The origin story of the West Coast pilsner shares a common outcome with the Arnold Palmer: Two liquids, delicious on their own, create something equally dazzling in tandem.
The year is 2016, the city is Los Angeles, and Highland Park brewers Bob Kunz and Tim McDonnell need to fill a specialty cask of beer. They survey their available tanks: In one, a West Coast IPA; in the other, the brewery’s house beer, Refresh Pilsner. The pair decide to combine the two at a 50/50 ratio. The result: a beer with the hop character of a West Coast IPA and the easy drinkability of a pilsner. It electrifies them both.
“The cask was ripping,” Kunz says. “We were like: We need to turn this into a beer.”
And they did. That beer became Timbo Pils, and it touched off a wave of brewer interest that’s continued to build ever since. Today, the combination of straightforward drinkability and aggressive, New World dry hopping is still the North Star for West Coast pilsners—it’s just every other detail that’s open to interpretation.
Half IPA, Half Pilsner, All Lager
The term “West Coast pilsner” is seven years old, but the beer has been enjoying a brighter spotlight the past two years thanks to the rise in popularity of related styles—namely, Italian-style pilsner and cold IPA. As the lines between hoppy ales and lagers become less rigid, brewer interest in that overlap has tilled the soil where West Coast pilsner can bloom. New brewing techniques, hop products, and philosophical approaches are all in play.
“Theoretically, a super-clean lager base of pilsner malt is the perfect base for hop character, so we’ve all been trying to figure out what that means in practice,” says Vince Tursi, cofounder and head brewer at DSSOLVR in Asheville, North Carolina. Besides brewing an Italian-style pilsner that has almost become a core beer for the brewery, Tursi also has brewed a few West Coast–style pilsners that helped him to think through and demonstrate the distinctions between the two.
Like other emerging or hybridized beer styles, West Coast pilsner is best explained in relation to what it’s not. It’s not as bitter or strong in alcohol as an IPA. It’s not a Noble-hop showcase, like German or Italian pilsner. Meanwhile, it has more intense hop aroma, flavor, and bitterness than a traditional American lager, and it has a distinctly contemporary dry-hopped attitude that separates it from the catch-all hoppy lagers of yore.
“It’s the crispier, more refined, and lager-ish version of where we’ve taken the West Coast IPA style but put it into a package that’s really for anybody,” says Kelsey McNair, head brewer at San Diego’s North Park. “It’s all the IPA without all the alcohol, and it’s all the lager at the same time.”
Definition Under Construction
Even more than its storied cousins in its pilsner family tree, West Coast pilsner is a brewer-led phenomenon. Without a long historical tradition, brewers are writing the beer’s parameters today, in real time. No major competition style guidelines include it by name, but categories in recent years have expanded to make room for this fresh take on pilsners characterized by New World (usually American) hops.
The 2023 World Beer Cup guidelines included the almost brand-new “Contemporary American-Style Pilsener” subcategory. (The Brewers Association first introduced it in 2020, but COVID cancellations limited its deployment.) The subcategory is nested under American-Style Pilsener, but it diverges from beers made in the pre-Prohibition vein because it allows a broader spectrum of hop aroma and flavor. The parameters don’t enumerate those flavors outright, but they note that “contemporary versions will exhibit attributes typical of a wide range of hop varieties.”
“The creation of the Contemporary American-Style Pilsner entry was very much in reaction to brewers wanting to enter these beers and not really having a good place for them,” says Jen Blair, an Advanced Cicerone who was a judge at the 2023 World Beer Cup. “The guidelines are more of a reflection of what brewers are doing rather than dictating what the style parameters should be. It’s more, ‘Here’s what we’re seeing brewers do.’”
It’s worth noting that the latest Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines, released in 2021, don’t yet have an analogous category.
Blair says that most of the beers she tasted from that category fit the parameters well; she also happens to personally enjoy them. “If I can have something lighter, crisper, less bitter but with some of the same hop profiles I like, that’s the best of both worlds,” she says.
Outlines and Outliers
As a style that’s being defined and evangelized mostly by brewers, the technical details of West Coast pilsner are where its magic and mayhem lie. For every two brewers who cite certain criteria as must-haves of the style, you’ll find another who disagrees. There are generally accepted approaches, and there are numerous outliers. This produces a spectrum of West Coast pilsners—on one end, they have more in common with German pilsners; on the other, some feel more akin to cold IPA.
Take malt flavor: Tursi says that any pilsner, West Coast or otherwise, should have “profound grain character that is balanced but not overwhelming.” McNair falls on the other end of the spectrum: “Similar to West Coast IPA, my approach is to get the malt out of the way. It’s not there for malty flavor; it’s a body thing.”
Malt bills reflect divergent approaches:
- Temescal Brewing in Oakland, California, uses 100 percent pilsner malt.
- Fracture Brewing in Portland, Oregon—which won a silver medal in the Hoppy Lager category at this year’s Oregon Beer Awards for its West Coast Pilsner—uses a 50/50 blend of pilsner and two-row.
- Highland Park’s Timbo is 40 percent pilsner, 40 percent two-row, 10 percent Vienna, and 10 percent Carafoam.
- North Park incorporates 20 to 30 percent adjuncts—sometimes flaked rice, sometimes puffed jasmine rice, sometimes oats—into its grist of primarily pilsner malt.
Or, consider their alcoholic strengths:
- North Park’s West Coast pilsners range from 4.5 to 5.5 percent ABV, with two recent ones clocking in at 4.7 percent.
- Temescal’s 49 Mile sits at 5.6 percent.
