For most American beer drinkers, “Pilsener” has long been associated with watery light beers or oft-skunked imported lagers. It’s an unfair stain on the reputation of this 175-year-old style, first brewed in the Bohemian town of Pilsen. When done right, a Czech or German Pilsener is crisp, thirst-quenching and refreshing — the perfect warm-weather beer.
That’s why Pilseners were an afterthought in craft-beer culture. While IPAs account for a quarter of all craft-beer sales, Pilseners make up just over 1 percent. That could be changing. Bart Watson, the economist for the Brewers Association, a national trade organization, says that “craft Pilsener sales basically tripled” between 2013 and 2016.
Brewers have been quick to jump on the trend: The past year has seen large, well-known breweries (Founders, Great Lakes, Stone’s Arrogant offshoot) and regional players (Captain Lawrence, AleSmith, Evolution) all add Pilseners to their portfolios.
How did Pilsener turn from beer scorned to beer of the moment?
Matt Brynildson, who joined Goose Island in the mid-’90s and has been head brewer at Firestone Walker since 2001, says he thinks the antipathy toward Pilseners began in the early days of the microbrew movement. “When the craft-beer revolution started, all the beer consumed in this country was light lager beer, some labeled as Pilsener,” he says. “And so a lot of the revolution was based on ale. We were so focused on ales from the beginning, especially hoppy ales, that Pilseners weren’t really on the radar.”
But time moves on and memories fade. After drinking fresh Pilseners on trips to Europe, Brynildson decided he wanted to bring one back to Southern California. That became Firestone’s Pivo Hoppy Pils, which uses German hops, malt and yeast, but adds dry-hopping with spicy, citrusy Saphir hops, a technique not used in the old country. “I put it under the nose of a German brewmaster, and they say, ‘This is nice, but this is not a Pilsener,’ ” he laughs. “Pivo is just too aromatic, too hop-aroma-forward for Europe.” It does well in hop-crazy America, though: Pivo won gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival every year from 2013 to 2015. For IPA lovers who are just moving into Pilseners, there’s something more recognizable from the level of hops, even if they don’t taste the same as the tropical hops in, say, Firestone’s Luponic Distortion IPA.
Slightly less traditional but still distinctly American is the new Pilsener from Founders. “We’re not interested in duplicating what was,” says co-founder and chief executive Mike Stevens. “We’re interested in inventing what will be.” The Michigan brewery’s search for “the next great American beer” has led them to PC Pils, an unfiltered Pilsener hopped with Centennial, Cascade and Chinook instead of the spicy, floral European varieties. “The palate of the consumer enjoys that craft flavor,” Stevens says. “We don’t want to abandon who we are — we’re going to use those craft hops and American malts.”
Stevens also sees another force at work in the rise of Pilsener: beer drinkers who are looking for flavor without the high alcohol by volume associated with IPAs. While Founders is known for the potent Kentucky Breakfast Stout and Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale, its All-Day IPA, which is only 4.7 percent ABV, has become one of the best-selling craft beers in the United States. “It’s nice to enjoy a slow sipper, but there’s times when you’re golfing, or at the beach, and you want to have more than one beer and keep your edge,” he says.
Other brewers didn’t set out to sell Pilseners. When Hunter Smith opened Champion Brewing in Charlottesville in 2012, he was focused on making IPAs and stouts. “I’d always been like, ‘We don’t need to do a lager, that’s all been done. We’re just going to do double IPAs and crazy stuff,’ ” he says with a laugh. After brewer Levi Duncan came on board in 2014, Champion took a break from cranking out Missile IPA and Megalodon Imperial Coffee Porter to brew a breezy Czech-style Pilsener called Shower Beer. It won gold at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival. The following year, Champion added a Mexican-style lager, called True Love. The next thing Smith knew, “Shower Beer and True Love are our best-selling beers in the taproom. For someone who didn’t plan to make any lagers, that was eye-popping.”
Pumping out double IPAs is fun, Smith says, “and people get really excited about new releases, but quietly 65 percent of our business is people coming in and ordering lagers.” With the more crowd-friendly styles, he says, “we went from a beer geek’s brewery to a community center where everyone can hang out. You get a liter of lager and sit on the patio with your dog and hang out.”
However, Pilseners might yet be the best of both worlds: Last year, Champion’s brewers began experimenting with a beer called Pils Are Alive. The recipe is similar to Shower Beer, Smith explains, but it’s dry-hopped at the rate of a double IPA, with different combinations of hops in each batch. (The version on tap in Charlottesville now uses Ariana and Azacca.) It has the aroma and fruity flavors of an IPA, for the beer geeks, but it feels like an easy-drinking Pilsener to everyone else. Naturally, Champion will begin canning it this fall.
Victory Brewing began making its aromatic Prima Pils with whole-flower European hops in 1996, and at first, co-founder Bill Covaleski says, “the people who embraced this beer were often folks who’d traveled to Europe and had those beers fresh in their environments,” rather than mainstream drinkers. Now, he adds, “I’m definitely seeing dyed-in-the-wool craft-beer consumers who like less of the fireworks and more of the seduction — beers that may not be so splashy.”
As Pilseners have started to become more popular, it’s actually become possible for new breweries to build buzz around themselves by actively choosing not to go down the path of IPAs or weird barrel-aged offerings. On the first night of the recent Craft Brewers Conference, ChurchKey hosted a tasting called “East Coast’s Finest.” The line stretched down the block for a chance to try heavily hyped imperial IPAs from the Veil, Bissell Brothers, Other Half and Trillium — and a trio of unfiltered German-style Pilseners from New York’s Suarez Family Brewery.
Brewer Dan Suarez, whose résumé includes years at Sixpoint and Hill Farmstead notes that bars in New York City originally wanted his pale ales and had to be “coaxed” into trying Pilsener. Now, he says, “we’ve seen the demand flip-flop.” Beer drinkers who keep sampling new flavors “are getting into drinkability and well-made simple beer, and getting savvy enough to enjoy a super subtle beer like a Pilsener.”
“Guests want to drink Pilsener, rather than taste, tick and trade them,” as is often the case with IPAs, said Greg Engert, the beer director for ChurchKey and the other 18 establishments in the Neighborhood Restaurant Group. “They just love to drink them.”
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