Brewer’s Perspective: The Pilsner Challenge | Craft Beer & Brewing

Brewer’s Perspective: The Pilsner Challenge

Brian “Swifty” Peters, the owner and brewer of The Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company, talks about being “Pilsner-obsessed” and what goes into making a great Pilsner.

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Part of my mission, the reason I was put on this earth, is to bring Pilsner to the masses, to show that it’s more than just a yellow lager. We’re preconditioned to think that craft beer is supposed to put on this big show with fireworks and be loaded with IBUs and hops and more. What I think so many of us wanted was well-made beer with some flavor that was a better version of the beers we grew up with.

We do a thing called the Pilsner Challenge during special occasions. We blindfold people and give them all three of our Pilsners and see whether they can properly identify each. If they do it right, they get a T-shirt, but it’s not always as easy as people might think. The differences among the three Pilsners are subtle but noticeable. You just have to know what to look for.

Ingredients are key. The only thing American about our American Pils is the corn that we use. It has 20 percent corn, and people love it. It’s amazing that people love corn beer so much. It’s familiar to them, and it just sells like crazy for us. We still use German malts and European hops on just about everything. If I wanted to be traditional with our American Pils, I could use Cluster hops, but I don’t because I don’t like them as much as I like Saaz or Mittelfrueh.

The hopping is also slightly different for our American Pils. It’s not as bitter as the German Pils. The corn makes it a little sweeter, and I think that helps. It’s not as dry as the German.

Pilsner is what people want. When even the most serious craft drinkers are honest with themselves, I think they want a classic crisp beer that will be familiar. You can make fun of the megabrewers, but if their beer tasted like this, it would have been a whole different ballgame. People want a refreshing lower-alcohol beer, and that’s why you see a lot of craft brewers moving in that direction.

When it comes to making a great American Pilsner at home, what I tell folks all the time is that it comes down to studying your water and your yeast and making sure that you’re giving the yeast enough time. If you take time to develop a relationship with traditional lager yeast, you will have an easier time.

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You’ll know that if you under pitch it, it will be sulfury, and while it might be rare to overpitch, you’ll see it will lag or not respond or do something you know isn’t right. When you find that sweet spot, you’ll just want to repeat it over and over again and keep the yeast happy.

The technical aspects aren’t superhard. It’s just that most people don’t have the ability to have the amount of lager yeast you need to get a good lager done, so that you don’t have to start at 65°F (18°C) and then cool it down. If you really want to do it like the Germans, you need to start at 50°F (10°C) and give it the right amount of yeast and the right amount of time.

Some brewers might give it only 3 or 4 weeks. That’s not the right amount of time, in my opinion. We do 7 weeks minimum on all of our beers.

I know Pilsner is never going to be the most popular in craft. It’s never going to be the sexiest. I make these beers because I like them—Pilsner is what I want. I know it’s what other people want, and if we fight the megabrewers on this front, we’ll bring more people around.

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