Your Move, German Pilsner

How a single Italian beer launched a whole new style of pilsner.

It’s not uncommon for a beer style to emerge, and spread, from an identifiable “bottle zero.” Every modern witbier, including Allagash White and Blue Moon, traces back to Pierre Celis’s recipe for Hoegaarden; Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale encouraged an entire generation of copycat hoppy brews; and the Trappist ale Orval has inspired countless homage beers, like Goose Island’s Matilda and Green Flash’s Rayon Vert.

Beers that wield such influence are historically cutting edge or avant-garde in nature. But that’s not the case with Tipopils, an esoteric oddball of a lager first brewed by Birrificio Italiano in 1996. It wasn’t until nearly 15 years after its release that it helped spawn a growing spate of so-called “Italian-style pilsner” tribute beers.

On paper, Tipopils’s rise is unlikely. It’s basically a run-of-the-mill German-style pilsner that calls on two types of German malts and a bottom-fermenting German lager yeast. The only real twist that brewer Agostino Arioli adds to the classic German pilsner recipe is a dry-hopping of Spalter Select hops, which in Germany would be frowned upon (until recently, the Reinheitsgebot, or German Beer Purity Law, forbade dry-hopping).

“When I first made Tipopils, I wasn’t aware that I was doing anything new,” claims Arioli, who says he was simply combining the dry-hopping techniques of English cask ales with the clean, crisp profile of German pilsner. “I’m a bit ashamed to admit it now, but I was trying to recreate the flavors of Jever Pilsener,” a rather mundane pilsner mass-produced in northern Germany.

In practice, Tipopils (the name means “a kind of pils,” says Arioli) is a crispy, crushable pilsner that, for the better part of 15 years, failed to garner much attention outside of Italian and Central European beer geek circles. But beginning around 2010, American tastemaker brewers like Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker and Tim Adams of Oxbow Brewing began creating their own homages to the beer.

“Tipopils was the beer that reignited the flame and pushed me forward into brewing pilsner at Firestone Walker,” says Brynildson, who first met Arioli through the European Beer Star competition around 2009. “It had all of the balance and drinkability of a classic German pils but included a beautiful yet restrained fresh noble hop character unlike any pilsner I had ever tasted in Europe.”

Described varyingly as “one of the most balanced beers our there” (Bob Kunz of Highland Park Brewery), “immensely drinkable” (Brynildson) and “the benchmark for what pilsner should be” (Adams), Tipopils has a profile that sets it apart from more classic German- and Czech-style pilsners.

In 2013, Brynildson brewed what was probably the first Italian-influenced pilsner in America, but he named it Pivo, the Czech word for beer, obscuring his true influence. A couple years later, Adams at Oxbow coined the phrase “Italian-style Pilsner,” emblazoning it on the label of Oxbow’s Luppolo. While he cites a couple of other Italian pilsners as influences, including ViaEmilia, a dry-hopped Bohemian-style pilsner from Birrificio del Ducato, Adams says Tipopils is where it all began. “For me, Agostino is the godfather of Italian craft beer,” he says.

So, what differentiates an Italian-style pils from the more commonly encountered American-style hoppy pils? Namely, it’s the use of old-world German hops for dry-hopping. (“If your pils is dry-hopped with Citra, it’s not Italian-style,” says Adams.) Rather than the juicy tropical fruit aromas that new-world varieties like Galaxy or Nelson Sauvin offer, German varieties like Saphir and Hallertauer Mittelfrüh lend smooth, resiny and spicy tangerine-like flavors.

“At the end of the day, it’s still a hoppy beer,” says Kunz. “It’s no secret that Americans love hoppy beers, which is why we love Tipopils and other Italian-style pilsners.”

Over the last five years, the Italian-style pilsner has further embedded itself in the American craft beer scene. Besides Firestone’s Pivo and Oxbow’s Luppolo, you’ll find Italian-style pilsners from breweries like Wayfinder in Portland, Oregon; Green Cheek in Orange County, California; and Kings County Brewers Collective (KCBC) and Threes Brewing in Brooklyn, who recently collaborated on the Il Purgatorio pilsner. All of them, even the famed La Pitoune, a dry-hopped pilsner from Quebec’s Le Trou du Diable, can be traced back to Tipopils.

