For many craft beer consumers, the beer drinking experience follows a predictable arc through time. At the first discovery of full-flavored beers, the bland profile of mass-market American lagers just doesn’t cut it. The farther down the rabbit hole they go, the more extreme their palate becomes. Their chosen pints test thresholds of hops and alcohol. They dabble in the tart and funky flavors of sour and wild-fermented beer. They crave the thrill of exotic ingredients, like coffee, fruit, flowers and spice.
At some point, though, they find themselves desiring the simple satisfaction of a pilsner. Not the watered-down American version they previously left behind, but a well crafted, true-to-form German or Czech-style pils that packs a modest punch of toasted grain and spicy/herbal European hops.
A similar arc is happening in the craft beer industry. After more than a decade of boundary-pushing experimentation and over-the-top hops, pilsner is making a comeback.
The beauty of pilsner is its ability to be both unobtrusive and sublime. It’s made for a European drinking culture in which beer is intended to prop up a social interaction, not intrude upon it. It’s modest enough to remain a side player and light enough to allow for several pints (or liters, as the case may be). But if you want to sit and contemplate, pilsner reveals fathoms of depth beneath its seemingly simple surface.
Pilsner rides a knife’s edge of balance. Lightly kilned malts impart graham-cracker-like sweetness with overtones of toast and sometimes hints of corn. In a well made pilsner, you can taste the grain. Bottom-fermenting yeast and long, cold maturation leave the beer crisp and clean with that sharp lager edge.
While most wouldn’t consider pilsner to be a hoppy beer, it is the careful expression of continental hop varieties that truly defines the style: perfumed Saaz hops for the Czechs and spicy Hallertau or Tettnang for the Germans. Savor the hops carefully and you begin to pick out undertones of blackberry, black currant, licorice and citrus.
Where pilsner was once hard to find, American craft pilsners — both local and out-of-state — now abound.
New Ulm’s August Schell Brewing Co. blazed a trail when it introduced its German-style pilsner in 1984. Thirty years later, Schell’s Pils remains a standout. Hops take the lead in this crisp, refreshing lager — spicy with subtle overtones of lemon peel. Sharp bitterness is layered with low sweetness and toasted grain flavors. It goes out clean and dry.
Summit’s Keller Pils was the beer of the summer last year. Originally brewed to celebrate the brewery’s 30th anniversary, it’s making a comeback this year due to popular demand. “Keller bier” in Germany is lager that is served before the normal long conditioning period is complete. It typically has a slight haze and exhibits fermentation character that disappears in a fully conditioned pilsner.
Keller Pils is true to form. A gauzy haze makes it appear lighter than most pilsners. Low sulfur notes soften the typical spicy hops and bitterness, while boosting the grainy malt. It’s lighter than some other examples, but that makes it all the more quaffable as the muggy summer heat returns.
Fair State Brewing Cooperative’s Pils has been available in the taproom since the brewery opened in 2014. This summer they are putting it in cans for the first time. A hearty malt base makes this an exceptionally balanced brew. The aroma and flavor of fresh bread and kilned grain provide a solid foundation for the spice and lemon notes of traditional Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops from Germany. As Fair State’s own description says, “One hop, one malt, lager yeast. Simple and delicious.” I’m happy to see this beer become more widely available.
Another new kid on the local pilsner scene is Indeed Brewing Company’s B-Side Pils. This one falls on the lighter side, but still has admirable complexity. The toasted grain character is particularly prominent and the hop lean firmly floral with light lemon peel. Relatively moderate bitterness makes it go down easy.
Of the many out-of-state pilsners available, Bell’s Brewery’s Lager of the Lakes is a standout. This is an incredibly nuanced beer with well-defined layers of malt and hops and flavors that change from the start to the finish of each sip. Bready malt leads the way, with moderate sweetness and light toasty notes that are a bit like chewing on grain. Herbal and floral hops take over midway, leading to a dry, bitter finish with long-lingering, faint, lemony highlights.
Craft brewing pioneer Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. demonstrates its well-established brewing prowess with Nooner Pilsner. Clear, crisp, and layered with just the right balance of sharp bitterness, floral/spicy hop flavor and bready, toasted-grain malt, Nooner is everything a great beer should be. Over three days of tasting pilsners, I found this to be one of the best of the bunch. It’s sure to become a new standard in my refrigerator.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.