The Bitburger Pilsner Challenge

Photo: Tom Shellhammer

Post has been updated below.

Prost!, a German-beer pub here in Portland, hosted a cool event over the weekend. It was called the Bitburger Challenge, and pitted four Washington breweries against four from Oregon in a pilsner competition. Bitburger sponsored the challenge, and some folks from the winning brewery will get to go to Bitburg. Bitburger will also do a collaboration with the winner, which will be sold in the US.

Tom Shellhammer (left) and Ben Keene judging beer.

This is the third iteration of the challenge, with märzen and kölsch in past years. The rules are curious: for three days, pub goers can order flights and judge the beers, submitting their ballots. Then on Sunday, a panel of professionals would judge the flights. Both of these were weighted equally and averaged, a setup that seemed fraught with danger. Amazingly, though, each of the three years they’ve done this, both pubgoers and the expert panel agreed. Prost has cultivated an avid group of German-beer fans, and they’re clearly sophisticated drinkers. Or maybe the “experts”—whose number included me (😬)—are just glorified pubgoers. Either way, disaster averted.

(The other experts were Bitburger owner Jan Niewodniczanski, Bitburger master brewer Stephan Hanke, OSU prof and hops researcher Tom Shellhammer, Oregonian food writer Michael Russell, writer and former BeerAdvocate editor Ben Keene, RateBeer founder Joe Tucker, and Prost’s Chris Navarra.)

The rules were simple: submit a German-style pilsner that wasn’t part of the brewery’s standard line. Team Washington was composed of Aslan, Chuckanut, Georgetown, and Reuben’s, and they faced off against Breakside, Deschutes, pFriem, and Wayfinder. Locals recognized another dynamic at play. Will Kemper has been championing traditional German beer for 35 years, and has created in Chuckanut a juggernaut of quality that has won a mountain of awards and respect from their fellow brewers nationwide. So Bellingham’s finest definitely came into the competition with some expectations. But the intrigue deepened as Chuckanut faced off against two alumni in Josh Pfriem and Kevin Davey at Wayfinder.

After-awards merriment. L-R Josh Pfriem, Kevin Davey, and Lisa Allen (whose brewery Heater Allen probably should have been included).

Would Chuckanut win? Could the Chuckanut cabal sweep the top spots? These things are all always in good fun, and since every beer was a one-off and not the pilsner the breweries have been working years to perfect, the stakes weren’t too high. But still—it’s pilsner and some of the best makers thereof. A bit of pride was on the line.

So who won? Well, there was a sweep, and two of the three Chuckanut trained breweries did place in the top three. But the sweep was one for Oregon, Chuckanut didn’t win, and the brewery that did was unexpected:

  1. Deschutes Brewery (Bend)

  2. Wayfinder (Portland)

  3. pFriem Family Brewers (Hood River)

I’m happy to say that I had these same three as my top breweries, though the order was slightly different (a judge never tells). I actually had a three-way tie for second and had to do a re-taste to break the tie (the fourth of my quartet was Rueben’s). There were two tiers of the beers for me, with five clustered at the top and three a cut below. Just one of the beers had a noticeable defect, and the others were quite credible pilsners—and showcased what I call Oregon’s “secret weapon”—-our many excellent pilsners.

The event goes to show that there are still clever and fun ways to engage—and possibly educate—drinkers. Fests may be waning in popularity a bit, but this friendly competition was a blast. Congrats to everyone.

Jake Harper and the Deschutes crew celebrate their unexpected triumph.

(Oh, and I’m happy to act as an ambassador on that Bitburger junket, Deschutes, if you need one.)

Update from Prost: For those keeping track of their votes, here is the list of breweries in order that they were poured:

  1. pFriem Family Brewers

  2. Wayfinder Beer

  3. Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen

  4. Georgetown Brewing

  5. Reuben's Brews

  6. Breakside Brewery

  7. Aslan Brewing Company

  8. Deschutes Brewing

Jeff Alworth8 Comments