Foudre-fermented, Italian-style, IPA-inspired? The modern craft pilsner is far from one thing.
There’s a running joke among craft beer aficionados that every coming year promises to be “the year of the lager.” Lager fans try willing the prophecy into fruition, even if sales show the IPA still reigns supreme. But even if lager can’t compete with the almighty IPA, some breweries and beer bars see a pendulum swing. According to LeAnn Darland of Talea Beer Co., the Brooklyn brewery’s Al Dente Italian-Style Pilsner matched sales of its top-selling hazy IPA in 2022. For others, an upswing is simply a nice-to-have. “Growth or no growth … there’s always going to be a dedicated lager fanbase that will continue to embrace and celebrate this style,” says Christa Sobier, owner of Brooklyn bottle shop and bar Beer Witch.
Lager has plenty to offer the 2023 beer drinker. Instead of more modern beer styles’ adjuncts and science experiment-esque hopping methods, there are time-honored production and serving methods. “Hazy IPAs and pastry stouts are the equivalent of bog myrtle and baboon’s blood to hide flaws, upcharge and market a modern mess in brewing,” says Adam Zuniga, Advanced Cicerone and host of a new show, No Life Til Lager. By contrast, brewers and connoisseurs appreciate how the simplicity of lager demands virtual perfection. And perhaps no other style better epitomizes the romance of brewing traditions, the showcase for brewers’ painstaking attention to detail, and refreshing taste than the pilsner.
“Lager” refers to an entire category of styles commonly differentiated by colder fermentation temperatures and cleaner yeast flavor and aroma profiles; like märzen or schwarzbier, pilsner is a lager style. German pilsners are drier and more bitter; Czech pilsners are more malt-forward and, thanks to a difference in water profiles, softer. The siren call of both Czech and German pilsners is strong for many brewers. As Jeff McGuire, director of brewing operations at North Carolina’s Burial Beer Co. notes, “Anything that’s been around for 170-plus years and still kicking,” it’s for a reason. True to American craft beer form, even longstanding Czech serving techniques have garnered the kind of hype once reserved for hazy IPAs.
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“The Czech pilsner love is really real right now in America and I’m 100 percent here for it,” says Em Sauter, Advanced Cicerone and the cartoonist and educator behind Pints and Panels. “From installations of authentic Lukr side-pull faucets to the focus on decoction mashing to even being able to order Czech pour styles like the mlíko at local breweries and bars, it’s great to see tradition on display.”
Of course, for all that love of tradition, this wouldn’t be American craft beer without some envelope-pushing. Craft beer in the United States “has always been the Wild West,” says Sauter. She explains that, without the more rigid rules of some other beer-producing countries, there’s more flexibility as to what can actually constitute a pilsner. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it allows for evolution and experimentation within styles.”
For example, some brewers are diversifying the pilsner by looking to other beer styles, like the IPA, and adding tropical New Zealand hops to the regular suite of German and Czech varieties, while others are conditioning their pilsners in giant oak barrels, known as foudres, or triumphing less common examples from other countries, like Belgium. In 2023, it’s easier than ever to find strictly conventional pilsners, celebrating decades of European brewing methods, alongside completely reinvented pilsners, and everything in between.
Considering this range of options, it feels like high time to check in with the American craft pilsner. Who is making those great, archetypal German- and Czech-style pilsners? Who is looking to other countries? Who, among the breweries making their own fresh mark on the style, is doing it well? After researching and tasting pilsners from some of the most renowned makers across the country, we’ve narrowed the pool to six who we feel are the epitome of the current craft pilsner zeitgeist.
Human Robot Hallertau Pils
Philadelphia’s Human Robot has arguably worked the most modern magic for craft lager’s image. The brewery turned the mlíko foam pour—born and mostly forgotten in the Czech Republic, revived in the States with growing pilsner love—into Instagram-friendly “milk tubes” and churns out sought-after merch. But for the beer itself, Human Robot knows how to stick to the script and brew a pitch-perfect example of a long-standing classic. They employ a double decoction method for the Hallertau Pils to unlock bready malt character, complemented by herbal, floral hops. The result is reminiscent of the iconic Rothaus.
- Price: $15 (four 12-ounce cans)
- From: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
- ABV: 5.2%
Burial Beer Co. Shadowclock Pilsner
McGuire calls Shadowclock “steeped in a lot of traditional inspiration with some twists and tweaks.” It weaves in nods to German, Czech and Italian pilsners. This unfiltered pilsner’s nose is rustic and grainy. Its grain-sweet flavor quickly opens up with a perhaps more American lean on hoppiness, but one that emphasizes Noble hop floral and herbal notes plus some earthiness; appropriately, it finishes dry and refreshing.
- Price: $12 (six 12-ounce cans)
- From: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States
- ABV: 5.5%
Talea Beer Co. Al Dente Italian-Style Pilsner
Traditionally speaking, dry-hopping sets Italian pilsners apart from German and Czech versions, which may explain hop-hungry American drinkers’ growing affection for them. To experience the masterful balance between the clean crispness of a true pilsner and the complex hop bouquet of an Italian spin, Talea’s Al Dente is the move. It’s dry-hopped per the Italian approach, with German Saphir for herbal, fruity aromas. “We find [it] has notes of rosemary focaccia and orange zest,” says Darland. Also expect a pleasant, well-rounded bite of acidity and effervescence.
- Price: $19.95 (four 16-ounce cans)
- From: Brooklyn, New York, United States
- ABV: 5%
Halfway Crooks Pintje Belgian Pilsner
Owned by American Shawn Bainbridge and Belgian Joran Van Ginderachter, Atlanta’s Halfway Crooks celebrates lagers alongside Belgian ales. The combo comes together neatly in the brewery’s Belgian pilsner, Pintje. The differentiating characteristics of a Belgian pilsner are subtle, but present nonetheless. Belgian malt lends a slightly sweeter, less grainy character and hops are aromatic, maybe a bit spicy. Bitterness is traditionally lower than a German pilsner but Halfway Crooks’ iteration dials this factor up, making their own impression and creating a satisfying, lingering aftertaste.
- Price: $14.75 (four 16-ounce cans)
- From: Atlanta, Georgia, United States
- ABV: 5.2%
Threes Brewing Kicking & Screaming Foudre-Fermented Pilsner
Foudre fermentation is far from new—these giant oak barrels have been used to age beer for over a century—but Kicking & Screaming is an example of an American brewery fusing two different traditions to create something unique. From Threes Brewing in Brooklyn, this beer hits all the right pilsner notes with a golden grain sweetness balanced by zippy carbonation and lingering bitterness. But the foudre crowns it with an added layer of complexity, in the form of a hint of oakiness and tannins.
- Price: $18 (four 16-ounce cans)
- From: Brooklyn, New York, United States
- ABV: 5.2%
Finback Brewery Crispy Town
From New York’s Finback Brewery, Crispy Town represents the next wave of American craft pilsner: tradition shaken up with fresh factors like novel hops and low-key IPA vibes. Co-founder Basil Lee calls the beer Finback’s “new-school take,” explaining that instead of recreating traditional styles, the brewery concentrates on a creative approach and cohesiveness across its beers. Crispy Town “hits the expectations of a pilsner, but speaks to our interest in hops.” In addition to tried-and-true Tettnanger and Saaz, New Zealand hop Motueka adds lemon and lime zest and bright tropical notes.
- Price: $16 (four 16-ounce cans)
- From: Glendale, New York, United States
- ABV: 5.2%