Craft beer has a complicated relationship with pilsner. It’s the world’s most widely consumed, most widely copied and emulated beer style, but the vast majority of those beers either don’t actually qualify for the “pilsner” style guidelines or come anywhere close to the Brewers Association definition of “craft.” And yet, it’s also a style with a rich history, dating back to the famous ur-pils of 1842, Pilsner Urquell. For more detailed information on the style’s history and current role, by the way, check out our companion piece—Let’s Talk Beer Styles: Pilsner, which also went live today.
In modern American craft beer, pilsner has seen a resurgence … or perhaps the right word is reclamation. American craft brewers have refused to let companies like Anheuser-Busch or Miller present a sole definition of “pilsner” with insipid beers in the mold of Miller Lite—watery, flavorless yellow suds that for decades corrupted the good name of pilsner in the U.S.A. and made American beer a punchline in Europe. Obviously, things have changed.
In reality, no nation is presenting such a tremendous variety of pilsners today as the U.S.A. When you see the word in a craft brewer’s lineup, you never truly know what to expect. It could be a classical German or Czech-style pils, or a throwback “pre-prohibition” American lager. It could feature fruity, nouveau American hop varieties. It might even be a faux-pilsner fermented with light, neutral ale yeast for the sake of efficiency and turnaround time. You’ll find all of them in abundance these days. It is, all in all, a good time for pilsner, and a good season for pils. And so, let’s get on with the blind tasting.
A Note on Beer Acquisition
Like every other blind-tasting at Paste, we acquire these beers in a variety of ways. Most are sent in directly by the breweries when we send out a call for that style. Others we’re able to purchase directly because they’re available in Georgia, which is how we came by the few European beers in this tasting in particular. In that sense, we’re at the mercy of what is available.
Rules and Procedure
- We accepted anything sent to us, as long as it involved “pilsner” in the description, or was categorized as such. There was no specific ABV limit, although we did not accept the few beers labeled as “imperial pils,” as that seemed unfair. Beers did have to be lagers to qualify—no ales in the style of pseudo-pilsner were allowed.
- There was a limit of two entries per brewery. The beers were separated into daily blind tastings that approximated a sample size of the entire field.
- Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners and beer reps. Awesome, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason.
The Field: Pilsners #’s 62-31
As is typically the case with these blind tastings, most of the beer in “the field,” outside the top 30, is quite solid. We were very curious how different each individual pilsner would seem to our blind perception in the course of tasting a very subtle style, and although there were some truly unique stand-outs, there were also a lot of beers that simply seemed very similar to each other. Many of these beers, with an additional point or two on someone’s score sheet, could have made the top 30. Yes, there are a few bad beers, but that’s an inevitability of any style.
They’re presented below in alphabetical order, which means that they’re not ranked. I repeat: These beers are not ranked.
Angel City Pilsner
Austin Beerworks Pearl Snap Pils
Avery Joe’s Pils
Crop Bistro Bohemian Pilsner
Crux Fermentation Project Pilz
DC Brau Brewing Co. Brau Pils
Drake’s Flyaway Pils
Foothills Torch Pils
Fremont Shine Pilsner
Full Sail Brewing Pilsner
Great Lakes Turntable Pils
Half Acre Pony Pils
Heavy Seas Pounder Pils
Hopworks (HUB) Lager
Left Hand Polestar Pilsner
Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils
Point Smiley Blue Pils
Red Hare Long Day Lager
Rock Art Bohemian Pils
Saint Archer Hoppy Pilsner
Sam Adams Noble Pils
Short’s Brewing Co. Old Reliable
Smog City Little Bo Pils
Smuttynose Vunderbar! Pilsner
Terrapin Sound Czech Pils
Troegs Sunshine Pils
Two Roads Brewing Co. Ol’ Factory
Uinta Brewing 801 Pilsner
Warped Wing BrassPunk Pils
Zero Gravity Craft Brewery Green State Lager
Next: The finals! Pilsners 30-16
City: Bloomington, IN
The verdict: Upland’s website calls this beer a “pre-Prohibition pilsner,” and that’s certainly reflected in the pleasantly kitschy can and name. The beer inside really does seem to fit with the title, though—it’s very light of body, even next to most of the other beers, with crisp grain and lightly bready flavors and a kiss of citrusy hops that present a defined lemon note in particular. One feels from the aesthetic of the beer that it’s not meant to be taken very seriously, and it works great in that application: A very light, refreshing, thirst-quenching pilsner that doesn’t attempt to get fancy or challenge the palate. It’s one of the more crushable beers in this tasting, and in a blind pilsner tasting, that’s worth a few points.
