I’ll be the first to admit I’m a bit of a beer snob. I like my beer to have a crisp hop flavor or a citrusy bouquet on the nose and a complex malt background. However, I like to think that I’m a bit more open-minded than some of my more hard-nosed kin, which is what brings me to a topic that most beer snobs shun out of some bizarre first-beer trauma: pilsners.
This much-maligned style has sent craft beer nerds flying toward the opposite end of the beer spectrum for decades. Tart sours; bitter IPAs; roasty, savory porters; and thick, oil-like Russian Imperial stouts are the liquid crack of the die-hard beer snob.
But let’s take a step back. Putting aside the billion-gallon macro-brewed rice/corn pilsners mass-produced by the Big Two, what’s really wrong with the pilsner?
I’ve tried many pilsners over the years, and a number of them stand out in my mind as very good beers. However, many seem infected with this prejudice against the original style, and are thusly hopped with flavors that absolutely do not belong. Some have distinct piney hop flavors that overpower all else, while others are disappointingly bland, lacking the crisp tang one gets from a proper pils.
When the Samuel Adams Noble Pils was first introduced, not only was it critically acclaimed, it was a huge commercial success. It went from a Spring Seasonal, replacing the White Ale, to a year-round offering almost overnight. Then, as they always do, at some point they changed the recipe, and somehow lost that perfect, magic combination of flavors.
Berkshire Brewing makes a Czech pilsner that, in my opinion, epitomizes the style. It’s light and bubbly, with just a kiss of hops to complement the sweetness, and a wonderful, clean finish. I’ve raved about it before, and will continue to do so.
Sadly, so many beer snobs see this style as an evolutionary throwback. I can sort of understand. Why drink “just a pilsner” when there are so many other styles out there? Well, I would counter with the fact that at last count, every single brewery in the nation makes an IPA, even the ones that haven’t opened yet. Every homebrewer has made an IPA. We know every IPA is different, as the dizzying selection of hops gives each one a unique fingerprint, but why do we not extend the same courtesy to the pilsner? There are “hoppy” pilsners out there, but it’s less about strength than it is about finesse. A pilsner requires a certain finesse, and while it’s easy to toss in some Cascade and centennial and call it a day, a pilsner requires a bit more of a fine palate to understand.
Lighter, gentler hops are called for, like Tettnang, Hallertau, the ones we’ve left behind in our rush for bigger, bolder flavors.
In my opinion, a true beer nerd would never discount a “weak” hop. Subtle flavors can sometimes be the most satisfying. Remember, sometimes less is more.
So, friends, give pilsners a chance. Adjust your expectations accordingly, and understand that not every pilsner is a mass-produced, adjunct-filled, straw-colored imitation. Some are subtle, delicious, dare I say, remarkable session beers just looking for a little love.