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The Pilsner Landscape

There’s a Pilsner for every palate as craft brewers take inspiration from the Old World.

John M. Verive August 07, 2017

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Pilsner is “a brewer’s beer” style. You hear it again and again when you talk to brewers about their favorite styles or when you ask them what their “desert-island beers” are—it’s the bitter golden lager that they love to drink when they’re off the clock. Pilsner is an easy style to fall for. It can be easily consumed in quantity without fatiguing the palate, but a good Pils also has the complexity to withstand scrutiny. The best examples showcase a remarkable balance between a distinctive hoppy character and a delicate malt flavor. Brewing a Pilsner requires technical skill and flawless ingredients. They are so much more than boring light beer, and the American drinking populace is (finally) catching on. Lager is no longer a dirty word in the craft-beer world, and American brewers, inspired by travels abroad, are brewing their own visions of the perfect Pilsner.

It’s as if the history of Pilsner is repeating. The first Bohemian Pilsners spread across Europe like a viral meme in nineteenth century. The idea of briskly bitter and brilliantly clear golden lager was captivating to thirsty Europeans, and as railroads connected cities for the first time, Pilsner washed over the continent and changed the world’s beer culture forever.

Each new region that adopted Pilsner put its own spin on the style. The Germans used harder water and hops besides the signature Saaz variety beloved in Bohemia. When German immigrants brought the style to the Americas, they used New World ingredients (six-row barley, maize, and American-grown hops), adding further variation to the style. In America, more railroads and refrigeration helped Pilsner dominate an expanding market, and a shifting, consolidating beer industry led to a homogenization of beer from which we’re still reeling.

The beers that get called Pilsner vary widely, from “the original Pilsner” (Pilsner Urquell) to the leaner, more bitter German-brewed Schonramer Pils to a growing multitude of American craft interpretations that sometimes push the style to its limits, to the insipid, in-name-only adjunct lagers that are still marketed as Pilsners (Miller Lite). The breadth of different takes on the Pilsner ideal defies an accurate taxonomy.

“The interpretation is kind of in the eye of the beholder,” says Matthew Brynildson of the regional and philosophical differences in Pilsner beer. Brynildson is the acclaimed brewmaster at California’s Firestone Walker Brewery, and his brewery’s Pivo Pils sets a bar for American craft Pilsners. He calls the beer a hybrid between German and Bohemian styles, though the lines between those traditions are blurry even in his expert eyes. “The style guidelines lead you to believe that [German and Bohemian Pilsners] are entirely different beers, but the separation happened over time,” he says, adding that today the differences are slight and not as bound by geography as you might expect.

The beer culture surrounding the two traditions is the greater divergence. In Bavaria, it is Helles (another descendant of the first Pilsners from Bohemia) that’s consumed in mass quantities in the biergartens, while Pilsner is less common. “They treat Pils more like a specialty beer these days,” Brynildson says. “It’s hard to find a Pilsner on draft [in Germany]. It’s most often served in a bottle, whereas in the Czech Republic the Bohemian Pils is served in half-liter sizes and considered a real quaffer.”

Differences in drinking culture aside, how does the flavor and character of the Czech/Bohemian Pilsners and the German Pils differ? Brynildson has traveled the regions extensively to sample Pilsner, and he breaks it down:

“Bohemian Pilsners tend to be more grainy in their malt presence with a little sweeter finish. Historically they were more hops-forward as well. German [Pils] are lighter bodied, and certainly bitter but not very hops-aromatic. They tend to have a drier, crisper finish, but the German Pils is really different from north to south.”

Bohemian Pilsners likewise differ significantly within their native region. Pilsner Urquell is the primogenitor, and the most readily available Czech Pilsner in America. The brewery has adapted to a shifting global market with an increased emphasis on quality and freshness in their exported products. Urquell is shipped in refrigerated containers, and in recent years the brewery shifted from their signature green-glass bottles to brown bottles and added 16-ounce cans to their lineup. But Urquell is a polarizing beer. You’re either enamoured with the signature subtle wiff of butter and distinctly lubricious texture, or you find those signature qualities distracting in the otherwise impeccable Pilsner. One of Brynildson’s favorite examples from the Czech Republic is Budvar (sold in North America as Czechvar). “If you put [Budvar] side by side with Pilsner Urquell, you wouldn’t think they were really brewing the same [style] at all,” he says.