City: Johnson City, TN
The verdict: One of the more difficult aspects of rating these pilsners was when we occasionally encountered ones that we enjoyed … but that didn’t seem particularly “pils-like.” That’s just the reality of American-made pilsner, though—they’re free to pick and choose influences at will, and in this case we have a feeling that some American hops found their way in. As one taster wrote in their notes: “Old-world breadiness, new world hops.” That’s about right. Yee-Haw’s pilsner presents grainy malt and a creamier, heavier body than most of the others, alongside citric hops that have an orange note in particular. It almost feels a tad pale ale-influenced; a profile that is odd but still enjoyable. It ends up somewhere near the pilsner equivalent of crackers and orange marmalade.
City: Everett, MA
The verdict: Night Shift has yet to ever have a sub-par showing in any of these tastings, and Pfaffenheck continues that streak by delivering an interesting, somewhat unusual pilsner. Malt flavors are prominent and a bit deeper than in most of the other beers on the table—toasty and almost grape-nutty, which was not replicated in many of the others. Bread crust flavors are chased by some lightly floral hops, but this is one where we certainly fixating more on malt presence, which stands out as different from some of the hop-dominated Night Shift beers we’ve had in the past. There’s even a little bit of fruitiness—perhaps a touch of pink grapefruit—that makes this one stand out in our minds.
City: San Jose, CA
The verdict: One of the oddities that we’ve noticed over time about American pilsner is that occasionally breweries will attempt to produce a “classical” pils but end up with something that just seems distinctly American. Hermitage’s new limited release pilsner is one of those beers. It sounds like they were going for Czech pils—it’s dry-hopped with Saaz—but on the nose those hops come through with a uniquely fruity, almost tropical note unlike any of the Czech examples we’ve ever tasted. It’s not just hops, though, as this pilsner is also a bit maltier and toastier than most of the others, making for a uniquely flavorful whole. We’re still sort of scratching our heads at it, but we’ll happily drink more.
City: Downington, PA
The verdict: This is a very popular, highly rated American pilsner, and I fully expect there will be comments decrying that it didn’t at least crack the top 10, but it is what it is. Prima Pils is certainly one of the beers that has helped boost the visibility of craft pilsner in the American beer world, and also helped myriad drinkers realize that true pilsner is a hoppy beer style. And it’s certainly not lacking in hops—citrus dominates, in the form of lemon and grapefruit notes, balanced by light, crackery malt. Bitterness is substantial, especially in the finish, and may detract a tad from drinkability. Hops are balanced between German and Czech influences, and there is some of the resinous and spicy flavor of Saaz here as well. Highly recommended for lovers of hop-forward pils.
City: Memphis, TN
The verdict: This pilsner has a thing or two in common with the Victory Prima Pils that precedes it, being very light on malt with a significant shock of hops—although these ones are rather more floral than they are citrusy. There’s a hard-to-place continental character delivered by the combination of German malt and lager yeast; enough to at least confuse the palate into thinking this beer could be a European product. Repeated tasting brings forth more nuances of the hops, with touches of honey and wildflowers, but it’s still quite dry. A solid, Northern German pilsner. Note: Wiseacre appeared recently in our list of the most underrated craft breweries in all 50 states.
City: San Francisco, CA
The verdict: Props to the neat packaging on this pils—we’ve never seen a can with a completely black top and pull-tab before. This pilsner features light, grainy malt, medium bitterness and a substantial charge of classic noble hop character. Hops are floral and a little bit herbal, with nice complexity. There’s not much else to say about this one—it’s light of body, quite drinkable and plenty versatile. This is the sort of workhorse pilsner that could be paired with literally any kind of meal, which is probably why the style initially became so dominant to begin with.
