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 was published when we last blind-tasted this style back in 2016.
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 Bud Light—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 to such an extent that it comes off as an “India pale lager.” It might even be a faux-pilsner fermented with light, neutral ale yeast for the sake of efficiency and turnaround time … although if you ask us, that’s cheating. Regardless, 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.
As in most of our blind tastings at Paste, the vast majority of these pilsners were sent directly to the office by the breweries that choose to participate, with additional beers acquired by us via locally available purchases and the occasional trade. We always do our best to reach out to breweries we’re aware of that make exemplary versions of particular styles, but things always do slip through the cracks. We apologize for a few significant omissions that we couldn’t acquire, either due to seasonality or market shortages. There will never be a “perfect” tasting lineup, much as we continue to try.
- This is a tasting of pilsners, largely determined by how the breweries chose to label their products. All beers had to be labeled as “pilsner” in some capacity. No pseudo-pilsner ales were accepted. When in doubt, we simply allow a brewery’s marketing to define a beer’s style, and expect them to stick to the designation they’ve chosen.
- All types of adjuncts and flavorings were allowed. There was no specific ABV limit.
- 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, brewmasters 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, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines. As such, this is not a BJCP-style tasting.
To our surprise, pilsner proved to be a somewhat divisive tasting. It revealed one of the rare, justifiable divergences in personal tastes between Paste blind tasters—we just came to find that some of us appreciated a different sort of pilsner than others.
As a result, there often wasn’t much consensus on each day of blind tasting. Whereas some tasters tended to prioritize getting an expressive noble hop character in their pilsners, others focused more on a clean, crisp malt character as the most important element. Still, there were some occasions when a beer perfectly lined up in such a way as to please every palate. Unsurprisingly, those are the pilsners that did best.
Conversely, the worst-performing pilsners were often ones with obvious brewing defects. Sadly, there were some downright buttery, papery, funky or otherwise messed-up lagers in this tasting. Likewise, it was rather difficult for pilsners with unusual adjuncts (such as fruit or spices) to rise to the top in a field where crisp grain and hops are the norm. Good on ya for trying, but citrus ginger pilsners are still a tough sell.
As always, the beers below that didn’t make the top 50 are simply listed in alphabetical order, and as a result are not ranked. I repeat: These beers are not ranked.
Adirondack Brewery Bobcat Pilsner
Ale Asylum 12 oz. Curl
Angel City Brewery Pilsner
Austin Beerworks Pearl Snap
Bauhaus Brew Labs Wonderstuff
Bear Republic Brewing Co. Double Aught
Bell’s Lager of the Lakes
Blue Point Brewing Co. Delayed Pilsner
Blue Point Brewing Co. Pinstripe Pils
Boneyard Beer Co. Pabo Pils
Brooklyn Brewery Pilsner
Capital Brewery Special Pilsner
Cherry St. Brewing Cooperative Tata
Coney Island Brewing Co. Mermaid Pilsner
Connecticut Valley Brewing Co. Sky’s the Limit
Crux Fermentation Project Pils
DC Brau Brewing Co. Brau Pils
Drake’s Brewing Flyway Pils
Dry Dock Brewing Co. Pilsner
Elevation Beer Co. Pilsner
Epic Brewing Co. Blue Ski
Fieldwork Brewing Co. Outdoor
Fieldwork Brewing Co. White Ribbon
Fine Creek Brewing Co. Zwickel Pils
Foothills Brewing Co. Torch
Founders PC Pils
4-Hands Brewing Co. City Museum Pils
4-Hands Brewing Co. City Wide
4 Noses Brewing Co. Perfect Drift
Four Peaks Brewing Co. Hoppy Pils
Fremont Brewing Co. Parkland
Full Sail Brewing Pils
Full Sail Brewing Session Pils
Fulton Beer PILS
Great Lakes Brewing Co. Turntable
Great Raft Brewing Southern Drawl
Heavy Seas Beer Pounder Pils
Hermitage Brewing Pilsner Limited Release
Highland Brewing Co. Half Yuszch
Hops and Grain Brewery Dispensary
The Hourglass Brewery ‘Gogh Czech Yo’Self
Idyll Hounds Brewing Co. Ghost Crab Pilsna
Karl Strauss Brewing Co. Follow the Sun
KC Bier Co. Pils
Kros Strain Brewing Magnum P.I.lsner
Live Oak Brewing Co. Pilz
Maui Brewing Co. Pau Hana Pilsner
Middle Brow Beer Co. Queen
Nebraska Brewing Co. Nebraska Pils
New England Brewing Co. Elm City
NoDa Brewing Co. QC Pils
Port City Brewing Downright Pilsner
Prison City Pub & Brewery Work Work Work
Proof Brewing Co. Proof Pilz
Reuben’s Brews Pilsner
River North Brewery Pils
Rockyard Brewing Co. Primadonna Pilsner
Rogue Ales Yellow Snow Pilsner
Saint Arnold Brewing Co. Summer Pils
Saranac ADK Pils
Short’s Brewing Co. New Style
Short’s Brewing Co. Spruce Pilsner
