Serious Beer: Pilsner
Tröegs Sunshine Pils
Sierra Nevada Summerfest
Notch Session Pils
Brewers have been known to describe pilsners as the hardest style of beer to produce. Good pilsners have clean, light malt flavors like grain and crackers, often backed up by herbal and grassy hops. There are only a few ingredients in most pilsners, and they're outwardly simple beers. This simplicity and minimalism means there's nowhere for a brewer to hide flaws in their method—imperfections are laid bare to taste and smell.
That said, I was blown away by the generally high quality of the US-brewed pilsners we tasted for this roundup. We've separated the beers into two categories. German-style pilsners are dry and crisp, and the bitter flavors tend to linger in the aftertaste. In comparison, Czech-style pilsners, sometimes called Bohemian pilsners, tend to have a richer malt character and a softer, rounder feel. Both styles make for excellent summer sipping (or quaffing), and you can't go wrong with any of the brews we tried.
Tröegs Sunshine Pils, Pennsylvania 5.3% ABV
Sunshine is an appropriate name. Fresh bread and raw grain hit first in the aroma, followed by citrus and lemon to match the bright, golden color of the beer. Zesty carbonation and a bit of sulfur sharpen up the lemon, herbal, and spicy hop-bitterness in the flavor; tastes of sourdough bread even out the finish. There are no flaws here—Tröegs is fast becoming one of my favorite breweries.
Stoudts Pils, Pennsylvania 5.4% ABV
This beer showcases simple grain in the nose, with just a touch of fresh-cut flowers. A slight, grape sourness punches up a clean, crisp finish. The flavor is dry, but there's still enough malt sweetness to balance out a stiff bitterness. I finished this and immediately wanted another.
Sixpoint The Crisp, New York 5.4% ABV
We smelled sweet, rising bread and spring flowers. The flavor is clean, with a mildly bitter, hop bite of pith and herbs with floral notes. The malt base is one-dimensional, but that dimension is a pleasantly lip-smacking doughiness.
Left Hand Polestar, Colorado 5.5% ABV
Floral and sweet malt aromas combine with smells of earthy hay. A biscuit flavor lingers throughout, integrated with hop notes of pepper and grass. High carbonation and slight sourness reminded us of Champagne.
Pennsylvania Brewing Kaiser Pils, Pennsylvania 5.0% ABV
Floral hops and grain overshadow a faint fruit scent in the nose. The flavor is malt-forward and rich, with toasted white bread and a firm herbal bitterness that takes over and lingers. Kaiser Pils manages to have bold flavors but remain balanced.
Victory Prima Pils, Pennsylvania 5.3% ABV
Rich, caramel malt aromas don't give much hint of the flavors here. Lemon sourness and complex hops dominate the palate, rotating between lavender, lemon, and pepper, but there's some lingering honey and fruitiness. This is a hop-bomb example of a pilsner, and it stood out in the crowd.
North Coast Scrimshaw, California 4.4% ABV
Scrimshaw has malty caramel and toast aromas and flavors. An understated citric bitterness cuts through the grain, drying out the finish. We liked the richer malt flavors and an ABV that allows an afternoon of drinking, but didn't like the thinner body.
Schlafly Pilsner, Missouri 4.8% ABV
The floral and grass aromas were obvious here, and a few tasters mentioned a briny seaside smell as well. A lingering bitterness, characteristic of German pils, still lets some biscuit and grainy sweetness squeak through.
Brooklyn Pilsner, New York 5.2% ABV
Honey, peaches, and rising bread fill the nose. Bitter flavors of lemon and metal linger, but the beer sweetens as it warms. We liked the pleasantly full body and zippy carbonation.
Metropolitan Flywheel Bright Lager, Illinois 5.2% ABV
Dough and berry aromas segue to cracker, biscuit, herb, and flower flavors. Definitely Bright- this is a cheerful and crisp beer.
Butte Creek Organic Pilsner, California 4.5% ABV
We smelled straw and some hints of sourness. In the flavor, metals and minerals mingled with lingering dough and raw grain. We weren't thrilled by the thin mouthfeel and low carbonation.
Sierra Nevada Summerfest 2011, California 5.0% ABV
Summerfest has a warm golden-bronze color, and has aromas of pepper, rye, and lemon. The bitterness in the flavor is restrained, leaving plenty of room for subtle mint and citrus flavors to shine. This is a perfect gateway beer for a macro-brew drinker, but it will also satisfy jaded, cynical beer geeks.
Notch Session Pils, Massachusetts 4.0% ABV
The nose here is rich and bright, filled with fruit and grass. Some sourness and prickly carbonation were the first things we detected, but the taste is dominated by the clean and distinctly grassy flavors of Saaz hops—this is one of the better Saaz flavors we found. A full, round finish of biscuit and grain makes this a shining example of a Czech pilsner.
Samuel Adams Noble Pils, Massachusetts 4.9% ABV
Honey aromas dominate, with some lemon and grapefruit peeking through. Noble Pils smells like it's going to be sweet and cloying, but despite rich honey flavors, it's completely dry. There are flavors of pine, herbs, and grass, but with 5 different hops in this beer, none stand out.
Live Oak Pilz, Texas 4.7% ABV
Rye spice and grass clippings fill out the aroma. Dandelion bitterness balances out biscuit and crackers in the flavor, leaving Pilz perfectly dry. Sadly, this beer is only available on tap, and only in Texas for now.
Uinta Blue Sky Pilsener, Utah 4.0% ABV
Blue Sky has a very mild flavor. Faintly sour, fruity yeast and a slight spiciness outline hints of cracker and doughy, nutty malt. The clean and dry finish is accented by bright, fizzy carbonation. Light, easy-drinking, and subtle.
Redhook Pilsner, New Hampshire 5.3% ABV
We smelled sourdough bread, apricots, and grassy hops. The grain and bread flavors are strong up front, but get whisked away by earthy grass and herbal hops.
Lagunitas PILS, California 6.2% ABV
The nose of PILS is apricots and spicy pepper. Honey and rich, toffee malts steal the show in the flavor, with supporting roles played by mild black pepper, tea, and a tinge of copper in the aftertaste.
Summit Pilsener, Minnesota 5.0% ABV
Sour grape and lemon constitute the aroma. There was almost no bitterness in the flavor, leaving mainly a buttered-challah toast finish.
Of course, these are just our opinions on a selection of solid American-brewed pilsners. What's your favorite pils for a hot day?
Disclosure: All beers except Tröegs and Sierra Nevada were provided as samples for review.
About the Author: Nick Leiby is a Boston-based scientist and homebrewer. When he's not drinking yeast, he's probably studying it in lab.