For millions of drinkers around the world, the reliable, pale, light, yellow, fizzy, easy-drinking pilsner is simply synonymous with beer. According to the experts who run tours at the style’s purported birthplace, Pilsner Urquell, outside of Prague in the Czech Republic, 80% of the world’s beer production is pilsner.
For a long time, the style’s ubiquity and the dominance of macro pilsner brewers like Miller and Corona made pilsner the bane of beer nerds and the craft producers who woo them. The last thing the producers wanted to be was remotely comparable to Budweiser, which they see as essentially a lowbrow American take on Urquell, so they swung in the other direction toward big, bold, hoppy and cleverly flavored red ales, pale ales, amber ales, brown ales, stouts, IPAs, DIPAs and imperial IPAs.
It helped that startup craft operations could make nonlagers a lot more quickly and affordably—pilsners, a primary type of lager, take as many as four more weeks to make than ales—and with a lot less precision (the pilsner process is more technical in order to achieve the desired crispness and clarity). Various other flavor elements also cloak flaws in ales in ways lagers cannot.
On the Urquell tour, the precision is visual. The facility is spotless, and its huge and gleaming copper kettles almost glow. The kettles govern a slow, cold-fermented, closed-tank process with yeasts that feed on the bottom. That represents the key difference between lagers and ales. Instead of a slow, cold and closed process, ales are brewed faster—as quickly as two weeks—at room temperature, with open tanks where the yeasts convert sugars to alcohol at the top.
When Joseph Groll developed Urquell’s brewing system in 1842, it was unprecedented. Today, the Urquell recipe remains the same (and remains secret), and in a quiet corner at the end of 9 kilometers of fermentation cellars remains the only place Urquell can be tried unfiltered and unpasteurized, straight from the barrel. At the source, the samples taste a touch more complex, bitter and soft.
But that hasn’t stopped legion brewers from following Groll’s lead. Hundreds of them produce millions of gallons of pilsner every year, in a range of styles, including German (which leans more hop-forward), Japanese (often drier and super clean), Mexican (richer and fuller) and American (typically a little stronger, spicier, citric and creative).
The best news for pilsner lovers is that the craft community no longer scoffs at it. In fact, in United States craft beer circles, the style is flourishing with all sorts of fresh interpretations. Peter Licht has been tracking it closely. He’s the brewmaster at the popular San Jose, California, Hermitage Brewing Co., where he has been making pilsners for a quarter-century.
“There’s a really good reason that pilsners are the most popular in the world: It’s a great style of beer,” says Licht. “There was a dumbing-down of the style over the years so that they weren’t what they could be, but there’s a huge amount of room in the category that will satisfy [both] the masses and people who love fine beer.”
The Czech and German hallmarks—“established granddaddies,” in Licht parlance—will continue to please. But now that the pilsner mainstream stigma has faded, he adds, many of the most intriguing recipes are found across the U.S., and particularly in the West.
“Craft beer in America 30 years ago set itself up as different [from] the big beer brands because it had to carve out space that was opposite of what was there,” says Licht. “There was a reluctance to enter the space of the enemy—Bud, MillerCoors. Now, craft beer has been around long enough. Brewers don’t need to differentiate. They can do things they want to do.”
These are seven of the most exciting things brewers are doing in that vein, according to a panel of craft brewers and beverage directors, Licht included, and why they’re worth celebrating. Be warned, though: Many of these interesting brews from smaller breweries are available only regionally, and several are found almost exclusively at restaurants or bars. They’re all worth the extra effort to seek out.
The Floyd brothers have generated a nationwide cult following after years diving deep into full-figured beers such as their flagship Dark Lord, a 15% ABV, Russian-style imperial stout brewed with coffee, Mexican vanilla and Indian sugar. But as Monterey Beer Festival founder Jeff Moses points out, that’s merely the entry point for a catalog of quality brews, and after launching several beer festivals and brands himself, he has tried seemingly every beer out there. The Von Munsthür is malty, dry, herbal and refreshing, with outrageous eyeball art on the label.
“All of 3 Floyds beers are really flavor-forward,” says Moses. “It’s big for a pilsner, complex and pleasantly crisp and bitter.”