Sierra Nevada Nooner Pilsner
Societe Brewing Co. The Heiress
Speakeasy Ales & Lagers Pop Gun
Squatters Provo Girl Pilsner
Summit Brewing Co. Dakota Soul
Swiftwater Brewing Co. Round Tripper
Three Taverns Prince of Pilsen
Threes Brewing Vliet
Troegs Brewing Co. Sunshine Pils
Two Roads Brewing Co. ‘Ol Factory
Uinta Brewing Co. Mango Lime Pilsner
Urban South Brewery 2nd Set Pils
Victory Brewing Co. Prima Pils
West End Brewing Co. Utica Club
Widmer PDX Pils
Wolf’s Ridge Brewing Pilsner
Wren House Brewing Co. Big Spill Pilsner
A word on the concept of “hype” as it applies to pilsner: It basically doesn’t apply. Unlike so many other beer styles, pilsner falls victim to the continued perception, even among those who appreciate them, that even the best pilsner is “just a pilsner.” As a result, there are maybe only a handful of beers in the entire pilsner world that would qualify as “whales” to beer traders. I’m not sure there even is a pilsner with a rating higher than 4.0 on Untappd, even from the likes of Hill Farmstead.
The side effect of this is that it makes the results of our blind tasting perhaps look a bit different than one might anticipate. The reality of pilsner is that there’s a lot of good pils—quite a lot of it, really—just sitting under our noses a lot of the time, and not always from the breweries we expect. In fact, a whole lot of great pilsner is made by large, older regional breweries who have been faithfully brewing it for decades. Hyped young upstarts may also produce a great pilsner, but this tasting saw more high-placed finishes from older regional craft breweries than just about any we’ve done in recent memory. And that’s not a coincidence—it’s an indication of how undervalued good pilsners tend to be. So the point is: Don’t sleep on “big craft” pilsners. There’s more good ones out there than you realize.
City: Brooklyn, NY
The verdict: This beer has been around long enough now to be venerable by American pilsner standards, but it’s still a crushable classic. The hop character of The Crisp is noble, but with hints that might make you suspect it was American—a little bit of orangey citrus that you don’t typically get out of European hop varietals, but still on the restrained side. It’s light of body, balanced, and well, “crisp,” yes. That’s all it needs to be.
City: Austin, TX
The verdict: To be honest, we expected some pretty big things from Live Oak in this tasting, after their amazing Hefeweizen crushed 58 other brews to win our blind tasting of hefes and American wheat beers. In execution, though, both their entries turned out to be good—but not quite the world beaters we thought they might be. Gold edged out the flagship Pilz to make the ranked portion of the list on the strength of its nicely balanced hop character. With hints of buzzy spice and touches of citrus zest and grassiness, its profile almost seems slightly more Czech than it is German to our palates, but either way it’s a warm weather crusher for summer on an Austin patio. Very versatile stuff.
City: San Diego, CA
The verdict: This “spezial” pilsner from Alesmith has no shortage of character for its relatively small stature, blending a somewhat unusual combination of malt, hop and mildly fruity notes with more sweetness than a lot of these bone dry beers. There’s no shortage of hops employed here, which contribute some grassiness to the nose, along with a lemon note that almost becomes “lemonade” as a result of fairly significant (for the style) residual sweetness. Slightly bready maltiness ties everything together, while the hops journey off in a couple different directions at once, trading off between green/floral and touches of more unusual, exotic fruitiness. For a second there, one taster even thought this one had a slight “watermelon” note, but in a way that isn’t unpleasant.
City: Charlotte, NC
The verdict: Bit of a long name for a pilsner if you ask us, but who are we to judge? This lager is propped up by a formidable wall of bready, doughy malt, to the extent that it almost comes off as a lighter American pale wheat beer or a hefeweizen, without the hefe yeast character. In our book that’s a good thing, though, balanced out with subtle hints of noble hops. This pilsner isn’t really trying to blow the doors off; it’s just crisp, clean and approachable, with enough malt complexity to be worth mentioning.
City: Greeley, CO
The verdict: This light-bodied, unfiltered lager takes an existing kellerbier from WeldWerks and dresses it up (or is it “dresses down”?) with the addition of some flaked corn for that so-called “pre-Prohibition” American lager character. And it works pretty well—the result is a mild, friendly, very clean and quaffable beer that is easy on the hops but has just enough interesting stuff happening on the malt side of the spectrum to make it interesting. Very light in color (even for the pilsners), it’s a beer that every tasting sheet describes as “bready” somewhere, and it goes down very easily.