There is even more variation among the German-brewed Pils. Commonly imported examples such as Schonramer Pils from Bavaria, the industrial and very light Jever, and the Rothaus Pils from the Black Forest region provide a spectrum of Pilsner character. Brynildson, however, recommends a beer-tour of Germany to discover the full range of Pilsner for yourself. He says talking to German brewers and drinkers led him to some truly remarkable examples.

The brewmaster used his research trip to develop Firestone Walker Pivo Pils. “I gleaned what I liked the most from the two styles and took elements of all the [Pilsners] that I liked,” he says. The resulting beer is dry-hopped with German hops varieties and melds the graininess of Bohemian Pilsners with the “tonic-like bitterness” of his favorite German examples. It’s a story that’s repeated by many of the American brewers who’ve returned from fact-finding (beer-finding) missions to Europe. Recently Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo had a similar Pilsner awakening in Germany, and he developed Russian River STS Pils upon his return. STS is an unfiltered—“keller” in the Pilsner parlance—German-style Pilsner that packs a huge wallop of Saaz hops character.

There’s a wide variety of American craft Pilsners now on the market, and they span the spectrum of Pilsner-character from Bohemian to German and even include some throwbacks to the American Pilsners brewed before Prohibition wrecked the beer industry. Most of these new American examples are made in a mold similar to Pivo Pils—distinctly American hybrids that take elements from each tradition to craft a beer that’s balanced between hops character and malt presence with a dry, bitter finish and an alcohol content around 5 percent.

Victory Brewing’s Prima Pils (Downingtown, Pennsylvania), at nearly twenty years old, is one of the most time-honored examples, and it’s still one of the best. Hoppy enough to satisfy even jaded IPA fanatics, Prima drips with noble hops character backed up by an elusive barley flavor that can only come from imported malts. Sierra Nevada Nooner (Chico, California, and Asheville, North Carolina) is a much newer entry into the Pilsner field, and as expected from the now bicoastal brewing company, it’s phenomenal with a crisp finish and zesty mid-palate. Both versions are platforms for the Noble hops character that was once intrinsic to the Pilsner style, but even that rule is now being bent by craft breweries.

Different varietals are increasingly finding their way into craft Pilsners, with some distinctive and excellent results. Oregon’s Full Sail Brewing uses Cascade hops in their very bitter (60 IBUs) Pilsner; Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing uses Sterling and Mt. Hood hops in their Polestar German Pils. Hops On Pointe from Garage Project—a brewery on the cutting edge of the craft industry in New Zealand—is a departure from tradition that uses the classic Pilsner profile to showcase the distinct presence of Nelson Sauvin hops, revealing that hops’ deep complexity the way a classic Bohemian Pilsner exhibits the zippy snap of Saaz hops.

The adventurous and inventive craft brewers have adopted the Pilsner style, and they’re honoring tradition and innovating the brewing techniques in equal measure. They are writing the next chapter in the history of Pilsner and creating a new wave of Pils that is as varied and compelling as any modern beer style. While chances are the popularity of craft Pils won’t eclipse IPA in America, it wouldn’t be the first time that the golden lager challenged the dominance of the reigning favorite style. Craft Pils is maturing, and there’s a variation on the theme to please any palate.

“The craft market has finally matured to the point where a well-made Pilsner beer, whether it is an extreme American slant or a really classic example, now fits into the landscape,” Brynildson says. “The mature beer drinker and the mature brewer really appreciate the style. I think you could build an entire brewery’s portfolio on Pilsner beers just as much as you could build it on IPA—it’s a style that you can really geek out on.”

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PHOTO: MATT GRAVES

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