City: Bend, OR
The verdict: Boneyard has been on fire in our tastings lately, winning #1 in our 83 pale ale blind tasting, and they’re routinely one of our favorite breweries for hop-forward styles. Stands to reason, then, that they would have a solid pilsner as well. Pabo is a spicy, hop-forward, fairly classical pilsner with a hard-to-place x-factor that hints toward the fact that it’s been Americanized just a tad. A bit lower in carbonation, likely due to the fact that we’re pouring out of a crowler, it features lightly bready malt and well-balanced herbal/spicy noble hops, although we wouldn’t hazard a guess at varietals. It’s clean and crisp, with not much in the way of yeast expression.
City: Athens, GA
The verdict: This is a pilsner we have regular access to in the Atlanta area, and it’s a solid example of the Czech style with a small twist. Bitterness is low but detectable, with crackery malt and spicy, peppery, herbal hops. Very clean, light of body and drinkable—crushable pilsner, really. Creature Comforts also uses a small amount of New Zealand hops in this beer, although their tropical character is much harder to pick up, at least in the context of a blind tasting. Regardless, this is a pils that manages to feature substantial hop flavors while avoiding excessive bitterness and remaining very drinkable.
City: Houston, TX
The verdict: The more Saint Arnold beers we have in these tastings, the more we realize that they’re always in contention—not necessarily at the very top, but this brewery’s batting average is enviable across a wide range of styles. They seem equally adept with light, refreshing lagers and barrel-aged monsters, and in 5 O’Clock they deliver a tasty, hop-forward Czech pilsner. Malt is very light on this one, hard to pick up, but the hops are very nicely grassy, spicy and have just a touch of pleasant, orangey citrus. Bitterness is low-to-medium and well-balanced with the relative subtlety of the malt. It’s as solid as we’ve come to expect from them.
City: Blanco, TX
The verdict: We’ve already had plenty of hop-forward pilsners in the finals, but this is a seriously hoppy one that still plays nice within the boundaries of the style. Big, green, grassy, resinous hops contribute bracing bitterness, with flavors that then trend toward citrus on repeated tastes. It stops just short of being overly bitter, but it’s certainly unbalanced in favor of the hops, and is a beer that hophead pils fans should seek out if they can. A little bit more balancing bready malt might raise it even higher in our estimation, but it’s still very tasty stuff. This would be a great beer to slay after escaping indoors from the oppressive Texas heat.
City: Asheville, NC
The verdict: This seems like a beer that would have been part of Highland’s regular lineup for a long time, but it’s actually a new beer that joined the year-rounders only a couple of months ago. You could sort of call it a “noveau German” pilsner, as it’s made with a blend of German hop varietals—but they’re mostly the new varieties such as Hallertauer Blanc that are bridging the gap between what we think of as American and “continental” hop profiles. Regardless, you’re left with a nose that is both floral and fruity, complemented by light, crisp malt. It’s a pleasantly hoppy German-style pilsner with a nice degree of complexity.
City: Asheville, NC
The verdict: Interesting coincidence here, with two of Asheville’s best pilsners ending up right next to each other. Shadowclock actually has some similarities with Highland’s pils, being a bit more German than Czech-influenced, but it’s perhaps even a touch hoppier than the already hoppy Highland. It blends floral and herbal hop flavors with a nice note of lemon citrus. Biscuity, slightly bready malt keeps everything else in check, with a balance that still tilts pleasantly toward the hops. It’s much the same as we recently tasted in a round-up of five beers from Burial, which has become one of Asheville’s most talked-about breweries.