City: Ipswich, MA
The verdict: Ipswich takes the recipe for a pretty proper Czech pilsner—German malt and Saaz hops—and then throws a little bit of a monkey wrench into it with the addition of Lemondrop hops as well. The result is subtle on the lemon side, but it does have a nice hop nose on it; perfumey, with touches of florals that are balanced by a grainy malt character with a decent amount of complexity. Ipswich is a brewery that excels in bread-and-butter classical beer styles, and this is another good example of the styles of beers that they tend to do best.
City: Torrance, CA
The verdict: There was a lot of discussion at the table during this particular Paste tasting as to what words like “crisp” and “crackery” might mean when describing a pilsner, but most agreed that this entry was both of those things by any definition. Well balanced all around, this clean pilsner is a little on the perfumey side on the nose, with slightly grassy hop notes and a bit of peppery spice. It doesn’t throw in its lot too strongly on any one note, nor is it all that assertive, but it is very nicely balanced.
City: Athens, GA
The verdict: The year-round pilsner from Creature Comforts is a bit of a blend of styles, incorporating both noble hops and a touch of New Zealand hops as an x-factor. The former actually come through more strongly, as Bibo comes off as a fairly authentic continental pilsner, with some very nice floral notes on top of crisp, subtle malt. There’s a touch of minerality here that makes the beer stand out, but overall it’s quite balanced, with a slight edge to the noble hops and a little bit of corresponding bitterness. To our taste, pilsner should probably have at least a little bit of bitterness, so that’s by no means a bad thing.
City: Denver, CO
The verdict: It’s an appreciable quality when you know after the first taste exactly what a beer is trying to be, and there’s no doubt after the first sip that this is “German-style pilsner.” To quote from one score sheet: “Immediate classic noble hop flavors, floral and lightly bready.” Delicate bitterness offers just enough by way of balance, although it probably could have even been a little bit more assertive in that department. It was another good pilsner among many we sampled from Colorado, a state that is always very well represented in these blind tastings.
City: Atlanta, GA
The verdict: It feels like something must be in the water at Atlanta’s oldest brewery these days. Red Brick Brewing Co. recently re-emerged into our blind tastings with a very impressive #12 placement out of 151 pale ales, and here they are again using American hops in an impressive way. This one eschews the traditional German/Czech pilsner mold and throws in with American hop varietals—a move that worked very well for certain beers in this tasting, and very poorly for others. Here, it works: The result is on the dank side, although its greener notes are also balanced out by some sweet orange/grapefruit citrus as well. There’s even a little bit of malt balance, which is swept away in some of the more intense pilsners that feature American hop varietals. Whatever is going on at Red Brick right now, it’s clear they’ve figured some stuff out in terms of hops as of late, and are producing some of their best beers as a result.
City: Minneapolis, MN
The verdict: The nice thing about brewing a modern pilsner is that even if you want to stick to “noble hops,” there’s a much greater variety of German-grown hops than there used to be. Case in point, Indeed’s pils makes use of Mandarina Bavaria, a nouveau German varietal that often has more in common with American hops than it does with the classic Hallertauer. Perhaps oddly, the result almost strikes us as more of a Czech pils thanks to its slightly green and resinous hop spice, but there is a note of pithy citrus in there as well, as well as some bready malt. It’s a solid German pils with a twist of modernity.
City: Bloomington, IL
The verdict: When we think of Bloomington, IL’s Destihl, it’s typically because we’re tasting some kind of sour beer style and they’ve delivered another puckering offering, but this pilsner was a pleasant and unexpected change of pace. Hops are the star of the show here, although they present a little bit differently than in some of the other German pilsners—lots of florals, yes, but also a big note of zingy lemon citrus zest that is quite pleasant. There’s a bit of bitterness here as well, and a soft—almost sort of “chalky”?—texture that sounds odd but works well. All in all, a solid pils that trends toward the hops.
City: Denver, CO
The verdict: TRVE is another brewery you’re probably more likely to hear about in conjunction with something big, bold, unusual and perhaps sour than as makers of a fine pilsner, but good pilsners know no bias in terms of their origins. They don’t really offer any description of this beer beyond “kellerpils,” but it’s not the unfiltered nature that is going to catch your attention—it’s definitely the hops. This one hits with an immediate wallop that is floral and orangey all at once, big and assertive up front, but then finishes dry. Actually on the thinner side in terms of texture, it’s pretty unbalanced in favor of the hops, but they hit a very crowd-pleasing note, and hit it hard.
