The resurgence of pilsner, a crisp, classic and approachable style of beer that had long been unfashionable among connoisseurs
The consumers fuelling the craft beer in North America beers big, full of punchy flavours that just didn’t exist during the light beer era of the 1970s and ’80s. Some of the most successful offerings from craft brewers in recent years have included massively bitter India pale ales and heavily spiced, deeply autumnal pumpkin beers – extreme stuff, even weird at times.
Recently, however, we have begun to see the resurgence of pilsner, a crisp, classic and approachable style of beer that had long been unfashionable among connoisseurs.
To a casual beer drinker, pilsner can be thought of as “normal” beer. The Budweisers and Coors of the world are descendants of the pilsner style. Originally developed in the 1840’s in the town of Plzen in Western Bohemia, Pilsner was one of the first European styles of beer to make use of new malting techniques from England in combination with the local Saaz hop variety. (On a technical note, pilsner is a lager as opposed to an ale, meaning it’s brewed cold, with yeast that sits at the bottom of the fermenting vessel.) The result was a beer that was light in colour and significantly more bitter than other local options.
Pilsner was a hit. By the end of the 19th century, imitations had cropped up in all corners of the world. A combination of factors helped it to catch the attention of brewers and consumers from Boston to Bangkok. For one thing, people were making the transition to glass drinking vessels and a pale, golden lager was more visually stunning than the dark brown beers to which drinkers had become accustomed. For another, the light body and refreshing bite was unlike anything that had existed previously.
As it spread, pilsner often evolved to become lighter and lighter in flavour and colour. In the drift of time, many pilsner-style lagers ended up becoming pale, watery imitations of the characterful original – to the point where a generation of hardcore beer lovers turned up their noses at pilsner and other pale lagers out of hand.
The new wave of North American pilsners are faithful to the origins of the style in the sense that they are full flavoured – often more fully flavoured than in the past. Hops are what give beers their bitterness and floral, herbal and spicy aromas, and the tendency in 21st century craft brewing is to push the flavouring envelope. (And what better way to banish any association between the term “pilsner” and bland, mass-produced beer than to put the word “pilsner” on a beer with an excess of personality?) Examples that tend to exaggerate pilsner’s familiar features are widely available in the United States: Victory’s Prima Pils, Sierra Nevada Nooner and Firestone Walker Pivo Pils. The characteristic aromas that come from the hops are tweaked almost to the point of becoming electric, while increased bitterness complements the bone-dry snap of a quenching finish.
Where the IPA boom was all about generous helpings of hops, a well-made pilsner is about striking a balance between flavours.
Hops are a big factor in pilsner’s comeback. First, the fact that nearly everyone and their cousin is brewing an IPA (India pale ale), another heavily hopped beer style, means that highly sought-after American hop varieties like Citra and Amarillo are expensive, if they’re available at all. At the same time, many German varieties – which are what brewers tend to use in pilsner, for that authentic Continental bite – are available in quantities and at prices that make sense. (And meanwhile, dry hopping techniques that brewers learned while making IPA are transferring over to pilsner production, too.)
Another factor bringing pilsner back: Whereas some beer fans may have scoffed, the style has always been a favourite of actual professional brewers – and their tastes tend to be slightly ahead of the public (since, after all, they’re the ones deciding what beer to make). “It’s clean. There’s nothing to hide behind,” says Matt Tweedy, the brewer from Ottawa’s Tooth and Nail who is responsible for Vim & Vigor, one of the Ontario’s best pilsners. “It should have a dry, complex drinkability. (I think) hop character should outweigh malt balance.”
Iain McOustra, brewmaster at Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewery explains: “With craft beer, people were looking for big, bold, new flavours and the next big thing. Brewers love Pilsners. There are two beers brewers can always revisit: pilsners and Orval.”
Another attraction of the style is that it immediately sets a brewery apart from the competition by being technically difficult to pull off. For one thing, making a lager can take several weeks longer than making an ale. Mikey Lenane of Brooklyn’s Six Point Brewery (makers of The Crisp Pilsner) explains “you can make a bitter IPA or an oily imperial stout, but with pilsner you’ve got to spend more money and (stake) part of your identity on it.”
Where the IPA boom was all about generous helpings of hops, a well-made pilsner is about striking a balance between flavours – the quotient of hops matters, and so does deciding how much of the sweetness of the malted barley should come through. In the case of Amsterdam’s Starke Pils this meant nearly two years of development through trial and error. “The strain of yeast and treating it properly is important,” McOustra says. “(And) we got different results dry hopping at different temperatures, and eventually removed the dry hopping.”
For Tooth and Nail’s Tweedy the focus has been more on tweaking the texture of malt flavours by experimenting with different yeast strains. “With lager production, fermentation is your most important thing. You’ve got to baby it along.” Vim & Vigor also benefits from a combination of traditional, centuries-old German Landrace hops and newly developed, punchier varieties such as Saphir.
The end result in all cases is the melding of old world tradition with new world bravado: Lagers with big, assertive aromas that remain thoroughly refreshing over the course of an afternoon without compromising on flavour or complexity. Unlike some craft styles that are relatively inaccessible to newcomers, the flavours in pilsner are instantly recognizable to converts from more gently flavoured lagers. While the initial craft beer boom relied heavily on pale ale and IPA – and these beer styles still drastically outnumber lagers on the craft beer shelves – it’s going to be pilsner that pumps craft brewers’ market share over the next few years as more and more beer drinkers choose to drink better and more locally. Pilsner took the world by storm once. It can happen again.