City: Ipswich, MA
The verdict: Ipswich is a truly underrated, extremely dependable producer of overlooked, underhyped beer styles such as pilsner or English pale ale, and we’ve gotten used to being surprised by them in our tastings—a big part of why they represent Massachusetts in our list of the most underrated breweries in every state. Their recent pilsner release is well-balanced and well-conceived: Bready, lightly toasty malt is balanced with minimal-to-moderate floral hops. A very small touch of caramelization gives it some depth, but this is a pilsner in general where the assertiveness of the flavors is dialed down in favor of drinkability and balance, which seems to be Ipswich’s calling card.
City: Minneapolis, MN
The verdict: Leave it to Surly to parody American pilsner with a beer named “hashtag ‘Merica” while simultaneously raising the ABV to unfathomable heights at 6%. The result is a beer that is still clean and crisp despite the relatively higher ABV, featuring a bit of white bread malt and hops that waffle between spicy and herbal influences. Nice and dry, with just a touch of complexity. This year at your Fourth of July cookout, you could certainly do a lot worse than reaching for a #Merica—like reaching for an Anheuser-Busch “America,” for instance. Drink it cold and revel in your status as a ‘Merican citizen.
Next: The best of the best pilsners
City: Paso Robles, CA
The verdict: Last year’s GABF gold medal winner, Pivo, is a beer that reflects both its German ancestry and West Coast brewery in equal measure. German Saphir hops (a newer varietal) contribute some of the floral character one would get out of Hallertauer, but also some of the more orangey, citric character one might find in an American hop such as Amarillo or Centennial. It’s very clean, but also a little bit restrained—at least compared to some of the other pilsners on the table, including the hoppiest examples, Firestone’s isn’t one that beats down your taste buds. Pivo is instead a perfectly sessionable take on hoppy pils.
City: Portland, OR
The verdict: The pilsners in this tasting can be enjoyable for just about any reason, but one thing we can’t help but worry about is that at some point, a really subtle beer could simply slip through the cracks. Breakside’s pilsner is one of those kinds of beers, a very tactful and delicious beer that could theoretically get lost in the noise alongside more aggressive pils. Its grainy malt flavors build a solid, biscuity (but subtle) foundation, on which is perfectly balanced a classically floral German hop profile. It’s not trying to do anything fancy—it’s just a very well-balanced German-style pilsner. It’s not a hop bomb, or a malt showcase. It’s just clean, thirst-quenching lager.
City: Saint Paul, MN
The verdict: Before starting this particular tasting, I had a feeling that pilsner might be a style where relatively unheralded breweries might shine brightly, given that pilsner is not a style that receives much attention or beer geek acclaim. There are essentially no “whales” in the world of pilsner, which means that there’s probably great beers hiding right under our noses. Summit’s year-round pilsner is one of those great lagers, although it’s not necessarily the MOST accurate example one would cite of a Czech pils. Indeed, it doesn’t quite have the hops, but instead it features wonderful malt complexity—bready, doughy malt that reminds one of a great helles or zwickelbier or otherwise unfiltered lager. It’s a wonderfully complex, thoughtful little lager at only 4.5% ABV, and undoubtedly one that’s not getting the credit it deserves. But surprisingly, it was only the first of two pilsners we received from Summit…
City: Chicago, IL
The verdict: Revolution is another brewery that has rarely sent in a beer that didn’t perform well, and the “Rev Pils” is no exception. This is a very hop-forward German-style pilsner, albeit with the same sort of modernized touches we’ve seen in some of the others. Hops derive big, assertive floral aromatics and flavors that fall somewhere between flowery and lemon/grapefruit citrus. Quite dry, and on the bitter side—a pale ale-like level of hop-derived bitterness would probably make this a versatile food beer. This is essentially the blueprint for a lot of the German-inspired pilsners that performed well in the tasting. If it’s not available at Wrigley Field, it damn well should be.
City: Brooklyn, NY
The verdict: Sixpoint has a solid portfolio, but The Crisp might be the brewery’s best overall year-round beer. They call it a German-style pilsner, but this lager is packing a little bit different hop character than most of the other hop-forward German pils we sampled. Rather than the big floral notes, this one leans more toward a perfumey, resinous sort of hoppiness—one of the few on the table that actually had multiple tasters noting “pine,” in a decidedly pleasant way. The hops are balanced by some modest, bready maltiness; just enough to offset the brunt of its hops. You almost might think it was a West Coast version of pilsner, with the pine impression. One wouldn’t call it the most classical German pils, but it’s very tasty stuff.