City: Houston, TX
The verdict: Saint Arnold is a brewery that does classic styles well, and it figures that they would go the extra mile with their pils by employing a decoction mash, which is a much more time-intensive process. The result is an extra layer of toasty malt complexity. The can talks up the Saaz hops on display, but this is more of a balanced pils, perhaps even with a slight malt dominance. It’s a bit darker and toastier in nature—almost having just the tiniest hint of “roasty”—which works well with moderate bitterness and some earthy hop notes. It’s like the “toasted oats” of pilsners, and we can dig that.
City: Bend, OR
The verdict: I have to hand it to 10 Barrel on the name of this beer—every time we send out a call for beer styles, I receive dozens of “out of office” automated email replies from brewery PR people, so this hits home. This beer is a thoroughly, aggressively American pilsner that can’t rightly be called a pilsner at all—but it is very tasty, and that’s what counts. It has clearly been dry-hopped heavily with American hops, but quite skillfully—This one is citrusy and deeply resinous, with sweet pine needle aromatics and a touch of what one taster insisted was “white grape.” The hops don’t contribute much in the way of bitterness, so it’s clear these were largely late additions. As I stated above, we had a fair number of pilsners in this tasting that were intensely hopped with American varietals, and quite a few of those didn’t work. This one does. Note: 10 Barrel is owned by AB InBev, but credit where credit is due on this one.
City: Stillwater, MN
The verdict: If any region of the country should logically be the breadbasket of pilsner, it would probably be the upper Midwest, so we’re not surprised to see a lot of solid entries from the likes of Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota. Lift Bridge is a solid brewery that often flies under the radar, so it’s fitting that you can describe their pilsner in the same way: Clean, with a nice bready/doughy malt note that subtly builds throughout, supported by ample floral and earthy hops. Good balance, good subtlety, good all around.
City: St. Paul, MN
The verdict: This well-liked unfiltered pilsner from Summit has done very well in previous Paste blind tastings, and it did almost as well again here, against a significantly tougher field. It still stands out nicely for its malt complexity in particular—the beer is built atop a bed of malt that is alternatively grainy, bready and a little bit on the toasted side. Hops present with a nice twist of floral and light lemon citrus. This beer inspired a few comments about other aspects as well on the score sheets. “Very soft mouthfeel, feels delightful,” reads one. “On point blend of German and American influences, has real character,” reads another. Another excellent year-round beer.
City: Sheboygan, WI
The verdict: You don’t really need to do a lot to have a good pilsner. So often it’s more about simply avoiding things done wrong. Case in point is this pilsner from 3 Sheeps, which isn’t all that assertive, or explosive, or even distinctive—it’s just very nicely made. Crisp grainy malt is the star of the show here. The brewery makes this pilsner with Cascade rather than noble hops, but a more subtle hop rate means that the “American” character doesn’t really pop. Instead, it just gives way to very gentle, smooth, easygoing maltiness with touches of grain and corny sweetness. And that’s all it needs to be! Perhaps that doesn’t sound like a strong enough endorsement, but we’ll just say this: You could make some killer beer brats in a can of this.
City: Petaluma, CA
The verdict: Okay, who else has been drinking this classic pilsner for years without ever noticing that it tips the scales at 6% ABV? Not quite traditional, but it certainly plays to this beer’s advantage. Regardless, Lagunitas Pils truly is a classic of the genre these days, a beer that has been helping redevelop the American taste for genuinely hoppy pilsner for more than 15 years at this point. You can feel a bit of its bigger stature on the palate—one tasting sheet amusingly refers to it as “strong and clear-eyed”—but it’s the hops that are driving the car here. Some of the spice and earthy qualities of Saaz are present, but there’s also a distinct “dank” impression there as well; a shock coming from Lagunitas, right? Perfumey, slightly piney and with just a ghost of supporting malt, it’s still quite quaffable despite being one of the bigger pilsners we sampled.
City: Asheville, NC
The verdict: This is the perfect example of a larger regional brewery making a really good pilsner that some drinkers may overlook. This beer was good when it was first released a couple years ago, and it’s still very solid now. It’s “German-style,” but it sort of comes off as slightly more Czech, with a big punch of noble hops that are spicy, earthy and slightly herbal in nature. Malt is slightly on the sweeter side here, which actually works pretty well with the hop character to form the impression of a “heartier” hoppy pils. This stuff certainly has some backbone to it.
