Just when you had your German and Czech pilsners straight—not to mention figuring out where American pilsners fall on the spectrum—Italian pilsner entered the chat.
The substyle was born, naturally, in Italy in 1996, when Agostino Arioli brewed Tipopils at his Como brewery, Birrificio Italiano. A fan of German pilsners like Jever, Arioli had been on a mission to brew his own take on the style. It wasn’t until a trip to England where he learned about hop plugs and dry-hopping real ale in casks, however, that the pieces fell into place. Upon opening Birrificio Italiano, he combined the dry-hopping he learned in England with his formula for German pils. The result was a “kind of pils,” or tipopils, in Italian.
Today, dry-hopping is the defining characteristic of Italian-style pilsners, which stand apart from the slightly sweet Czech pilsner and the drier, crisper, more bitter German pilsner by retaining the aromatics of the hops, which might otherwise be lost to the boil. Those aromas should come from traditional European hops, especially noble hops, with floral, citrusy, spicy and/or herbal notes. (If you see a pils dry-hopped with American or Southern Hemisphere hops, consider it an American pilsner.)
Arioli emphasizes one additional distinguishing quality to his product that’s often imitated in more modern iterations. “Tipopils has never been filtered or centrifuged, and usually has a very short brewing cycle, only four to five weeks,” he says. “This really makes the difference.” A shorter maturation period means less of the rounded, malty flavors that can characterize other traditional pilsners.
The style’s first foray into American craft beer came in 2012 when brewmaster Matt Brynildson brewed Pivo at California’s Firestone Walker Brewing Company, described at the time as a “hoppy pils.” In 2017, Maine’s Oxbow Brewing Company released Luppolo, the first example explicitly called an Italian-style pils in the United States. (Co-founder and head brewer Tim Adams points out that Italians use the term “pils,” not “pilsner.”)
After an initial slow start, the Italian-style pils has begun to blossom stateside. “So far, I see it as a fairly small, quiet trend,” says Rachael Engel, who currently brews an Italian-style pils called Pantheon at Bosk Brew Works in Washington state. “I’d love to see them gain some ground because they’re another style that’s difficult to get right but very rewarding.”
Their trajectory may not be splashy, but it’s upward all the same. For however much stock you put into Untappd ratings, the site’s top-ranked Italian-style pilsners of 2022 at least demonstrate a wide geographic reach and read like a who’s who of American craft beer darlings. The style is represented at Schilling Beer Co. in New Hampshire, Wayfinder Beer in Oregon, Burial Beer Co. in North Carolina, Hop Butcher in Illinois and Talea Beer Co. in New York.
Whether the Italian-style pils will explode into ubiquity remains to be seen, but in the meantime it’s got dedicated American fans. They flock to the Pils & Love festival, a stateside extension of Birrificio Italiano’s Pils Pride event that launched 18 years ago. The only rules Arioli set were “no American hops and no pasteurization or anything connected to an industrial way to brew beer.” This June, Pils & Love will make its first post-COVID return at DeCicco & Sons, a New York grocery chain known for its craft beer program, with plans to scale up next year.
No longer, it seems, is topping with Campari the only way to enjoy lager Italian-style. As the substyle continues to grow and evolve, here are six Italian-style pils to seek out right now.
Birrificio Italiano: Tipopils
The best introduction to this substyle is the beer that started it all. This crisp, refreshing 5.2 percent ABV pils sings with herbal, floral, subtly citrusy hop aromas, captured by a nice thick head thanks to no filtration. Arioli notes a touch of astringency—“It reminds me of the freshness”—and notes that at 35 IBUs, the bitterness is evenly balanced: more than an industrial pils but never harsh. “It [doesn’t] shout like a strong IPA, but it has a lot of character at the end.”
- Price: $6.50
- ABV: 5.2%
Firestone Walker: Pivo
This is the beer that brought Italian-style pils stateside. “We set the early bar and stayed laser-focused on delivering a consistent hop-forward beer,” says brewmaster Brynildson, who adds that the style will likely never be any brewery’s bestselling beer, but they’ll always be what brewers drink and keep at home. “I have a pact with Adam Firestone and David Walker that as long as I am the brewmaster here, Pivo will stay in the portfolio.”
- Price: $10.99 (six 12-ounce cans)
- ABV: 5.3%
Both Oxbow and Firestone Walker have hosted the Pils & Love fests, establishing themselves as American keepers of the Italian-style pils’ tradition. Luppolo is dry-hopped with European hops and, true to form, unfiltered. Adams credits close ties to the source material as inspiration. “We are fortunate to have lots of friends and Oxbow fans in Italy and have traveled there quite a bit for beer festivals and collaborations. … We have tasted so many Italian pils and really know what they should taste like and just how good they can be.”
- Price: $15.99 (four 16-ounce cans)
- ABV: 5%
Branch & Bone Artisan Ales: Gorlami
Beyond the genre-defining iterations there’s Dayton, Ohio’s Branch & Bone, where co-founder and head brewer Brett Smith brews Gorlami. “We use Weyermann Eraclea Pilsner malt,” explains Smith. “[It’s] grown along the Adriatic coast near Venice, so we do actually use an Italian ingredient in the beer.” He adds that Saphir hops, a popular choice for dry-hopping these beers, make Gorlami what it is: a beer that took off immediately with Branch & Bone’s customers.
- Price: $12.99 (four 16-ounce cans)
- ABV: 5.6%
Wild East Brewing Company: L’Ultima Moda
With a well-earned reputation for traditional European styles, Wild East is a trustworthy guide when venturing into Italian territory. Cofounder and head brewer Brett Taylor saw the opportunity to appeal to IPA drinkers with the dry-hopped factor, but doesn’t lean too much on the hops over a more delicate finish. L’Ultima Moda is “step-mashed with a decoction mash out … and gets a shorter turnaround than our Czech-style lagers,” Taylor says, which results in that drier, crisper finish defined by Arioli with Tipopils, rather than a more rounded, malty one. Taylor adds, “[It’s] our flagship ‘modern’ lager … particularly popular with people who self-identify as hopheads.”
- Price: $16 (four 16-ounce cans)
- ABV: 4.8%
Untitled Art: Non-Alcoholic Italian Pilsner
In this nonalcoholic take from Wisconsin’s Untitled Art, head brewer Sam Green recognized both the enduring, refreshing appeal of this substyle as well as its cool factor with brewers and beer geeks. “We wanted to take elevated beer styles that were gaining popularity in the elite beer world and apply them to the N/A realm,” he says. Leaving out the alcohol doesn’t cut down on the flavor, either: This one is crisp and easy-drinking, with plenty of spicy, herbal hops.
- Price: $16.99 (six 12-ounce cans)
- ABV: 0.5%