Brewer's Perspective: Matt Brynildson on Italian-Style Pilsner

It all started with Tipopils... Matt Brynildson, brewmaster of Firestone Walker, talks about the beer that sparked his Pivo—as well as a growing number of Italian-inspired pilsners—and the core elements of this burgeoning sub-style.

By: Matt Brynildson

Aug 28, 2020 - 6 min read
Brewer's Perspective: Matt Brynildson on Italian-Style Pilsner Primary Image

Seven years ago, when people asked how I came up with the idea of a dry-hopped pilsner to create Pivo Pils, the answer was easy: I didn’t.

I first took notice of this interesting twist on the pilsner style several years ago while attending the German awards ceremony for the World Beer Cup. It was obvious (and expected) that the Germans would dominate the classic Pilsner category. However, the surprise was that a number of brewers outside of Germany—including a couple of small Italian craft brewers—were winning in the Kellerpils category.

One of those brewers was Agostino Arioli of Birrificio Italiano, and the beer was Tipopils. At the time, it was astounding to me that a tiny Northern Italian brewery was winning at this very prestigious international competition, and it was doing so with an unfiltered, delicately dry-hopped lager beer. I made a point to seek Arioli out. He was very open with his information, and we have been good friends ever since.

Tipopils was the beer that convinced me to brew lager again at Firestone Walker. We brewed a helles-style lager from 2000 to 2005, but we discontinued it—the world wasn’t yet ready for a craft lager. Firestone Walker Pivo Pils was born in 2013; we once again employed lager yeast due to this fascination with what was later coined “Italian-style pils.”

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Another excellent Italian example of the style is Birrificio Del Ducato’s Via Emilia. The brewer is Giovanni Campari, and he has been a passionate and creative force in the Italian craft-brewing scene. Both Arioli and Campari have captured the balance and drinkability of a classic German pils, but they insert a beautiful, yet restrained, fresh, Noble-hops character unlike any pilsner I’ve tasted in Germany.

These beers were the inspiration for Pivo. At their core, they are dry, immensely drinkable pale lager beers in the typical German-pilsner weight class, constructed without a lot of specialty malts. In fact, there is no need for anything more than pilsner malt, although we use a dash of Carafoam to improve foam stability. I like using European malts to help capture the spirit and malt nuances appropriate for the style.

The bitterness should be assertive, yet harmonious, like any proper pilsner beer. Pivo clocks in at 40 IBUs, but the majority of that comes from aroma hops added in the last 30 minutes of the boil. The fermentation needs to be clean, to allow the hops to shine through. Weihenstephan 34/70 is the origin of our yeast, and I always suggest this strain to other brewers.

What sets this beer apart from others is the dry hopping. The hops should be of European origin, and it’s okay for the hop aroma to be pronounced, expressing top notes that might otherwise be lost in the kettle. I fell in love with Hallertau-grown Saphir about the time that Pivo was born, and that is the signature hop for Pivo. There is plenty of continental nobility mixed with some fresh lemongrass with Saphir. No need to go over the top with the dry hop; it should be restrained and just a little more than you would expect from kettle hopping. We finish Pivo with a polishing filtration, so it’s brilliantly bright—which is a slight deviation from Arioli’s original.

If you pour a dry-hopped pils for German brewers or beer experts, they will tell you right away that it is not within the classic German-pils style—but somehow it does qualify as “kellerpils,” a sort of offshoot of kellerbier. Generally speaking, the hops are too pronounced, and there is too much dry-hop character to classify as classic pilsner. I guess that means that a fresh-hop aromatic note and dusty-light chill haze are allowable (and appreciated) when presented as a kellerbier. It most definitely defines the Italian style. The closest that I have experienced in Germany is fresh Keesmann Herren Pils vom fass (draft or off the lagering tank), or a zwickel pour of Schönramer Pils—a rare and delicious treat.

The bottom line is that Italian-style pilsners are sessionable, dry, balanced lager beers with an enhanced European-hop expression. American fruity IPA hop character is not appropriate. Italian-style pilsners might not knock the socks off the “hazebros,” but they are certainly brewers’ beers.

My brewer friends ask me to team up for hoppy pilsner collaborations more than any other style. That might simply mean that Pivo has struck a chord with lager-loving brewers. That’s really all the encouragement I need. I’ll take another, please!

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