City: Queens, NY
The verdict: How far can you go in hopping a pilsner with American hop varietals before it starts to come off as some kind of hazy session IPA? Well, the answer is “at least this far,” because Finback’s take on the American-hopped pils is rather delightful. This one gets a big dose of Citra in the dry hop, and how often is that an unpleasant thing to hear? The result is slightly resinous, bright and citrusy, and very inviting. There’s a little bit of “juicy” here, but nothing to get worked up into a tizzy about. Likewise, there’s actually a degree of bitterness present as well, which helps to balance everything out. If you’re doing a hazy pilsner these days and throwing American hops in there, we’re probably hoping that it will taste more or less like this.
City: Austin, TX
The verdict: Austin is simply a great city of German-style beers—between Live Oak and Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. (it’s easier to just say “ABGB”), you’ve already got two of the best. But when it comes to “pilsner,” ABGB has that style on lock. They’re a brewery that produces three different pilsners, and all three have won GABF gold at some point in the last few years, in the “American,” “German” and “Czech” categories. Rocket 100 is the American entry, which the brewery takes to mean “our interpretation of lagers brewed by German Immigrants before Prohibition,” with the addition of a little corn. It’s not quite as hop-forward as its German and Czech brothers, but still contributes some buzzy spice, moderate bitterness and a solid foundation of crackery malt. Of the three ABGB pilsners, we find this one the most on the “neutral” side, but it’s still exemplary in its own way. With that said, they make at least one (and maybe two) pilsner that is even better.
City: Hammond, IN
The verdict: Three different score sheets on this beer all use the word “Euro,” so there’s probably something to that assessment. 18th Street’s offering is all about the malt complexity for the most part. It’s quite bready and one of the most distinctly “yeasty” pilsners in the tasting, with a doughy quality that works well with a moderate dose of perfumey hops. “Bright and bready, very approachable” says one score sheet. This chewy pils feels downright wholesome, in a way.
City: Atlanta, GA
The verdict: This interesting pilsner from former Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele is one with some intriguing, late-developing character. On the initial sip it’s very enjoyable for its pillowy soft texture and generous dose of floral hops, but then it has an unusual quality where growing bitterness develops slowly but surely on the back end. It’s very much in the German style, with plenty of flowery hop impressions, and that bitter finish we alluded to yields a very dry, mouth-coating sensation after each sip that would probably make it a good food beer for dishes that need something to rein you back in. The word for this pilsner might be “sophisticated.”
City: Chicago, IL
The verdict: Half Acre is a brewery we often think of in conjunction with great pale ales and IPAs, but they do just as well when playing around with noble hops as well. Pony Pils is a legit German-style pilsner—I write that because one score sheet literally says “legit German-style pils” on it—that very nicely features some flowery German hops on top of a bed of slightly sweet, grainy malt. There’s just enough bitterness in play to know that you’re drinking a real pilsner, with a crisp, dry finish. It really is textbook German pilsner, perfect for the 16 oz can you so often expect to contain IPA these days.
City: Chicago, IL
The verdict: It’s truly fitting for this beer to be back-to-back with Half Acre’s Pony Pilsner, considering that they’re two of Chicago’s best year-round pilsners from two of the city’s larger craft breweries that are in direct competition with one another. Compared with the former, Rev Pils is a bit more intensely hop-forward, with more of the spicy, green, almost resinous quality you expect to sometimes get in Czech pilsner, although they still call it German stye. Either way, it’s just another profile that is a matter of taste—you might prefer the more floral pilsner, or the spicier variant. Either way, this one brings a lovely noble hop buffet.
City: Salisbury, MD
The verdict: Evolution refers to this one as an “Eastern shore take on a Czech-style pilsner,” and the result is interesting. It’s a little bit on the sweeter side than some of the others, with a hop-forward profile that balances elements of green grassiness and florals, but also more than a little bit of citrus, with almost a tiny bit of “juice.” Although it’s more hop than malt-forward, each element of its hoppiness is well balanced with the next, helping the final product appear multi-dimensional. Or as one score sheet put it, “not too much of anything, just balanced, tasty hoppiness.”
City: Nashville, TN
The verdict: This collaboration beer between Bearded Iris and Threes can boast the most unusual single ingredient of the pilsner tasting: Oyster shells! Yes, this pils is apparently brewed with some small allotment of oyster shells, which are intended to add a subtle salinity to the proceedings. Would you ever suspect that, if you were just handed this beer and told it was a pilsner? We think not, but it’s quite a good pils all on its own. Delightfully redolent in noble hops, there’s a ton of floral character on the nose of this one, which is balanced on the palate by crisp, crackery malt, like Saltines. Regardless of whether the oyster shells really made an impact, it’s an impressive bit of composition and restraint from two breweries that are known for big, in-your-face NE-IPAs.
