Pilsner's New Golden Age

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

"It should be the first beer of the night and the last beer of the night," says Matt Brynildson, the brewmaster at Paso Robles, California's Firestone Walker Brewing Company. He's talking about Firestone's bright and biscuit-y Pivo Pils: the first sip perfectly signaling the transition from work to play, the last one light and crisp enough to carry you off into the night without any regrets.

These days, pilsner is often my only beer of the night (or, ahem, afternoon. Cut me some slack, the weather's getting warm). Like many craft beer enthusiasts, I've done my fair share of exploring the extreme edges of beer, those pricey bombers of citrusy double IPAs, coal-black imperial stouts aged in every kind of barrel, and puckeringly sour, offbeat, and complex beers from Belgium and Vermont and San Diego. I've waited for hours in lines just to sip rare special releases and traveled to jam-packed festivals to taste beers I couldn't buy at home.

Maybe my taste buds got a little tired from all that excitement, but lately I've found myself craving beer that's poured by the pint. Beer that's easier on the palate—and on my blood alcohol level. Pilsner is perfect.

Pilsner dates back to mid-19th-century Bohemia—the area now known as the Czech Republic. The people of the town of Pilsen found the murky local beer so undrinkable that, in 1838, some local tavern owners poured out an entire season's batch in front of the town hall. Tired of the swill they'd been drinking, they pooled funds to build a technologically advanced new brewery and hired a gifted German brewer, Josef Groll, who brought with him knowledge of lager-making and the special Bavarian yeast that fermented beers at cool temperatures, with very clean results. That yeast, along with spicy local Czech hops and Pilsen's unusually soft, sandstone-filtered water, produced an exceptional golden lager that was floral and bright, with a round, mouth-filling texture.

German breweries at the time were celebrated for their darker lagers, but as the Bohemian pilsner grew in fame, the Germans began making bright, dry, and lean pilsner-style brews, incorporating their own local hops. German immigrants brought lager brewing to America in the 1840s, but found that local ingredients made brewing pilsner tricky—high-protein American barley left the beers hazy and unstable. In the mid-1870s, Adolphus Busch and his brewmaster, Irwin Sprule, developed a solution: Adding rice to the malt made a crisper, clearer beer. By the time Prohibition had come and gone, the mild-tasting lagers produced by giant Midwestern breweries were ubiquitous. By the mid-'70s, a rebellious microbrewery movement was fighting back.

Today's American-made craft pilsners—the pilsners I drink most often, since I can get 'em fresh—are bright and refreshing, but definitely not bland. They borrow from both Czech and German traditions, often using imported malt and classic European hops, but sometimes adding juicier American-grown hops after fermentation is complete for a unique take on the style.

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[Photograph: Wes Rowe]

My recent pilsner kick started on the first hot day of spring, when I quit work early and bought a case of Trumer Pils, brewed 25 minutes from my house, in Berkeley, California.* I wanted something light and bright, and a fresh Trumer turned out to be exactly what I was looking for: The pale golden lager is lean and a little grassy, lemony and cracker-y, as easy to drink as spring water—and as refreshing. The case emptied fast.

* A word of warning: Most American-made pilsners are packaged in brown bottles, but, like a handful of imports clinging to tradition, Trumer is sold in green bottles that offer little protection from light, which reacts with certain compounds in boiled hops to create a pungent substance that smells more than a little like skunk spray. Buying a six-pack that's been sitting under fluorescent beams is asking for it, but a closed cardboard case with a "use by" date far in the future has a better chance of tasting fresh and clean.

When I went back to pick up another, I was struck by how many different new pilsners were on the shelf—15 different options from stateside craft brewers alone. Some of these were breweries known for their hoppy IPAs or sours, while others were new lager-focused projects.

Is pilsner on the rise in the US? Ask any brewer and they'll say they've always loved the style, even when it wasn't considered cool in the craft beer scene to drink anything that wasn't piled with big malt flavors and aggressive hops. The craft beer movement, after all, was basically a backlash against watery-tasting American renditions of pilsner that are made with a mix of malt and rice.

