It’s hot here in Long Beach. Chances are it’s also pretty hot wherever you’re reading this. In such a climate, whether you’re hanging out by the pool or unwinding after a long day of work, your choice in beer tends to be focused on one thing–refreshment. So you open the fridge and grab a nice, chilled Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout with Cacao Nibs, Coffee, and Chipotle to quench your thirst. You’re not sure if it’s the 12% alcohol by volume, the fact that you drink it at 55 degrees, or the roasted quality of the coffee, but something about this beer really hits the spot on a hot day, right? No! Of course not. Enter the Pilsner.
Pilsner arose during the Industrial Revolution as the first light-colored lager and took over the world’s drinking preferences remarkably quickly for reasons you might expect: it was easy to drink, tasted best when cold, and had a low enough alcohol content to warrant drinking large volumes. By the second half of the 20th Century, brewing efficiency had metastasized pilsner into a flavorless shadow of its former self, with macrobreweries using rice and corn in the malt bill for a thinner body and cheaper product. The craft beer revolution understandably revolted against this style and craft brewers preferred to make complex and/or full-flavored ales over delicate lagers. You may recall that, for years, Stone Brewing’s slogan was “Fizzy yellow beer is for Wussies!”
But, whether with maturity or palate fatigue, craft beer drinkers are finally coming back around to a style either forgotten, misunderstood, or ignored for so many years. Perhaps a reason brewers avoided pilsner for so long is that it’s hard to do well. After all, with flavored stouts or hop-laden IPAs, it can be easy to mask an off-flavor that arises during the brewing process. In a pilsner, with its delicate malt body and flavorful-but-not-super-bitter hop profile, any error in brewing becomes readily apparent.
I warmed up to the style last year while studying for the Certified Cicerone exam and re-examining many beers with a more critical eye. While tasting through Central European lagers, most of which surprised me with their quality, I included Pilsner Urquell to represent Czech Pilsners. Instantly, the malty aromas of bread crust jumped out of the glass, followed by the light earthy spiciness of Saaz hops. I was hooked. It was so much better than I remembered and it actually became hard to concentrate on the beers that followed because I would invariably compare them to Pilsner Urquell. From that moment to now, nearly a year later, pilsners have been my go-to style.
It’s important to note that there are two similar, but distinct styles of pilsner: German and Czech. The Czech Pilsner, also known as the Bohemian Pilsner (and now officially the Czech Premium Pale Lager according to the Beer Judge Certification Program), is darker and maltier than its German counterpart and brewed with Saaz, the classic Czech hop. German Pils, often spelled pilsener (with the extra “e”) in German, is a light gold beer that seems more bitter than a Czech Pilsner due to its milder malt bill. It’s typically brewed with German-cultivated Noble hops like Spalt, Tettnang, and Hallertau Mittelfrüh and leaves a slightly stronger bitter aftertaste. I’m partial to the Czech Pilsner mainly for the bready malt profile and my preference of Saaz hops over the other Noble varieties.
What comes next for pilsner? In the must-have beer book, Tasting Beer, author Randy Mosher says that he would “like to see Americans loosen up a little and not be so reverential,” adding that “[a] dash of creativity could help liven up this category in the marketplace.” Recently, it’s starting to look like he’s getting his wish. Noble Aleworks was ahead of the curve when they released Pistol Whip’d a few years ago, which was one of the first pilsners I know of to use New Zealand hops–Motueka, in their case. Earlier this year, I attended a coffee beer festival featuring dozens of coffee stouts and imperial porters. Yet, the beer I kept coming back to was Cellarman’s Pils, a coffee-laden pilsner from Creature Comforts out of Athens, Georgia. Modern Times, who’s seen success with their pilsner, Ice, has been experimenting with the style and released their own NZ-hopped pilsner called Meru, as well as an absolute gem of a beer, Bogus Totem. This special release brew took an already delicious pilsner base and added pineapple and tiki spices to it and instantly became a favorite.
In addition to the beers I’ve mentioned above, I’d be remiss not to recommend some other fine pilsners I’ve had recently. In no particular order, here are a few more I think are worth seeking out: Half Acre’s Pony Pils, Societe’s The Heiress Czech Pilsner, Pizza Port Pick Six Pilsner, and Central Coast Brewing’s Keller Pils. It also seems like Firestone Walker has released a brewer favorite in Pivo Pils, a German pilsner that’s incredibly balanced and pairs well with food and hard work alike. Lastly, in a cleverly named attempt to swallow their pride, Stone Brewing now brews a quality pilsner called Wussie. So, as we slog through the dog days of summer, do the right thing and grab yourself a pilsner; nobody’s judging (anymore).
Have you jumped on the pilsner train yet? If so, what’s your favorite? Let me know in the comments!