City: Nashville, TN
The verdict: Nashville’s Yazoo sent in two pilsners for this tasting, and both of them were far above average—these guys know how to make some classic pilsners, clearly. While their year-round regular version of Daddy-O succeeds more as a result of malt complexity, this variation that calls out an addition of Ariana and Callista hops understandably finds itself somewhat more hop driven, although it’s still pretty balanced overall. Fresh cut grassiness is present on the nose, on top of a wheaty, bready sort of malt body. It’s an easygoing beer, what one tasting sheet refers to as “kind to the palate.” Although other breweries may have taken nouveau hop strains like Ariana and Callista and decided to make single-hop IPAs with them, Yazoo went for a decidedly more subtle approach.
City: Portland, OR
The verdict: There’s more going on in this unassuming little pilsner from Breakside than initially meets the eye. On the nose this pils is certainly hop forward, but more complex than most, boasting notes of perfume, spice and citrus all at once. It’s a little bit sweet on the palate, and slightly resinous, with an unexpected fruity note that almost makes one think of melon. A different taster focused more on the hop spice, noting its “peppery finish.” It’s the kind of complexity in an unassuming beer style that we’ve come to expect from Breakside, a brewery with an exemplary batting average in these blind tastings. They regularly do just about everything well.
City: Atlanta, GA
The verdict: Just about any brewpub would kill for the consistency displayed in blind tastings by Atlanta’s Wrecking Bar—I’m honestly not sure they’ve ever entered a beer that has missed the ranked portion of a list. Their pilsner, Vivant, channels a lot of the vibrancy of a great Czech pils, with a subtly fruity twist. When people describe pilsners as “spicy,” it’s this kind of profile they’re talking about—a combination of grassiness and peppercorn-like spice, with a herbaceous quality blended in as well. This one proudly wears those hop flavors on its sleeve—“a spicy noble hop showcase,” as one tasting sheet puts it. Nice stuff.
City: Paso Robles, CA
The verdict: At this point, it would be more of a surprise to see this beer not perform well in a pilsner tasting—it’s been one of Firestone’s most awarded beers since debuting back in 2012, around the same time that pilsner started gaining more cache with craft beer geeks. The brewery starts with a fairly classical German pils recipe that trades in slightly bready malt and floral hops and then twists it a little bit with an additional dry-hopping with newer German Saphir hops, which gives the hop character some slightly New World citrus edge. Or as one score sheet puts it, “A quality blend of pilsner styles that finishes right.”
City: Norfolk, VA
The verdict: Smartmouth is a brewery that we’ve sampled in a few of these tastings, but Safety Dance is without a doubt their most impressive entry to date. This one is more or less a noble hop bomb, something that can get out of hand if done poorly, but in this case the hops really pop. There’s lots of floral notes and a lot of noble spice all at once, but with only mild corresponding bitterness, suggesting that these were mostly late additions. American craft beer drinkers don’t often get to taste what a large dose of European hops can taste like, which makes beers like Safety Dance an especially novel experience.
City: Nashville, TN
The verdict: The variation of this beer we already handled earlier on this list is one that features hops more prominently, while the original is a bit more focused on malt subtleties. This one is just really nicely understated, with a grainy quality that fades into slightly corny sweetness and a touch of something like vanilla, balanced out by a tiny bit of hops—if anything could get away with calling itself “pre-Prohibition-style” pilsner, this seems like the kind of thing where it would apply. “Crisp, clean and refreshing, with just enough of a hop kick” reads one score sheet. “That’s my pils JAM” reads another. This strikes us as the kind of beer that could get overlooked pretty easily, but shines in a blind setting.
City: Oklahoma City, OK
The verdict: This beer from COOP is another prominent entry in the “Americanized hops” camp of pilsners, and it handles itself with some nice balance. It happened to be on the table on the same day as 10 Barrel’s Out of Office, and the two share some similarities—both on the woodsy, perfumey, almost resinous side while also packing some floral notes—but of the two, COOP’s entry is just a bit more subtle and balanced, which is always a good thing when it comes to pilsner. One tasting sheet calls it “India pale pilsner” while also admitting that it doesn’t go too far, while another says “dry-hopped pilsner … but excellent.” More proof that American hops work in pilsner, if done right.
City: Longmont, CO
The verdict: This year-round pilsner from Left Hand has been on the shelf for more than a decade, and it’s one we have to admit we’ve often overlooked … but we won’t be anymore, after tasting it blind. This one hits the palate as classical German pils—clean and a little bit bready, with mild fruitiness and perhaps just a hint of banana, which is chased by floral and herbal hops, in good balance. It’s deeply drinkable, what one score sheet referred to as “clean, mild and crushable.” There’s clearly a reason it’s been a year-round beer for 13 years or more.
