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Pick 6: Chris Lohring of Notch Embraces the Surprising Diversity Found in Traditional Brewing

For Chris Lohring, founder of Notch Brewing in Massachusetts, there is real beauty to be found in beers that follow known traditions while offering character that makes them uniquely loveable.

Jamie Bogner Dec 31, 2021 - 14 min read

Pick 6: Chris Lohring of Notch Embraces the Surprising Diversity Found in Traditional Brewing Primary Image

Illustration: Jamie Bogner

Chris Lohring has lived more than one brewing life over almost three decades of doing it professionally, and with Notch, he’s focused on the things that bring him the most joy—session-friendly lagers and ales designed to be consumed in a social setting. It’s no surprise, then, that the beers that have influenced this most recent turn of brewing passion are Czech and German in origin.

He’s been brewing since 1993, but for his Pick 6 he didn’t want to go too deep and choose beers that are no longer available, preferring to focus on beers that have been meaningful to him over the past 20 years. A common thread is the tension between individuality and conformity—the way a beer can fall comfortably within the broad expectations of a tradition without repetition or slavish re-creation.

“Sometimes, it’s the subtle differences that make a great beer,” Lohring says. “It’s not huge leaps of intensity, or huge leaps of ingredient additions, or radical process variation. To me, it’s those little things that really make a wonderful beer.”

Here are six beers that have informed his passion for brewing with subtlety and nuance, without sacrificing character.

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Pilsner Urquell

(Plzeň, Czech Republic)
“I took a trip to the Czech Republic in 2005, and I had just finished my first brewing gig. The company had sold, and I basically stepped out of brewing for a couple of years. I wanted to go explore a couple places that I hadn’t been, and Prague and Czech Republic were high on my list. I went to a couple of the tank pubs that serve Pilsner Urquell through Lukr faucets in a Czech mug, and my mind was blown. It basically took every thought we had as American consumers for pilsner and just turned it on its head. Pilsner here was served in a stemmed glass, it was bright and crisp and dry and all these things that Czech pale lager really is not. It’s served in a mug. It’s served with dense, creamy foam on top. It’s got great mouthfeel—I wouldn’t call it crispy. Czech pale lager has some caramelly decoction maltiness to it. It finishes dry, but really balanced.

“That moment to me was an epiphany because not only is this beer so wildly complex—I knew how hard it was to brew because of the triple decoction and all these other great process things—but it’s 4.4 percent [ABV]. That really blew my mind, that something that was that flavorful was 4.4 percent because that’s my jam. It’s what I want to drink. I want to drink three or four half-liters and walk a straight line home. And my experience of Pilsner Urquell in that moment was the push I needed to take a deeper dive into lager and really start to understand lager.”

Keesmann Herren Pils

(Bamberg, Germany)
“It’s across the street from Mahrs, and Mahrs is where everyone goes, but Keesmann to me is the home run in that city. And not for a rauchbier, but for a pils. Their German pils is really quite different in flavor profile from Czech pils. I’ve been to Bamberg three or four times, and the first couple of times, I didn’t go with brewers; I just went with my partner and cruised around like tourists. When I first tasted that beer, I thought it was amazing, but I was afraid to tell people that was my favorite beer in Bamberg because your favorite beer in Bamberg is supposed to be these other rauchbiers, right? That one was my favorite.

“My last trip there, I went with Luther Paul, who’s the head brewer at Lakefront in Milwaukee and Tom Clark from Berwick Brewing in Pennsylvania. Tom used to brew there, and so when we got off the train, the first place we go to is Keesmann for Herren Pils—not because I said it, but because that’s where they were going. And they were hell-bent on getting that beer before they even got to the hotel. I felt justified in loving that beer because here are two brewers I respect—and one used to work in Bamberg—and they were both like, ‘This is the best beer in the city.’

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“The aroma has just enough of the classical German hop-variety aroma. The malt character is just enough to notice it but not take over the beer. The finish is clean—I wouldn’t call it crisp, but I definitely would call it clean and dry. The next thing you know, you’re on your third because it’s so good, so perfect.

“It’s one that’s not talked about, which is really fascinating. People talk about a lot of other breweries in that town, but that one really is one of those beers that you have as a brewer, and you’re just floored and actually sad and kind of depressed because you know you’re never ever, ever going to achieve that level. It’s just on a whole other level. So that’s always humbling, but it’s always fun to have those beers.”

Augustiner Edelstoff

(Munich, Germany)
“I almost picked Augustiner Helles but instead picked Edelstoff, which is typically what’s served in Augustiner Keller, in their beer garden. They’re just two different strengths of helles. I chose this because consumers and even some brewers feel that helles is this monolithic style that’s always 5 percent ABV, and it’s always the same flavor profile. Some people think it’s boring because it doesn’t have a lot of variation. This beer is the export strength—5.7 percent ABV—so it carries all the helles characteristics but at a slightly elevated level. That grape and honey and cracker that you have in the aroma? It’s more of that. That malt sweetness—I say malt sweetness, and that’s a relative term—but again, not crisp. This has a character of malt that sticks on your tongue. It doesn’t have any of that hop character like a Czech or even German pils. It’s just that malt that finishes and stays there, and it’s really just wonderful—wonderful, clean beer.

