Why It’s Time to Reconsider the Pilsner

Welcome to "I'd Tap That," in which Aaron Goldfarb and a panel of tasters pit "whales" against "shelf turds" in an effort to understand everything from Imperial IPA to Saison. This round: the pilsner, old and new.

New York’s Suarez Family Brewery might be America’s best brewery you don’t know about just yet. And why would you? They aren’t bottling or canning anything that’s blowing up the online trade forums and they aren’t cranking out of-the-moment IPAs or decadent barrel-aged stouts. In fact, though he has bonafides from Hill Farmstead, where he was once an assistant brewer, Dan Suarez’s specialty is in what he calls “little” beers—farmhouse ales, crispy pale ales and unfiltered pilsners.

Earlier this fall I spent a weekend exploring the Hudson Valley’s emerging beer scene, throwing back hoppy ales at Industrial Arts and hazy juice bombs at Sloop, but the single beer that impressed me the most was Suarez’s Palatine Pils. A simple German pilsner, it was classic in style—a see-through yellow body topped by a creamy head, bright and grassy on the nose with a bread-y body leading into a crisp, clean finish. It was as good as any pilsner I’ve had in Bohemia, the birthplace of the old-fashioned style.

“We decided to make pilsners [and other lager beers] one of our main focuses at our brewery simply because they are some of our favorite beers to drink and we don’t think there are enough good examples out there in the world,” Suarez tells me. “Too often, lagers are poorly-brewed, stale or just generally unrepresented in today’s beer market.”

After years of brewers trying to cram as many flavorful ingredients as they could into a single beer, it was only natural that the other shoe would eventually drop. Perhaps it’s finally time to return to a more stripped-down style. And no other style says stripped-down quite like pilsner.

The blonde-ish, then-cave-aged lager was first pioneered in the town of Pilsen, which, at the time, was part of the Austrian Empire. Due to its clarity and simplicity, it’s long been argued it’s harder to brew a perfect pilsner than, say, a great vanilla bean- and cocoa nib-infused, rum-barrel-aged imperial stout. With a boozy, sweet, ingredient-packed beer you can cover up any flaws, but a delicate pilsner—low in alcohol, typically made of only the four most basic beer ingredients—bares it all. It’s one beer style that stands naked, waiting to be judged.

“It’s hard to brew a subtle beer that comes across as tasty, complex and ripe with texture,” says Suarez. That is why he strictly brews unfiltered pilsners; filtering, he says, strips out not just yeast and proteins, but also the beautiful flavors and aromas. “It’s true what some people say: there aren’t any strong flavors to hide behind [with a pilsner], and your process has to be on point. The margin for error is razor-thin.”

That’s seemingly why so many fly-by-night breweries leave pilsners to the Pilsner Urquells and Weihenstephaners of the world, who have been perfecting the style for longer than Anheuser-Busch has been a company. Thankfully, though, a new wave of Americans have recently begun experimenting with the style. While some, like Suarez and Threes Brewing, have hewn closely to the traditional pilsner profile, others, like Mikkeller, have “Americanized” it, mostly by pumping up the hop profile. There’s a place for them both, even as we enter the colder days of the year.

In order to examine a beer style that is so often drunk in large quantities without any time for careful consideration, we blind-tasted 30 pilsners from across the globe. For the tasting, I was joined by PUNCH’s Editor in Chief, Talia Baiocchi; Managing Editor, Bianca Prum; Assistant Editor, Chloe Frechette; Social Media Editor, Allison Hamlin; and Contributing Editor, Megan Krigbaum. We tackled classic pilsners from the Czech Republic and Germany, their ersatz stateside counterparts, hopped-up revisions of the style (the less successful versions drinking like pale ales in disguise) and even a couple of Danish gypsy brews. With such subtlety and minor variance between good, great and even awful pilsners, this was surely our toughest tasting yet.

Six Pilsners to Try

Pilsner Urquell

The pilsner that invented pilsner when it was first released in the 1840s, “the original source” is still top-notch. Clean and grassy, with a certain bouillon meatiness and a slight hint of diacetyl (butteriness). Nothing is better than drinking this Czech offering unfiltered (“kvasnicový”) and straight from the tank (takovna) from any number of bars in Prague, but its canned version is still a worthy calling card for the style.

  • ABV: 4.4 percent

Mahr’s Pilsner

Less-famed than many of its Bavarian cohorts, Bamberg’s Mahr’s Bräu might make the best German pilsner of them all. The tiny brewery—an offshoot of a popular local pub—offers an aromatic pils, showing floral, herbal and spiced notes on the nose and palate. While pilsners typically have a sharp carbonation, the perlage on this offering is quite soft, making for a creamy, slammable pint.

  • ABV: 4.9 percent

Rothaus Pils Tannenzäpfle

Another mostly regional brewery in Germany, this Black Forest-area brewery is owned by the state, no less. Tannenzäpfle (“little fir cone”) offers odd, but not unpleasant, banana-y esters on the nose, though the body is more grainy and bitter, befitting a correct-to-style pils.

  • ABV: 5.1 percent

Evil Twin Low Life

Another softly-carbonated pils, this canned offering comes courtesy of Danish gypsy brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, by way of his new home in Brooklyn. More Americanized in hop profile, Low Life brings some sharp white pepper notes to the fray and is a tad more alcoholic than you might expect from a pils, but it remains highly-drinkable.

  • ABV: 5.5 percent

Mikkeller California Dream

Unexpectedly, Jarnit-Bjergsø’s twin brother (and fellow gypsy brewer) Mikkeller Borg Bjergsø also offers a stellar modern pilsner, his by way of San Diego. California Dream is heavily dry-hopped, the nose offering a ton of citrus fruit. The body is grainy and crisp enough to keep this still rooted to the classic pils profile, albeit through a more modern lens.

  • ABV: 4.6 percent

Lagunitas PILS

The only 100-percent American pilsner that made our list—even if a Dutch conglomerate technically owns them these days—this California brewery keeps the bells and whistles to a minimum. Though a tad high in ABV, this is clearly a stab at a Czech-style pils and nothing more than that. A fresh, floral nose leads into a sweet graininess and an applejack-like malt backbone.

  • ABV: 6.2 percent

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Aaron Goldfarb lives in Brooklyn and is a novelist and the author of Hacking Whiskey. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Playboy, Whisky Advocate and more.