City: Brooklyn, NY
The verdict: I didn’t even notice when we revealed this beer that it reads “foudre-fermented pilsner,” which is certainly an unusual twist on the formula. Regardless, we didn’t really get any oak or woody impressions to speak of out of it, so any character imparted by the foudre is on the subtle side. What this beer does have in spades is noble hops, and specifically Saaz, which imparts a really nice spicy character and peppery note. In addition to the green/herbal notes, there’s also a bit of orange or tangerine zest in there. All in all, Brooklyn’s Threes contributed some very solid pilsners—both on their own, and in collaboration with Bearded Iris.
City: Aying, Germany
The verdict: We had a smattering of German-made pilsners in this tasting for the sake of history, but here’s the thing: American-made versions of German pilsner have diverged to the point of almost being a new style, and most of the German-made ones honestly don’t play well to the American palate these days—especially when they’re not fresh. We simply produce crisper, much hoppier beer over here for the most part, even when using noble hops. The German-made pilsners, by contrast, tend to be significantly more toasty, darker and malt-focused, and few of them really excited tasters in a blind setting. The exception was (unsurprisingly) from Ayinger—a pilsner that really nails the smooth, bready, slightly toasty malt and yeast character while balancing it with subtly floral hops. Even if you do prefer the way that American craft brewers are now interpreting this style, it’s still impossible to overlook this classic. As one taster wrote, “A German loaf of beer, with the noblest hops.”
City: Lyons, CO
The verdict: Oskar Blues are well known for being pioneers in terms of canned craft beer, and this tasty lager certainly helped the beginning of canned pilsner’s reclamation by the craft community when it was first released about a decade ago. It feels like a little bit of a blend of styles, although it leans Czech in the end—mildly toasty malt meets with a moderate level of spicy and earthy hops, in good balance. It can boast a somewhat creamier texture than most of the other beers on the table, which isn’t something we necessarily would have expected, but it plays well. It remains one of the best craft pilsners you can hope to find in a gas station cooler.
City: Washington, D.C.
The verdict: DC Brau’s regular pilsner just barely missed the ranked portion of the list, but the unfiltered version is the really impressive star of the show. This beer has a very pleasant, slightly chewy sort of texture that you can probably attribute to a bit more yeast in suspension. That yeast amplifies its gentle breadiness, but at the same time this is still a pretty hop-forward pils, rocking the spicier, earthier, slightly grassy hop notes. Firm (but approachable) bitterness holds everything in place. This beer is very much a pils; you wouldn’t mistake it for anything else.
City: St. Louis, MO
The verdict: The last time we blind-tasted pilsners in 2016 we had only 62 entries, and Urban Chestnut’s wonderful pilsner rose to the top—just one of several German beer styles they’ve wowed us with in these blind tastings. This time around, in a field that was more than twice as large, they still managed to land Stammtisch in the top 10 … because it’s just a damn good beer. This time around it struck us as perhaps a bit less hoppy in the past, which is probably the result of tasting a lot of American-made pilsners that have greatly upped their hop rates. Rather, Stammtisch highlights the slight toastiness and gentle sweetness and smoothness of German malt. There’s a rounded texture to this beer, and a subtlety to its malt profile that slowly transitions into floral hops and moderate bitterness on the back end. Impeccably balanced, it continues this St. Louis brewery’s streak of making superlative versions of classic German styles.
City: Middlebury, VT
The verdict: I don’t think any of us has ever sampled a beer from The Shed before, but Hellbrook is certainly a strong way to debut in these blind tastings. This one is light, crisp and almost ethereal in quality—very much in the German pilsner style, but subtle and pristine. Light floral hops fade into a slightly perfumey note and a kiss of sweet malt and a twist of lemon citrus. It’s a perfectly balanced, unassuming sort of beer without any kind of flaw we could possibly think to mention. A connoisseur’s pilsner.
City: Buellton, CA
The verdict: “Definitely a proper pils” begins one of the score sheets on this year-rounder from Figueroa Mountain. Like the previous beer on this list, Paradise Rd. is a testament to subtlety and balance. A clean, crisp, sparkling malt profile is the foundation for a moderate level of hoppiness that balances floral and herbal hop notes in equal measure. Each score sheet at some point mentions the authenticity of its “Euro profile,” while praising the restrained balance between malt, hops and drinkability. “Right down the middle,” says one score sheet. “Can hardly ask for better than this.”
City: Denver, CO
The verdict: You’d be forgiven for primarily just associating the name “Crooked Stave” with sours and wild ales—it often feels like every bottle they have on the shelves falls into one of those two camps. But under the radar, this brewery is also producing a dynamite pilsner—something I was already aware of when I named this beer one of my favorites at the 2017 Firestone Walker Invitational. In the blind format, it proved just as lovely—a very hop-forward kellerbier, with an intriguing hop profile that marries spice and grassiness with a melange of citrus notes. Various tasters pegged that citrus presence as orange, or lemon, or grapefruit, but it’s certainly distinctive, and does so without dominating the beer’s entire profile. Moderate bitterness is also present, trying everything together. This is a great example of hoppy pilsner that stands out for how subtly it offers a twist on a classic archetype.