- Timbo is 5.8 percent ABV, already getting strong for a pilsner.
- DSSOLVR’s Lord of the Fuzz is 6 percent ABV—creeping into cold IPA territory.
The finer points of such varied takes on the style—alongside debates about how different a West Coast pilsner is from a cold IPA really—can draw brewers into the weeds quickly. At the end of the day, though, the style’s creator believes the best way for the public to understand these beers is simply to drink them.
“My wish is just that we didn’t have to explain [this beer] by some style, and that people would have the opportunity to make decisions about it based on drinking it,” Kunz says. “Because I think West Coast pilsner has a great experiential potential—it’s lower ABV, it’s so drinkable.”
Kunz would be happy to hear that the sales pitch for West Coast pilsner at Grnd Sqrl, a beer bar in 29 Palms, California, is exactly that.
“I certainly don’t have as strong of feelings as some nerdy brewers do on the minutiae of styles,” says Grnd Sqrl owner Mike Usher. Instead, he suggests West Coast pilsner to customers looking for a hoppy, easy-drinking beer to beat the desert’s summer heat. “I tell people: It’s cold and crispy like a regular pilsner, but it’s gonna have a little more of a citrusy hop profile than you’re used to.”
With that simple hook, pilsner has become the bar’s best-selling style behind hazy IPA.
With drinkers’ expectations and brewers’ parameters (mostly) established for West Coast pilsner, the energy in the brewhouse is focused on fine tuning. With adjustments to recipes and techniques, brewers are in pursuit of the perfect balance of hop expression, bitterness, and drinkability, all with the soul of a lager.
Exploring hop layering and timing is among the foremost considerations. Typically, brewers are using Noble (or Noble-esque) hops on the hot side to achieve perceptible bitterness, then dry hopping with bright, citrus-forward, and tropical hops from the Pacific Northwest, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. Dry-hopping rates seem to vary from about 1.5 to 3 pounds per barrel (or roughly 0.6 to 1.2 kilos per hectoliter).
Innovative hop products such as Cryo, Incognito, and CGX pellets have been critical to the style’s evolution, allowing brewers to maximize punchy West Coast flavor and aroma while reducing some of the less desirable aspects that can come from traditional T-90 pellets. The double dry-hopped version of Timbo Pils, for example, uses Cryo hops and Incognito, while the standard Timbo does not.
“The more hops you add, these beers can get out-of-whack quickly if you don’t have the right structure,” Kunz says. “I really feel like we’re at this perfect point in time, at least for us and our sensibility around making these double dry-hopped West Coast beers because we have these hop products that are reducing the vegetal load and increasing the flavor impact.”
Spunding is another area receiving considerable attention from brewers, both for West Coast pilsners and Italian-style pils (see Gearhead: The Force Behind the Fizz). Fracture’s Steve Beaudoin, Temescal’s head brewer Ryan Hammond, and Tursi are all proponents of spunding and/or dry hopping under pressure. Beaudoin uses a hop doser for this purpose.
“We spund and dry hop on two separate days—doing that under pressure is the best process change I’ve seen in all my beers across the board,” Beaudoin says. “It’s green as green is. It’s under pressure and it’s carbed, so it starts breaking up and rousing inside the tank. It’s a volcano essentially, which is great.”
At Temescal, Hammond typically caps lagers toward the end of fermentation to recapture carbon dioxide; without a hop doser, however, he’s not able to dry hop under pressure. “We cap the tank for ... non-dry-hopped lagers, but can’t for West Coast pilsner because the dissolved CO2 from that would cause a hop geyser at dry hop,” Hammond says. “I think it does lead to a more estery beer, but with the amount of hops, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in West Coast pils.”
Spunding, meanwhile, can result in the retention of more sulfur compounds, which require extra consideration in beers that already derive sulfur from hops and lager yeast. (Many brewers cite floor-malted Bohemian pilsner as a rich contributor of thiol precursors; thiols also are a sulfurous compound.)
“Early batches, they had lager fermentation sulfur,” Hammond says. “They had hop sulfur and pilsner-malt sulfur, and it was just gross.”
Proper lagering time will help some less desirable sulfur blow off, as will increasing fermentation temperature to the mid-60s °F (17–19°C) after an initially colder pitch at roughly 48–53°F (9–12°C). At North Park, McNair says he has occasionally had to use a very small dose of copper sulfite to reduce sulfur, a trick he borrowed from the winemaking world.
“Copper does scrub sulfur pretty rapidly,” he says. “That’s something we certainly have done when we’ve needed to. That conversion is almost instantaneous. The beer was stinky in the wrong way, and boom, now we got rid of all of that.”
Expressive Hops in Highly Drinkable Form
The pursuit of perfection in West Coast pilsners is incremental and evolving, but it’s clearly a labor of love. And what could be more worthy of pursuit than achieving an idealized union of hop character and sessionability?
For decades, American craft brewers have borrowed from other brewing traditions to inform their lagers—Bavarian helles, Czech dark lagers, Italian pilsners, and more. Perhaps West Coast pilsner’s most intriguing contribution—and what would seem to give it true staying power—is that it’s a boldly American entry in the lager cannon, and one that U.S. brewers can truly claim as their own.
While not as ubiquitous as the West Coast IPAs from which they draw inspiration, West Coast pilsners are steadily winning fans with their simple sales pitch: Love hops? Love lager? Have the best of both worlds.
“I’m happy our audience has bought into Timbo,” Kunz says, noting it’s his taproom’s best-selling beer. “I don’t have it on my to-do list to convert the world to hoppy lagers. I hope it happens naturally.”