Pilsner is a very specific type of lager. Millions of beerdrinking Americans think they know what a pilsner is, but their idea of the term is based on TV commercials and thus is obviously mistaken. The pilsner originated in Bohemia, is quite hoppy, and features neither rice nor corn to lighten its body and flavor. The big names in beer may have been pilsners before Prohibition, but they are something else today (Beer Advocate calls them American adjunct lagers).
Like most lagers, the pilsner style gets very little respect from most craft brewers and beer geeks. Lagers are commonly seen as the purview of corporate brewers and the unwashed masses, while ales are sought after for their depth and complexity. As I tend to do from time to time, I disagree with the majority. A well-brewed lager is something to be savored just as much as any ale. Pilsners in particular are great because their light body and crispness make them the most refreshing beers on the planet. That’s worthy of some respect.
There is one very notable, commonly-cited exception to the general anti-pilsner bias of beer geeks: Victory Prima Pils. As far as lagers go, it’s a hop bomb. It’s the highest rated German style pilsner at BeerAdvocate.com and the second-ranked beer on the list is also made by Victory. So when beer geeks do get excited about pilsners, it’s for the hops.
Sadly for us in Birmingham, Victory does not distribute to Alabama. You’ll have to travel to Atlanta to get your fix. But the idea for this column was inspired by the arrival of a new pilsner here in Birmingham, Joe’s Pilsner from Avery Brewing.
I’m not prepared to say it is superior to Prima Pils, but Joe’s Pilsner is fit to be uttered in the same breath. It’s got the classic pale golden hue and perfect clarity of a well-made pilsner, the light body and crisp finish, none of the fruity esters or phenols common to ales, and boatloads of hops. Specifically, Hersbrucker noble hops from the Old World. And its sessionable 4.7 percent alcohol content is overloaded with 42 International Bittering Units (IBU) from early hop additions. Note that the IBU range for IPAs begins at 40. Yes, this pilsner is bitterer than some IPAs.
And there is one more bit of awesome to note about Joe’s: it’s in cans. So you can grab that hoppy slice of refreshment and take it anywhere, to music festivals, golfing, hiking, wherever. It generally confers the many benefits of cans I’ve previously covered in this column, such as complete protection from skunking by UV light, easier recycling, and reduced fuel consumption during shipping since cans are lighter than bottles. Cheers to craft brewers moving towards cans in greater numbers.
I’d like to now provide you with a long list of great pilsners you must check out around Birmingham, but the list isn’t so long. Of course you must try the original, Pilsner Urquell, from the Czech Republic. It’s widely viewed as the benchmark for the style. Another one to check out is Czechvar, which you might not be surprised to hear is also brewed in the Czech Republic. On this side of the pond, Left Hand makes a good one in Polestar Pilsner. North Coast’s Scrimshaw Pilsner is excellent. And Gordon Biersch has a nice one.
The craft beer world needs more great pilsners. Let’s hope some of the local breweries sprouting up in Alabama will take on the challenge of producing a great one.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to email@example.com