City: Hood River, OR
The verdict: pFriem has become a reliable presence in these blind tastings, with increasingly impressive performances that imply a brewery operating at the top of its game. Their pilsner, like most of their hop-forward beers, features a complex array of aromatics: Classical German florals, but also grassiness and a twist of lemon. Crisp malt is backed up by just a touch of wildflower honey sweetness. As one score sheet reads: “Light grassy aromatics, very bright and crisp, subtle citrus, balanced.” It’s a thing of beauty that gets its complexity out of a blend of old world and new world German hops, and the result feels expertly calculated.
City: Hartford, CT
The verdict: Another brewery we’re relatively unfamiliar with, and another exemplary, balanced pilsner—this is shaping up to be an interesting top 10. Hills Pils is light of body and texture despite actually being one of the stronger pilsners in the tasting at 5.9% ABV. Its malt profile is delicate, crisp and grainy/crackery, supported by light floral hops, a little bit of lemon citrus and enough sweetness to not be completely dry—and even a little bit of bitterness as well! It is, suffice to say, a pretty classical pilsner, and one that doesn’t really throw in too strongly on any one flavor note. From one score sheet: “Light, crisp, refreshing and everything a pils should be.”
City: Athens, GA
The verdict: You could make a strong argument that this beer is the least “pilsner” submission of the entire tasting, but damn is it delicious. The second collaboration between Creature Comforts and hip-hop duo Run the Jewels is a pilsner of unsurpassed dankness, a veritable hurricane of resinous and non-classical noble hops. It’s hugely dank and green in terms of its hop character, or “for the 420 enthusiast,” as one taster wrote. From another score sheet: “Mega hoppy pils, like India pale pilsner. Almost overwhelming, but delicious.” Fact of the matter is, this beer could never be considered to reside anywhere near the realm of tradition, but it ended up being the most impressive and memorable use of American hops we witnessed during the tasting. It has more in common with IPA for the most part than it does pilsner (sans bitterness, which is largely absent), but if you’re seeking a dank, hoppy experience, it’s a revelation. If that flavor profile is your jam, then this is a must-find beer.
City: Madison, AL
The verdict: Some of the very best pilsners of this tasting came from the sources we weren’t necessarily expecting. Blue Pants is a brewery we’ve had some good hop-forward beers from in the past—particularly their hop-bursted IPAs—but who knew that they had a world-class pilsner in the stable as well? This one was on the table on the same day as the Wrecking Bar Brewpub’s Vivant Pilsner, and the two share fairly similar profiles—primarily hop-forward and spicy/earthy in nature, although the Blue Pants entry is slightly more reined in and balanced, which is what helped to put it over the top with tasters. “Right-on with the spicy hops; textbook,” says one enamored scoresheet. A very lovely beer for lovers of noble hops.
City: Asheville, NC
The verdict: We’ve always liked this year-round pilsner from Burial, but it feels like with this #2 finish, the product in the can has taken another step forward. Dry-hopping with Sterling and Tettnang provides it with a bevy of hop characteristics: Perfumey florals, some peppery spice and a little bit of herbality that one taster described as being almost minty. It’s hop-forward without being one-dimensional, and assertive without losing any drinkability. As one taster wrote: “Lovely! A hint of malty sweetness with a great mouthfeel and the right hops for the job.” It’s a superlative pilsner, and one we’re pretty thrilled to be able to pick up any day of the week in local Atlanta package stores.
City: Austin, TX
The verdict: When I wrote earlier about ABGB’s “American pilsner,” Rocket 100, I noted that all three of the brewery’s separate pilsner styles—German, Czech and American—have individually ended up winning GABF gold in the last few years.
Suffice to say, this is not a coincidence—not one bit. Unlike in a category such as IPA, where we so often disagree with the results of competitions such as GABF, their taste in pilsners is 100% spot on. Industry is simply the best American-made version of a classical German pilsner that you’re going to find in the world today—it blows the competition away, and in our mind it’s the blueprint for what a German pilsner should be. Assertively floral on the nose, it balances very light, crisp, crackery malt with a plethora of perfumey/floral hop notes and supple bitterness. But more than that, there’s a minerality to this beer that was almost unique among the field of 134—a hard to define quality that is probably related to water chemistry that was only replicated by a few of the other beers we tasted. To be honest, the only way you’re really going to understand is to hunt some Industry down and try it for yourself. And that’s absolutely something you should go out of your way to do.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.