"I love a barrel-aged stout as much as the next guy," says Jesse Friedman of San Francisco's Almanac Beer Company. "But sometimes you just want something clean and crushable. Brewing is manufacturing work: You're lifting 50-pound bags of grain, climbing ladders, hosing and scrubbing fermenters." At the end of the day—and sometimes all day long—a crisp pilsner, clocking in at 4.5 or 5% ABV, fits the bill much better than a boozy 7.5% ABV IPA. "It's our brewing team's go-to for a beer after work," says Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California. "I've always said that I am a closet pilsner fan."

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[Photograph: Wes Rowe]

But even if many American craft brewers have always wanted to make a good pilsner, they didn't have the resources. Brewing pilsner takes significant space and equipment, as well as increased utility costs. Chris Lohring of Notch Brewing in Salem, Massachusetts, notes that pilsners often require more steam and gas to make, and that fermenting the beer slowly at low temperatures raises refrigeration costs. While a dry-hopped pale ale or IPA "may be two weeks from brewhouse to packaging," Lohring says, making pilsner can take four to six weeks. "That means you cut in half your tank utilization and theoretical yearly production." As breweries grow, though—and take on increased investment—some are making these time- and cost-intensive beers a priority.

And more American brewers today know how to do it well: "The smaller brewer's skill set is stronger than it used to be," says Josh Pfriem, brewmaster at pFriem Family Brewers in Hood River, Oregon. Lohring emphasizes that brewing good pilsner requires an understanding of water chemistry, pH control, and fermentation management. "Pilsners are one of brewing's great technical challenges," adds Friedman. "When you're making a huge beer with giant hop flavors, it's easy for a small technical problem to be covered up.... But when you're making a light, delicate pils, there is nowhere to hide. Everything is exposed, and the most minor details—bitterness, finish, water, fermentation—all show the quality of the craft."

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

All that's to say that a good pilsner is more than the "fizzy yellow beer" that the first microbrew pioneers rejected. A well-made one is sparkling-clean and bright, but with a golden richness and creamy texture. It doesn't blow out your taste buds; it doesn't need tiny pours or snifter glasses, but it's serious beer nonetheless. Pilsner may not be intense or weird or experimental, but a really good one is about as perfect as beer gets.

I'm not the only craft beer fan who's craving pilsner after years of palate and hangover fatigue: Brynildson says that Pivo sales have been growing "by double digits percentage-wise" since the beer was introduced four years ago. (Deservedly so; it's a remarkably bright rendition, with resin-y, lemony hops on a super-clean backdrop of cracker-y malt.)

Which should you seek out? As I've drunk my way down the beer aisle, my list of favorites has just kept growing.

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[Photograph: Wes Rowe]

Aside from Trumer and Firestone's Pivo, I love the piney pilsner from Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. I'm really impressed by pFriem, whose pilsner is super aromatic, with a refreshing bitter bite to offset its rich body. The version from Jack's Abby, called Sunny Ridge, is lighter-weight, juicy, and citrusy, with a sneaky bitterness to wrap up each sip—it's the beer I want in my hand on a hot afternoon. Two Roads' Ol' Factory is the can you should pack in your canoe or river raft this summer; it's a light, fresh, and guzzle-able beer, with a whisper of toast and honey, a blast of grassy, hoppy aroma, and a quick, crisp finish. The lowest-alcohol pilsner I tried, Notch Brewing's excellent Session Pils, proves that a 4% ABV beer can be packed with flavor: It's a fizzy mouthful of pretzels, lemon, and herbs. I'd happily drink it all day. And I'm pumped that Almanac Beer Company's tasty new pils will come in picnic-friendly cans. This West Coast variation has a delicate rush of hops that taste like lemon peel, mandarin, and bay leaf. It's softly fruity, creamy, and bright, ideal for a day in the park or a platter of sushi.

Sadly, the pilsner I've fallen for hardest always sells out within hours of its appearance on the shelves: Russian River's STS is a masterfully balanced, exceptionally clean and dry pilsner that has a pop of white pepper and a bitterness that builds. It's so good, it makes me a little angry. If I lived closer to the brewery, I'd stop by for a pint every time the weather got hot. I'd always have a fresh one stocked in my fridge for cracking open at the end of the workday. But maybe it's okay that this finely tuned pilsner is a little precious. Hell, I'd even wait in line for it.

Note: Tasting samples of all beers, except Trumer and Russian River, provided for review consideration and photography.