If you’re looking for a beer that’s both simple and immensely satisfying to drink, it is time to take a hint from our European colleagues and start sipping some pilsners. When properly brewed, a pilsner is a beautiful pale yellow but completely clear beer with a big springy head, fizzy carbonation and a finish that’s sharply dry. A lager, it tastes especially delicious when cold, and its dryness gives it a unique refreshing quality.
Pilsners have a long history. They were first brewed in the Czech city of Pilsen in 1842. Other beers at the time, brewed with ale yeast, were plagued with inconsistencies and often were murky in appearance. Brewers began to figure out they could use lager yeast – which ferments in the top of the vessel and at cooler temperatures – and store it in cool, underground storage areas or caves to finish. The resulting beers were clear, dry and visually pleasing. This development happened to coincide with glass bottle prices dropping sharply, which allowed brewers to showcase the excellent clarity and “clean” look of their beers, helping propel the style to worldwide fame.
Lagers rapidly gained popularity at large breweries, and the largest beer companies in the world are making their money from pilsners and light lagers (such as AB-InBev, Carlsberg, Kirin, etc.). Smaller, U.S. craft breweries, however, have been more hesitant to embrace the style for a number of reasons.
First, for all their simplicity, a pilsner is quite difficult to get right. When you’re working with such delicate flavors and processes, there is little room to hide or adjust if the beer comes out differently than expected. It’s also a style that few have been willing to add any outside ingredients to out of reverence for tradition, or perhaps just because brewers are hesitant to put a twist on a flavor that’s so classic and recognizable.
Lagers also take longer to produce than ales, requiring several additional weeks for the beer to sit in, well, “lager” (the German word for “storage”) as it matures. You can’t rush a pilsner, and in the fast-paced turnover of craft beer tasting rooms, sitting on one and waiting for it to reach perfection can be a risk that some aren’t willing to take.
Despite those challenges, there are now more than a handful of Maine breweries that have tried their hand at lagers, and some have branched into trying this clean (yet tricky) style with great success.
Tributary Brewing Company recently started to can its German Pilsner, a grassy and light beer that fits into its lineup of ales and sometimes heavier beer perfectly. I’m always happy to see more beer reach packaging so it can be enjoyed by more people and at home, and the Tributary German Pilsner is perfect for that.
It might surprise some that Bissell Brothers, best known for its hoppy and hazy beers, has made several lagers in the past few years that have been exceptional, and not just because they are a departure from the brewery’s portfolio. One that’s on the rotating year-round schedule is the Precept, a pilsner. This beer stands out as an excellent craft pilsner because it has both the slight bitterness from the hops but also that cereal, biscuity character from the malts.
I’d be happy with this even if it didn’t come from Bissell Brothers, but it seems like it should get an extra point for not being extreme in any fashion – just solid. If you haven’t tried Precept yet, its spring release will happen May 21. Bissell’s lager program has continued to expand, with a new helles lager, Lucent, being released earlier in May, so I’d keep an eye out for those.
I would be remiss not to mention one of the first of Maine’s new wave breweries to brew a pilsner year-round, and that’s Banded Brewing out of Biddeford. Its Pepperell Pils is what I grab when I’m going to a friend’s place or a party where I don’t know what people will like to drink – it is that universally likable and drinkable that it never gets left behind.
If you can’t get enough of these crispy brews, you can try a plethora of pilsners all in one place at the Pils & Love festival this summer. The inaugural festival, held in 2017 and hosted by Oxbow Brewing Co., was the first style-based festival I’d ever attended. This year, over 60 pilsners, both local and from abroad, will be poured at the Spring Point location. The date of the fest, July 20, is a week before the Maine Brewer’s Guild Summer Session, but should have a bit of a different feel. There is one, long session from noon to 5 p.m., which should make for an enjoyable afternoon for pilsner sipping.
Whether you sample them out in the sun, in a busy bar or while mowing your backyard, pilsners are great for a nice, crisp sip.