In the world history of beer, pilsners are relatively recent. The light, universal style first became popular in the 1830s, engineered by a Bavarian in the German town of Pilsen. The primary source of the innovation was the use of bottom-fermenting yeasts, which yielded a livelier, more consistent beer than the traditional top-fermented brews. The combination of these yeasts with Pilsen's soft water, paler malt, and the market explosion of cheap, mass-produced glassware resulted in the pilsner becoming the new gold standard of light beer.
American craft pilsners are interesting, hybrid brews, with substantial variation. In this tasting, we try four pilsners from breweries across the U.S., from central California's Firestone Walker to Stratford, Conn.'s Two Roads Brewing.
Though each brewery adds intriguing details to set its pilsner apart, all four adhere to a sense of pastoral simplicity, finding the most compelling traits in nature's smallest details.
25 IBUs | 5% ABV
Two Roads brewmaster Phil Markowski wrote one of the seminal books on farmhouse ales, and his focus shines through in their Ol' Factory Pils. The beer boasts a clear, light gold color with tiny, pervasive bubbles. The pun-tastic name reflects the variety of subtle fragrances present, from a sweet, farm-like aroma of hay, field flowers, and as one taster put it, "what Sting would call 'Fields of Barley'," to an earthier minerality. The taste backed up this latter scent, with a delightfully unexpected mineral sourness playing across the back of the palate, followed by slight warmth on the finish.
44 IBUs | 5.3% ABV
Victory Brewing is committed to finding the best natural ingredients possible, a dedication that extends to their exclusive use of whole flower hops, rather than the pellets used by most breweries. The resulting brews are more delicate and nuanced, and the Prima Pils is no exception. Greener and less carbonated than Two Roads' Ol' Factory, the Prima has a gentle appearance. The nose contains elusive, variable scents, none of which overpowers any of the rest; earthy, chalky, and nutty notes all complement each other. The taste moves us from Two Roads' fields into the woods of Pennsylvania, with an open flavor that is as subtle as it smells. Think of a small, comforting cottage in a forest clearing, and you'll get a sense of the Prima.
40 IBUs | 5.3% ABV
The Pivo is the smoothest of the group by far, with a level of polish that reflects the literal hundreds of awards Firestone Walker has won for their oaken-cask-fermented brews. This pilsner has a silky, foamier head than the others, while also sporting the lightest consistency and color, making it look a little like sparkling grape juice. Fruit scents like apple and tangerine tickle the nose, balanced by a tart, peppery detail that rounds out the sweetness nicely. After a potent aroma, the taste was deceptively subtle, balanced and clean. It felt wetter than the others, almost soft, and the group realized promptly that the Pivo is astonishingly—almost dangerously—drinkable.
45 IBUs | 4.5% ABV
For our final beer of the American pilsner tasting, we finished strong. The pils from the Hershey, Penn. brothers behind Tröegs Brewing earned some superlatives from our astute tasters; on appearance alone, the Sunshine was easily the greenest, with a substantial carbonation level and a fluffy white head. The smell is the most understated aspect, with a light corn scent and a delicate tartness akin to citrus peel. The taste, however, brings it home in a big way, with a dynamic, flavorful opening that slowly tapers off, featuring mineral notes and a dominating corn essence that lacks those negative sulfur or DMS characteristics. Overall, a carbonated, carb-y delight.
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