This beer is available primarily at brewpubs and smaller distributors throughout the Midwest.
This pilsner is a rare breed thanks to its extremely extended lagering period and legendary head, which is said to lock in freshness and flavor. Licht loves the Denver operation for its dedication to a super-pale brew that’s equal parts balanced, crisp and bitter.
”Bierstadt is on another level when it comes to pilsner,” says Licht. “I have been to hundreds of breweries and was blown away when I visited Bierstadt. No amount of effort, expense or time is too much for them when it comes to lagers. I wouldn't say it borders on obsessive—it goes beyond. The marathon brew days, the prolonged aging, the dedicated glassware—they put in the effort in doing everything right, and it shows up in the glass.”
You’ll have to visit Bierstadt’s taproom or any of dozens of restaurants or bars around Colorado to find this beer.
The pride of this Pacific Northwest brewery comes so crisp it’s almost snappy, with vegetal depth and a smooth yet dry finish. Its aromatics and delicacy have made it a darling of judges at the most competitive beer competitions on the planet. Chuckanut’s pilsner has earned repeat gold at the Great American Beer Festival and at the World Beer Cup.
"I love it for its balance, but the thing that really makes it stand out is its dimensions—it’s not just fizzy and simple,” says Kyle Odell, the beverage director at the historic Orcas Hotel, not far from where Chuckanut brews in Bellingham, Washington, north of Seattle. “It’s herbaceous and fuller, which is more than you’ll find in most pilsners."
This beer is found primarily at bars and restaurants around the Puget Sound area, or you can grab a growler to-go at the brewery itself.
Hop-forward, fruity and honey-hinted, Lagertha proves memorable thanks to an uncanny combination: a traditional super-clean Czech technique; Saaz hops, also a Czech hallmark; and fruity and famous U.S.-grown Mosaic hops. Modern pilsners often enjoy hoppy backbones normally associated with ales, with a lighter and cleaner overall effect. On the company’s website, its makers call the Lagertha, which takes its name from a legendary Viking shieldmaiden, “a hoppy twist on a classic style.”
Enegren ships within California, and Lagertha can be found at its taproom or at a number of bars and restaurants in the southern part of the state.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
Born of Czech Saaz hops, a classic Bohemian pilsner foundational element and California-grown hops, this light, dry and malty pilsner is an uncommon and unfiltered version of the genre. According to Licht, Hermitage’s brewmaster, it’s also a very personal product for the Hermitage team.
“We love our hops and are willing to push the envelope on quantity of hop additions in terms of quantity and frequency,” says Licht. “I call it a guilty pleasure because we brew the beer we want to drink. We don't have any fealty to the rules of the style, nor are we trying to produce a beer accepted by the masses, just what we want to slake our thirst when the occasion calls for a pils.”
This one’s not nationally available just yet, but it can be found in regions including northern California, Illinois and southern Florida.
San Diego’s Stone Brewery captured the imagination of the craft beer world early on with its bold pale ales and smoked porters and kept its attention with its West Coast-style IPA. This 5.7% ABV pilsner, a collaboration with Metallica (yes, that Metallica), represents a departure from what both Stone and the band are known for. Crisp, refreshing, hoppy and even a little grassy, it’s a revelation and as quaffable as they come.
Staffer Ronnie Page sells a lot of it at the brewery’s Escondido flagship Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens. “It has a great malt bill,” he says. “It’s a very crushable pilsner.”
Stone ships within California, and there’s an excellent chance you can find it at a restaurant or bar near you no matter where in the country you’re located.
Prima Pils delivers bright floral pop and precise eastern-European execution, with plenty of the crisp pilsner experience, lifted by a light lemon essence. Licht likes to point out that, while pilsners may be having a moment, the Downington, Pennsylvania, product has been around for a while.
“One of the reasons I have such respect for this one is because I have been enjoying it since the 1990s, and it has been such a solid beer the whole time,” says Licht. “It was a genuine American-brewed German-style pilsner when there wasn't much interest in the style, a great beer then and now.”
You’re in luck: This one is available nationwide, and you’re likely to be able to pick up a six-pack wherever you get your groceries.