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Sometimes you just want a beer—nothing fancy, nothing loaded with so many hops that you can’t taste anything except bitter pinecones for the next three hours—just a beer. Enter the pilsner, a style that originated in the 19th century when Josef Groll came to the aid of the people of the Czech city, Plzeň who were plagued by a batch of “spoiled” lager. His solution was to add Saaz hops, which help prevent the beer from spoiling while also altering its flavor. The result is a beer that has the drinkability of your everyday lager with a bit more heft: a spicier, hoppier, or maltier quality are all possible when drinking a pilsner.
“I got my first brewing job (where) I wanted to make lager more than I wanted to make anything else, so when it came time for my partner, Bill Eye and I to open our own brewery, we knew exactly what we wanted to do—make the beers we wanted to drink,” says Ashleigh Carter, head brewer and co-owner of Bierstadt Lagerhaus in Denver. “I love how much technique is involved in making lagers; sure, recipe is important to a certain extent but really the technique is what separates the good from the great. We wanted to give people an experience here that you would have to otherwise jump on an airplane and travel to Germany to have—fresh-tasting lager on draft.”
At Bierstadt, you can have the ultimate pilsner drinking experience: the slow-pour pils. Its German-style lager takes 30 hours to brew, even longer to lager, and even longer still for it to make its way from the tap to your lips (at least it feels that way). The slow pour process results in a crystal clear beer topped with a creamy foam that bubbles over the top of the glass. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more refreshing beer-drinking experience. And while a trip to Denver (or the Czech Republic, where the style was born) might be out of the realm of possibilities at the moment, there are plenty of quality pilsner options awaiting at your local beer supplier. Here are the best available pilsner beers to drink right now.
Best Overall: Pilsner Urquell
- Region: Czech Republic
- ABV: 4.4%
- Tasting Notes: Malt, Caramel, Hops
“There are very few beers that define an entire style, this is one of them,” says Sam Pecoraro, head brewer at Von Ebert Brewing in Portland, OR. “Pilsner Urquell is the epitome of intentionality and harmony." The “first” pilsner, which has been brewed by a Czech brewery since 1842 is not only a right of passage for any beer drinker, but a trip to Urquell is a pilgrimage many die-hard drinkers consider the ultimate drinking-from-the-source experience.
Best Craft: Russian River Company STS Pils Bohemian Pilsner
- Region: California
- ABV: 5.3%
- Tasting Notes: Yeast, Lemon, Pepper
With the craft pilsner movement booming over the last few years, it’s almost impossible to call out just one. Threes, pFriem, and Upland among others, all have perfected their own pilsners, and Russian River did so while paying tribute to, of all things, the local airport. STS is a German-style pilsner with a couple of twists. The brewery leaves a bit of yeast in the brew, giving the beer a slight haze, and also dry hops the beer with European hops.
Best American: Heater Allen Pils
- Region: Oregon
- ABV: 5%
- Tasting Notes: Cereal, Grass, Hops
Inspired by the ubiquitous Pilsner Urquell, Oregon’s Heater Allen brews its pilsner in the traditional Czech style. That means a long lagering period of at least eight weeks, which creates a deeply malty brew. This rich flavor is balanced by a bitter hop profile that lingers a bit after the finish. As far as pilsners go, Heater Allen’s is a flavorful one that doubles as a refreshing sip.
Read Next: The Best American Beers
Best Czech Style: Live Oak Pilz
- Region: Texas
- ABV: 4.9%
- Tasting Notes: Bread, Spice, Floral
“Live Oak in Austin makes a Czech style pils that is fantastic,” Carter says. While the brewery is better known for its hefeweizen, its pilsner has earned a reputation of its own for its delicate blend of beady malt and spicy hops. True to the Bohemian origins, Pilz is decoction mashed with single heirloom variety Moravian malt.
Best German: Jever Pilsener
- Region: Germany
- ABV: 4.9%
- Tasting Notes: Lemon, Bread, Hops
“The German styles are my favorite and closest to what I make in my brewery,” Carter says. “My favorites are all bitter, crisp, dry and nuanced. Schoenramer Pils is a bit more on the aromatic side with some later hop additions, Jever Pils is the more bitter version of what we make, and Augustiner Pils is probably the most balanced of the German ones I enjoy.” Javer, which has been brewed in the Friesland region of northern Germany for over 150 years is one of the more readily available stateside.
Read Next: The Best German Beers
Best Italian Style: Firestone Walker Pivo Pils
- Region: California
- ABV: 5.3%
- Tasting Notes: Lemongrass, Floral, Spice
In recent years brewers such as Von Ebert have explored the wider world of pilsner outside of the Czech Republic. Italian pilsners are known for their brighter, more in-your-face hop flavor. One of the first brewers to popularize the variation stateside is Firestone Walker. “Inspired by a famous dry-hopped Italian pils, [Birrificio Italiano’s Tipopils], Pivo changed the definition of pilsner for brewers in the United States," Pecoraro says.
Best Keller Pils: Summit Keller Pils
- Region: Minnesota
- ABV: 5.1%
- Tasting Notes: Bread, Hops, Lemon
The keller pils is an unfiltered version of the German-style pilsner. Though not as popular as its crystal clear counterpart, it's equally refreshing with a much maltier flavor and richer body. Minnesota’s Summit Brewing gained fame for its Keller Pils, which has been hailed as one of the best pilsners by the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup. It checks all of the keller pils boxes with a hazy complexion and heavy malt flavor but sets itself apart with a floral and lemony hop profile.
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Best Hoppy Pils: Victory Prima Pils
- Region: Pennsylvania
- ABV: 5.3%
- Tasting Notes: Floral, Lemon, Spice
Take everything you love about a pilsner—its crisp drinkability and clean finish—and add your favorite part of an IPA—that unmistakable hop quality. The hoppy pilsner is, as the name suggests, a pilsner brewed with an extra dose of hops. For Victory's Prima Pils that means Tettnang, Hallertau, Spalt, Saaz hops are brewed in its German-inspired pilsner. “One of the early regional craft breweries to push a pils as one of its flagships and a great example too!" Pecoraro says.
Best Session Pils: Notch Session Pils
- Region: Massachusetts
- ABV: 4%
- Tasting Notes: Lemon, Sweet, Floral
While Von Ebert’s lead brewer and blender Jason Hansen says, “I would argue that all pilsner, in general, is 'sessionable,'" some breweries are pushing pilsner’s drinkability even further by dropping the ABV below 4%. Massachusetts’ Notch Brewer has plenty of options when it comes to easy-drinking pilsners, but its Czech-style session pils can’t be beat for its crisp crushability."
Read Next: The Best Lager Beers
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Sarah Freeman is a food and beverage writer based out of Chicago. She has been writing about, as well as frequenting, restaurants and bars for the past decade—from learning about what makes a perfect piece of cocktail ice to the exploring art of beer label design. At the moment, she doesn’t have enough room for food in her refrigerator, because it’s filled with cans of beer and bottles of wine.