Pilsner Goes Global: How American Brewers Are Updating the Classic Style

November 14, 2019

By Ben Keene, November 14, 2019

We have the Czechs to thank for Pilsner. Well, an ill-tempered Bavarian brewer and a Czech brewery to be specific. Josef Groll first made the golden lager that launched a thousand imitations in 1842. His employer, the Citizens’ Brewery in Pilsen (now known as Pilsner Urquell) has proudly peddled his popular invention ever since. In the early days of the U.S. craft brewing movement, many beer makers avoided the Czech style as well as its German counterpart, choosing instead to focus on piney pale ales, roasty porters, and caramel-tinged ambers. But as the industry grew and matured, American brewers not only found their way back to Pilsner, they began to give it their own spin. 

Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing has made Prima Pils since 1996, the year it opened. Merging Old World tradition with New World attitude, it was a rather unconventional spin on the style from a relatively small brewery. 

“Back then a lot of the Pilsners were kind of lame,” says Victory co-founder Ron Barchet. “The idea was to come up with a Pils that made a statement. Take the elements of a German Pils and amp them up to get attention.”

Prima definitely got attention. “This is a very hoppy Pilsner,” wrote the late Michael Jackson in his Great Beer Guide (2000). “Not your daddy’s Pilsner,” remarked Beverage Magazine columnist Andy Crouch three years later. Over time Prima has collected awards and accolades, and Barchet says it’s still the beer of choice for nearly every visiting brewer. In spite of a bold reputation though, Prima gains its character from building blocks that Pilsner’s originator would surely recognize: Noble German hops and blonde Pilsner malt. 

The same year Prima first appeared in the U.S., another game-changing interpretation turned up in Italy. By dry-hopping, or adding more hops to the beer after transferring it to fermentation tanks, Birrificio Italiano was able to enhance the flavor and aroma of its Pilsner, Tipopils. This departure from tradition came to be known as Italian-style Pilsner, and slowly earned admirers at home and abroad. It even spawned its own celebration, Pils Pride. Then, in 2017, Maine’s Oxbow Brewing Company introduced an even wider audience to Italy’s innovation when it hosted the first iteration of the event on American soil. 

“Tipopils is a huge inspiration for [our] Luppolo,” says Michael Fava, Oxbow’s head brewer. “Italian-style Pils is modestly dry-hopped and unfiltered, giving this style of beer a more prominent Noble hop bouquet than [its] Bohemian and German predecessors.”

The new generation has decided it isn’t that interested in tradition.”

Today, with increased consumer demand for the character produced by dry-hopping, as well as the ability to source expressive and experimental hop varieties from France, New Zealand, Slovenia, and South Africa, brewers are pushing Pilsner in new directions, expanding the definition of a style Groll pioneered almost two centuries ago. It’s an exciting plot twist to a story that, until recently, appeared to have a finite number of chapters. Change can be swift though, and as Barchet puts it, “The new generation has decided it isn’t that interested in tradition.” The upside is that the wider range of hop varieties now used in Pilsners just might sustain an interest in lagers from an IPA-obsessed audience of drinkers.

“In a world of turbid, sensory overloaded beers a good clean Pilsner or lager is a very welcome thing for consumers and brewers alike,” says Benjamin Green, head brewer at Mississippi’s Southern Prohibition Brewing. Back in July the company released Good Vibrations, a “New World Pilsner” dry-hopped with a lemony-lime Southern Hemisphere variety called Motueka. Brilliant gold in the glass with the style’s trademark clarity and dense cap of foam, Good Vibrations blends right in with its older European relatives from a distance. But one whiff of the aroma and it reveals itself as a newcomer. Instead of delicate floral notes and a subtle woodiness, bright citrus stands out against a background of tropical fruit, bringing to mind an open air market in Southeast Asia. 

Michigan’s lager-focused Wolverine State Brewing also turned to New Zealand for the star ingredient in its newest Pilsner, and earned a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival for its efforts. “The inspiration for NZ Pils came from wanting to highlight a New World hop that isn’t typically used in a classic German Pilsner,” explains Alexis Jorgensen, Wolverine State’s head brewer. “For NZ Pils, we used 100 percent Nelson Sauvin hops. We chose this hop because of its herbally, spicy bitterness that complements the German Pilsner malt, and we wanted to highlight the amazing white wine fruitiness of Nelson, which you can taste when you drink NZ Pils.”

Czech, American, Italian, and New Zealand—are there limits to how far the style can stray from its roots? A growing number of brewers don’t seem to think so. Matchless Brewing in Washington has made Italian, South African, English, and French Pilsners by using ingredients from the corresponding countries. Oregon’s Von Ebert Brewing has designed Pilsner recipes with French malt and hops, jasmine rice, orange peel and spearmint, and even funky Brettanomyces yeast. And Oxbow is planning to introduce a Maine Pilsner next year, sourcing everything from its home state. 

“I think in order for anyone to be creative and unique, especially in this day and age, we need to branch out and explore other approaches and takes on what has been done in the past, argues Von Ebert’s head brewer Sean Burke. “Really in my mind Pils or Pilsner is a focus on malt, hop choice, and the finishing character of the beer,” he says. “Each of these is pathway for us to expand on historical approaches and methods while considering all of these attributes. We are just going to continue to create and explore beers under the Pilsner umbrella until we run out of ideas.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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