City: Milwaukee, WI
The verdict: Milwaukee’s Lakefront is a brewery that doesn’t get as much beer geek attention as it should for its balanced, lager-heavy portfolio, mostly because they don’t brew as many styles that appeal to traders—they would have been a fine alternate pick on our Underrated Breweries list for Wisconsin. They make several year-round lagers that are excellent, such as their Riverwest Stein Beer, but Klisch is the one truly flying under the radar. It’s a very clean, crisp, lighter-bodied take on Czech pils, or “half way between Euro and American,” as one taster wrote. Extremely drinkable, with lightly spicy, grassy hops on crisp German malt, it’s just an exceedingly quaffable pilsner with no off-flavors or hitches. And when playing on subtlety, that’s definitely worth points.
City: Decatur, GA
The verdict: This beer from Atlanta’s Three Taverns is a perfect example of how differently one can perceive a style, depending on the setting. It’s one we’ve had plenty of times before, as the brewery is only a few miles from the Paste office, but in the past our perception was usually “This is a tasty, hoppy, unusually citrusy pilsner.” That’s how you’re likely to perceive it on its own. But put that same beer into a blind tasting alongside a lineup of classical pilsners, and suddenly it becomes this bizarre, exotic outlier. Compared to the rest of the field, the American hop aromatics explode out of the glass in Prince of Pilsen—not just citrus but pungent tropical fruitiness as well. It truly challenges what one could get away with labeling as “pilsner” rather than “India pale lager,” but it’s not like that’s a bad thing. What you’re left with is the American hophead’s dream pilsner; a very unique lager indeed.
City: Coronado, CA
The verdict: This isn’t the first time that Coronado has scored a top spot in one of our hop-forward blind tastings—their 19th Anniversary DIPA was a hugely impressive #8 of 115 in our tasting last year, and here they are at #8 once again in a different style. Seacoast, however, ultimately earned more points from us because of malt influences rather than hops—there’s a wonderfully complex, very bready, doughy malt body in this little pilsner, a slightly yeast-forward expression that plays nicely with lightly floral and herbal hops. Looking at the pilsners that made it to the very tip-top of this tasting, “malt complexity” becomes one of the most common x-factors they all tend to share, and Coronado does quite well in that regard.
City: Escondido, CA
The verdict: I really still don’t understand the point of Stone spinning off Arrogant Bastard into its own separate company, but the forthcoming “Arrogant” lineup of beers now includes this excellent take on American-influenced pilsner. I also can’t exactly speak toward the hop bill, but Who You Callin Wussie? is big on American-style hop aromatics, with pleasant citrus and a hint of tropical fruitiness. It’s hard to say whether that’s derived from an actual West Coast hop bill (which you’d almost expect, given the source) or some of those newer continental styles like Mandarina Bavaria, etc., but they make for a fruity pilsner one wouldn’t ever mistake as hailing from Europe. At the same time, though, in comparison to a similar beer such as Three Taverns Prince of Pilsen, “Wussie” is a bit more balanced, lightly malty and less likely to draw “this is an India pale lager” comments. That line is an ephemeral thing, but these two beers helped us nail down its location.
City: Brooklyn, NY
The verdict: An old reliable pils that one could easily take for granted, Brooklyn Pilsner is all the more likely to be overlooked when their classic, better-known flagship is already a Vienna lager. Crackery, grainy malt is the foundation for balanced, moderate hops. The varietals are both German and Czech in origin but come through a little differently than most—floral, yes, but also with some nice citrus on both the nose and palate, an impression like lemon and even a bit of orange. It is, all in all, a milder pilsner than some of the other bruisers, but impeccably put together and reflective of its American heritage. It’s kind of crazy to think this is a beer that Brooklyn has been making for more than 15 years at this point. If it’s been a long time since you last sampled one, this might be a good time for another evaluation.
