Summit Suds: Exploring the popularity of Pilsners
Growing up in a half-Slovak household, the classic Pilsner Urquell — the pale lager brewed in Pilsen, Czech Republic, and originator of the style — was a very common beverage at social gatherings.
It was so ubiquitous that I didn’t give it much thought and looked at it like any American domestic lager. Yet with each local brewery currently offering or creating a Pilsner, it’s time to revisit the style and see how they stack up.
The pros and cons of having so many stellar breweries in Summit County is that comparing and contrasting each Pilsner on tap is a bit difficult since the Pilsner is, well, a Pilsner. But that means the brewers are knowledgeable about the style and know how to execute it properly.
“You can’t cover up a lot of your imperfections and mistakes with a Pilsner,” said A.J. Brinckerhoff, owner and brewmaster of Angry James Brewing Co.
Jake’s Pils is a best seller at the brewery, and it’s easy to see why. Though only 4.8% alcohol by volume, the traditional German Pilsner feels heavier than expected. The beer is well-balanced and isn’t extremely grassy or malty, with noble — meaning they’re more aromatic than bitter — hops like Hallertau, Tettnang German Perle slightly lingering on the end.
This fall, Angry James released Pilsner Per Favore, an Italian-style lager made with the Italian Eraclea malt grown near the Adriatic Sea.
“It’s similar to a German style Pilsner that just uses Eraclea Pilsner malt, but there’s much more late, noble and traditional German hop additions,” said Brinckerhoff, who is a fan of hoppy Pilsners like Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s Pivo Pils. “That’s really what I think distinguishes it.”
The double dry-hopping of Hallertau Mittlefruh and Hallertau Tradition gives it a more floral and minty nose along with an orange and lemon citrus flavor that’s bright and clean.
Over in neighboring Dillon, the Dillon Dam Brewery’s Paradise Pilsner is bready and has a spicy zing of German hops. At 5% ABV, it is a bit more sessionable than Pug Ryan Brewery’s 5.8% ABV Peacemaker Pilsner. The bubbly Pilsner’s recipe containing Czech Saaz hops is unchanged since John and Judy Jordan took over.
So with the Dam and Pug Ryan’s brewing those two for years, why are Pilsners suddenly spiking in the zeitgeist, especially the Italian versions?
Brinckerhoff theorizes that it is partly due to consumers being more educated about the effort required for the style and therefore judge a brewery based on the Pilsner’s quality. Since it is a lager, which means it is conditioned at a cold temperature for a long period, it can take months to get to one’s glass instead of weeks like an India pale ale.
“Lagering clarifies the beer, naturally filters it, makes it more crisp and complex,” Brinckerhoff said.
On the other hand, Jimmy Walker of Breckenridge Brewery believes it could be caused by a shift in palate. As more people develop a taste for hops, it’s then natural to want the flavor in lighter beers such as Italian Pilsners.
“You get balance in the beer with the increased hops, and I think the world is discovering hops, and they want it in everything, like dry-hopped kombuchas and dry-hopped seltzers,” said Walker, who makes a seasonal Bohemian Pilsner.
Called Summer Pils, Walker thinks that, somewhat paradoxically, people want the hoppy flavor in an easier-to-drink package.
“That craft spectrum went from the biggest, hoppiest, heaviest beers and is now swinging back to these more drinkable beers and now everybody is trying to make this light, drinkable Pilsner lager,” Walker said.
Breckenridge’s other brewery, Broken Compass Brewing Co., also makes a Bohemian Pilsner. The crisp, 4.5% ABV beer is aptly named Czech Pilsner.
The folks at Outer Range Brewing Co. in Frisco, which is known for intense, high-ABV beers, agree with Walker and said that many brewers at festivals drink Pilsners because they want a break from what they’re pouring.
“When we’re home, we either have wine or a Pilsner just because they’re more light and lower ABV,” co-owner Emily Cleghorn said.
They’ve branched out from their standard IPAs and Belgian beers before, but it wasn’t until recently that they made their first Pilsner in a dream collaboration with San Diego’s Modern Times Beer. The pair was initially going to do an IPA, but Modern Times — brewers of the popular Ice Pilsner — excitedly shifted gears when they heard Outer Range hadn’t brewed one yet.
“But it wasn’t just about Modern Times,” co-owner and brewmaster Lee Cleghorn said. “I was born in Germany, lived in Europe a lot and really loved good Pilsners and other lagers. We knew we were going to do it eventually. It was just a matter of finding the right partner, and they’re amazing brewery that we really look up to.”
It’s hoppier and more effervescent than a traditional German Pilsner but doesn’t get as flowery as an Italian one. I picked up notes of cereal and muted peach from the Grungeist hops.
“It’s a weird, versatile hop that you can use in a lager and use it in a New England IPA,” Lee Cleghorn said.
Also in Frisco, HighSide Brewing has two Pilsners. There’s the standard Swim Beer that’s nice and biscuity at 5.2% ABV, and then it has the 4 Pepper Pils. The brewery takes the same base beer and infuses Anaheim, poblano, Serrano and habanero peppers. For the heat-adverse, it smells spicier than it tastes. There’s enough pepper to make the profile interesting but not overpowering.
If I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be Angry James’ Pilsner Per Favore. That’s not to say the others are bad, but since this was made in the Italian style, it was refreshingly different and unique.
There’s one I haven’t had yet, however. The Bakers’ Brewery is fermenting its second Pilsner ever that is slated to come out sometime next month. Though co-owner Cory Forster often has a guest tap that fills the need for those looking for lagers, he hasn’t brewed them much himself since they can be time-consuming.
“The last batch was Ariana, which has subtle notes of fruit in it, and this time its Saphir, which has notes of tangerine, mixed into the more classic, spicy German hop character,” Forster said. “Should be kind of fun. Crisp and light with a little hop zing and a nice balance.”
Jefferson Geiger is the arts & entertainment editor for the Summit Daily News and managing editor for Everything Summit. Have a question about beer? Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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