In some ways, the story of Tipopils’s emergence as “bottle zero” for a new style of pilsner is the perfect parable for how American tastes for craft beer have changed. We love to take historic styles and add our own twists, but, in this case, we’re adapting a twist that was added to a classic style by someone else and popularizing it here. It’s also further proof of the perpetually swinging pendulum of flavor. After years of indulging in palate wreckers, our tastes have finally caught up to Tipopils.

Seven Italian and Italian-Style Pilsners to Try

Birrificio Italiano Tipopils | 5.2 percent
The progenitor of the style, Tipopils is a magnificent example of how nuanced and complex pilsner can be. Arioli says it was based on Jever Pilsener—known in the States as a fairly unremarkable import lager—but it exudes much bigger and bolder flavors and aromas. Brewed with two kinds of German malts, a German lager yeast and dry-hopped with German Spalter Select hops, the beer is spritzy and bright with a resiny punch.

Green Cheek Local Import | 5.2 percent
This fun-loving Orange County, California, brewery crafts some of the most exquisite lagers on the West Coast, and Local Import is their nod to Tipopils and other Italian pilsners. Brewed with Italian pilsner malt and dry-hopped with Saphir, Hallertau Blanc and Huell Melon hop varieties, the pils is soft and pillowy with captivating herbal aromas of sage and fresh-cut grass.

Oxbow Brewing Luppolo | 5 percent
Oxbow’s Luppolo was the first pilsner to use the “Italian-style” designation and clearly cite Tipopils and other lesser-known Italian pilsners as its influence. Adams uses German Tettnanger hops for the dry hopping, but says Slovenian and Czech hops are fair game, too. “As long as it’s not American or new-world hops,” he says.

Highland Park Brewing Pleasant Pils | 5.3 percent
Kunz says that when developing the recipe for Pleasant Pils, he experimented with a range of German hops and ultimately homed in on the Saphir variety. “Saphir’s a little brighter and less herbaceous than most,” he says. Pleasant Pils has become so popular that it’s now Highland Park’s second best–selling lager behind the flagship Timbo Pils and is destined to become a year-round offering.

Firestone Walker Pivo Pils | 5.3 percent
Despite a name that invokes the Czech Republic, brewmaster Matt Brynildson directly cites Tipopils as the primary influence for his brewery’s flagship pilsner. First released in 2013, Pivo is brewed with 100 percent German malts and dry-hopped with Saphir for aromas of lemongrass and citrus zest. Brynildson has created numerous riffs on the style, including Italian-style pils collaborations with Russian River (STiVO Pils), Beavertown (West Side Beavo) and Green Cheek (Short on Long Term Goals).

Wayfinder Beer Terrifica Pils | 4.7 percent
The idea for Terrifica (formerly known as Terrifico Horror Pils) was born at last summer’s Pils & Love festival in Los Angeles and brought together three Portland-area brewers for an Italian horror movie-themed pilsner. Featuring esteemed lager brewery Heater Allen, Portland newcomers Wayfinder Beer, and Southern California transplants Modern Times (who opened a taproom and brewery in Portland last year), the bright, floral pilsner is an unabashed nod to Tipopils.

KCBC + Threes Brewing Il Purgatorio | 4.7 percent
Over a few beers during this year’s Craft Brewers Conference, Brooklyn’s Kings County Brewers Collective and Threes Brewing got to talking about their mutual love of Tipopils and Luppolo. “Someone had heard about a new Italian pilsner malt from Weyermann called Eraclea,” says KCBC’s Zack Kinney, who worked in Italy as a translator for several years. “It seemed like a fun ingredient to try and an emerging style to collaborate on.” For the dry hop, the collaborators chose Slovenian Celeia hops as well as the Italian-style pilsner’s workhorse hop, Saphir.

Related Articles

Tagged: beer, pilsner