City: Stowe, VT
The verdict: This is a beer that has gotten Vermont’s Von Trapp Brewing a good amount of attention recently, especially after it took home a GABF silver medal in 2015, and after tasting it we’re glad that a somewhat subtle take on Czech pilsner has been garnering awards. This one doesn’t really bombard the drinker with hop aromatics, although it does feature some mild, pleasantly spicy, slightly peppery notes. Malt is crisp and complex, with biscuity overtones and a wheat-breadiness that made tasters use words like “rustic.” This feels like a pilsner that one could pass off to beer fans as continental while visiting Germany; a very authentic, flavorful but balanced pils that nails the style guidelines to a tee.
City: Newport, OR
The verdict: There was literally a moment after this beer was revealed when I said “Wait, this can’t be Rogue, it doesn’t taste like Pacman yeast.” That’s how used to the brewery’s proprietary yeast strain I’d gotten; enough to forget entirely that they probably wouldn’t be using it for proper Czech pils. And lo and behold, that’s what Good Chit is—a really excellent, surprising Czech pilsner. It’s a beer that really showcases their whole Rogue Farms program and the subtleties and unique nature of making your own floor-malted German-style barley and small-batch Liberty hops. There’s a lightly toasted but not distracting quality to the maltiness that is wonderful, chased by floral, earthy and even slightly funky hops that had tasters going back to the glass repeatedly to ponder their source. Really a pilsner with excellent complexity and layers to it from Rogue.
City: Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic
The verdict: There’s a flavor note that classic European-made lagers tend to have that I can’t adequately put into words. It may be a function of Old World yeast strains, or water chemistry, or proprietary malts, but it’s there, and it’s something you immediately pick up in Czechvar, otherwise known as Budweiser Budvar. Yes, this is the beer that Anheuser ripped off for their own Budweiser way back 1876, and have been ever since. Unsurprisingly, the original is far superior, balancing sweeter, malt breadiness with a charge of classically spicy Czech hops. There’s just no missing where this beer is from—every single tasting sheet confirms as much. Of all the beers we tasted, there wasn’t another that was so obviously a continental pilsner, and a classic one.
City: Saint Paul, MN
The verdict: Summit easily wins the award for biggest surprise of this particular tasting. They were the only brewery to enter more than one pils, because apparently they knew something we didn’t—that they’re cranking out some seriously underrated lagers. This just feels like one that a lot of thought went into, which would make sense for a nontraditional anniversary brew. It’s complex in every area that we want to see complexity—clean maltiness with bready and toasted notes, coupled with floral and distinctly lemony citrus hops, in excellent balance. There’s even an odd note that is almost like a touch of salinity, of the sort that one might see in a lot of current American goses, and a fruity yeast note that has a bit of banana-like ripeness. It doesn’t really taste like a “new” beer; it tastes like a beloved beer that some German-influenced brewery has been making and honing for decades.
City: St. Louis, MO
The verdict: I’d say we’re surprised, but honestly, we’re not. Urban Chestnut, who we just wrote about as Missouri’s most underrated brewery, simply makes superlative German beer styles, and there’s no denying it. Whether it’s a hefeweizen or zwickelbier or pilsner, they are experts at handling the subtleties of German styles, especially those that are dependent upon malt complexity.
What this brewery manages to do on the regular is wring unique flavor out of ingredients that literally everyone uses. What are they doing to get this kind of perfectly balanced bready, grainy flavor profile out of simple pilsner malt? I have no idea, but there’s a degree of malt complexity in most of their German beer styles that makes those beers pop. In Stammtisch, that maltiness is balanced by wonderfully floral, perfumey, evocative hops that dominate the nose before slowly ceding to malt on the palate. It’s an extremely clean, crisp German pilsner that strikes the ideal balance between drinkability and character—a hoppy beer that would never overwhelm the palate of a hop-averse drinker, and provides a little bit of something for everyone. It’s just a delicious pilsner.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident beer guru, and he’s deep in the pilsner-soaked dog days of Georgian summer. You can follow him on Twitter.