May 24, 2012 at 10:39 AM ET
Adrian Grenier looked back at me with genuine surprise as he stood behind the bar. I had come to a press event in New York City to taste the fruit of the “Entourage” star’s latest venture, a Pilsner beer named Churchkey. It comes in a funky, old-fashioned flat top can, and I had just asked for a glass. “You want a glass?” he asked, a little befuddled as he searched the back bar for an appropriate vessel. I’m not sure anyone had asked him for one before. After all, the novelty of Churchkey is in its retro steel can, so why spoil the fun by pouring the beer out of it? Because I was there for the beer, not the packaging, and beer is best tasted in a glass.
I was also there trying to keep an open mind, but Churchkey had a couple of things working against it. First off, it’s a celebrity beer, which are usually less about making a great brew and more about creating a “lifestyle brand” (looking at you, Kid Rock, Hanson and KISS). These beers are usually brewed from very standard recipes using existing facilities – the celebrities don’t help craft the contents or own the brewery, they just slap their names on the labels. The other issue is that Chuchkey’s retro can is perhaps the most “hipster” thing I’ve ever seen, and if I’m being honest, hipsters kinda bug me. If Zooey Deschanel was a beer, she’d come in a can like this.
Grenier is certainly earnest when he explains what Churchkey represents. He talks excitedly about how using a church key (the name for the tool used to puncture the top of the can) adds an experiential layer to the beer drinking ritual. How his angel investors from the tech industry love the concept because they long for analog experiences. How everything about a craft Pilsner served in an old-timey flat top can points back to one thing: authenticity. That’s a hipster word for sure.
I tried to push all of this out of my mind as I poured my Churchkey into the chunky, little chalice Grenier had found behind the bar. It poured a light amber, with just a hint of a foamy head that quickly disappeared. Bringing my nose to the glass revealed a light breadiness, some citrus and just a tiny waft of clove. Taking a sip, the beer had little carbonation, but a light and lovely mouthfeel. The flavor was dry and biscuity, with a touch of lemon and grassiness in background, and enough of a Saaz hop kick on the back-end to ensure that I wouldn’t confuse Churchkey with a Pabst Blue Ribbon. This is an honest-to-goodness craft Pilsner.
And it should be, because Grenier and Churchkey co-founder Justin Hawkins went to lengths to do it right. They started with a recipe created by two of Hawkins’ homebrewing friends from his Portland, Oregon neighborhood. That’s a far cry from pulling a recipe off the shelf. The goal was to create a very sessionable beer, but one with enough character to satisfy a beer geek. With an ABV of 4.9% and a character somewhere between a Bohemian and a Czech Pilsner, Churchkey delivers on both fronts. Churchkey also owns its own fermentation and canning facilities. The beer is brewed next door by Seattle’s Two Beers Brewing Company and then is piped through the wall into Churchkey’s fermentation tanks, where it stays for 28 days before being canned.
But what about those retro hipster cans? Grenier doesn’t pretend that the old-fashioned flat top found on a Churchkey is better than today’s wide mouth pull-tab beer lids, only that it’s more fun. And he’s right. There’s a novelty to popping two holes into that shiny, unblemished surface using the church key that comes with every six-pack. A little beer sprays out, and if the can’s been jostled a bit, a half-moon of foam bubbles out from the fresh triangle you’ve made. It’s the kind of thing that might become a ritual, a fun part of having a beer, at least until you lose your church key. Then that steel top becomes like a chastity belt, separating you from what you desire.
All told, Churchkey’s novel can probably won’t get in the way of enjoying the beer, but it probably won’t be a selling point for beer geeks either. Hipsters, however, will probably find it irresistible. Do a quick Google search for “churchkey hipster” and you’ll see this is a sentiment shared by many.
I asked Grenier how he felt about all the hipster comments out there, and, to my surprise he embraced them. “I’m a total hipster!” Grenier beamed. “To me, hipsters celebrate things that are vintage, honest, environmentally friendly and simple. They want authentic, real experiences.” This was said with a sincerity that made me think maybe hipsters aren’t so bad after all.
That’s a first.
“Hipsters are nouveau hippies,” he added. “They just smell better.”
Churchkey is currently available in the Pacific Northwest, and will soon be making its way to San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Austin and other places hipsters congregate.
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