“One of the first beers I brewed at Notch that wasn’t a session beer … we did a helles speciale, as we called it, at 5.7 percent ABV. We got criticized because it wasn’t what people thought of as a helles at 5 percent ABV. I realized we have a whole education thing to get peoples’ heads around. You can have this other strength category of helles that’s not the 5 percent expectation.

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“This has been a theme—the place of consumption is as important as the beer and the type of dispense, like a Lukr faucet. If you had a German stichfass [spigoted cask] in a beer hall in Augustiner Keller outside of the Munich train station down the road, it’s just fantastic—5,000 people under the trees and beer as far as the eye can see. But served through these wonderful stichfass, there’s no extraneous CO2. So it has less carbonic acid; it’s softer. It just goes down so quickly, but it’s dangerous because it’s 5.7 percent ABV. I often wonder why they serve that at the beer garden, at that slightly higher strength. I know it caught me one day. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I forgot. This is 5.7.’ I love Augustiner, I just think their beers—their pale lagers—are some of the best in Munich.”

Kloster Andechs Weissbier Hell Hefeweizen

(Andechs, Germany)
“Again, an experience—you take the train, you get on a bus, you go up this hill, it’s a monastery, it’s beautiful, it’s idyllic, you can see the Alps—all this stuff. And you have this beer that as a brewer, you taste, and you know exactly what they needed to do to get to that point. And you’re amazed that they did it so well. So, it’s a balance between clove and banana, and I hate banana-cardamom hefeweizens—it’s too much for me, I like that balance of the clove, that spice to offset, it really makes it more drinkable to me—and they do it really, really well.

“As a brewer, you know how hard it is to get that clove character. You must use the proper yeast, the proper ferulic-acid rest, and pH, and amount of time. So, all these factors come together to make this a wonderful beer. Hefeweizen is not one of my favorite styles, but this beer? I love it. It’s such a pleasure to drink it.”

Bernard Kvasnicové

(Humpolec, Czech Republic)
“It’s not a small brewery, and it’s not a large brewery. I was in one pub, and they served kvasnicové, which is basically a yeasted lager. It’s a hazy pale lager, a pilsner, and it’s a process that is still a mystery to me—as much as I’ve been to Prague and asked a million brewers, they’re always really, really tight-lipped about what happens here. My understanding is yeast is added back into the finished beer to provide this kind of cloudiness in a pale lager, which is very interesting. And I had this in a pub or beer hall, not really knowing much about it other than name. I did a little bit of research, but man, it just blew me away.

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“It took pale lager into this whole other different dimension—it gave it a texture like a hefeweizen, but it still was clean because it’s a lager yeast. It was good to see something where folks think Czech pale lager is monolithic, it’s all the same. But to me Czech lager—or pilsner, as we know it—is almost a category. You can have malty, sweet, not so bitter all the way to dry. This one is somewhere right in the middle. But you think you know a country, you know a style, you know a category. This one was just like, ‘There’s a whole bunch more here to explore and have fun with.’”

Catamount Amber

(Windsor, Vermont)
“For the last one, I’m on the fence. I can either go old-school New England, or I can go British. I love Fuller’s London Pride, but I think I’m going to go to what was my first beer with flavor—Catamount Amber. Catamount was a legendary Vermont brewery that didn’t survive an expansion and a move, so Harpoon bought and now runs that brewery. They still once in a while come out with Catamount here and there. Catamount Amber dates to those first days of craft when beers were colors not flavors—gold, amber, brown, red. I was in college and drinking Rolling Rock—whatever was cheap. I had Catamount Amber, and it blew my mind. I tasted hops and malt. I tasted caramel. And it was all melded together. That brewery really was on the forefront of solid quality beer—they put out a consistent product in the mid ’80s. They’ve been out of business for so long, I don’t think they’ll ever get recognition other than from old people like me who are in their 50s and older. But what that did for craft brewing in New England scene…

“A lot of respected brewers cut their teeth in that brewery as well. So, yeah, I think a shout out to Catamount would be a good way to end this.

“I almost picked Geary’s Pale Ale. David Geary was basically a pioneer, and his beer might have been right around the same time. Geary’s and Catamount came out in New England, and they were definitely different takes. Catamount was definitely more American hop–forward, with Cascade, Centennial possibly. And David was British yeast, British hops, very traditional. Very different beers but both really important. I love both, but Catamount probably was my first experience, so I have to go with that one.”

Jamie Bogner is the Cofounder and Editorial Director of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Email him at [email protected].

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