitterness; and a crisp, finish. It is a beautifully refreshing beer, lightly cleansing on the palate, with the appetising dryness that helps define the Pilsener style. Cristal pours with a very creamy head, leaving excellent lacing. Serve it lightly chilled as though it were a good Chardonnay. Like that style of wine, it goes well with fish.

For the technically minded: the bittering hops are American nugget and the aroma varieties Hallertau-Hersbruck, from Germany, and the classic Saaz, from the Czech Republic. The three-strain yeast was originally obtained from the nearby Pilsener brewery Konig, of Germany. Alcohol content: 3.8 by weight; 4.8 by volume.

Published: SEPT 7, 1999
In: Beer Hunter Online

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