Pilsner for the People

Unfiltered by | Jun 2017 | Issue #125
Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

Two years ago in this magazine I called for the resurrection of lager beer. It wasn’t particularly noteworthy as it was a plea I’d issued before and one I expected would continue to go unheeded. In a world dominated by juicy, hazy IPAs, I dreamed aloud about a new wave of subtler, nuanced beers. I openly hoped for a brewing industry focused on something other than the same-y hop flavors and aromas that continue to cast their shadow over American beer.

Dreams do come true. After more than a decade of preaching the beauties of lager, recent sales data suggests that the much-neglected family of beers is finally gaining some traction among craft consumers. Sadly, it’s not with Maibocks or Dunkels as I had wished, but with the more approachable Pilsner style. That’s understandable. As a very general proposition, Pilsner remains relatable to almost any drinker. It also benefits from a familiar name, one not nearly as foreign in nomenclature as Schwarzbier.

As with other consumer food trends, craft brewing cycles from wave to wave. We’ve experienced times of tepid Amber Ales, extreme hops and alcohol, tangy and funky sours, and now aromatic but seemingly unbittered IPAs. It’s lager’s turn.

Once anathema to craft brewing’s ideals, lager is suddenly cool. And it’s turning up everywhere. Where breweries previously clamored to have a Gose or a sour, the new must-have is a clean Pils—even at the edgiest breweries. Brewers have long tried to convince the public that they simply make what they want to drink. In my experience, that often proves more marketing speak than truth when I see the beers they drink while working at fests or socializing in bars. The one style brewers have long agreed on loving, though, as if some quiet secret not to be spoken of, is Pils. Now the public can finally join in on the fun.

Many recent brewery forays into Pilsner were not always promising. I’ve maligned some of these efforts, including the bastardization of the style with juicy American hops. American brewers remain ever playful and curious, traits that have served them well. But when you blast a Pilsner base beer with Citra, Amarillo, or Mosaic, we can safely say you’ve created something rather un-Pilsner like. Call such creatures India Pale Lagers or just hoppy lagers, but let’s leave Pilsner out of it. Whatever it may be called, this classic style has proven to be a worthy vessel for brewers’ creativity. And this creativity has lead to a renaissance of clean, crisp, and reasonably traditional offerings.

I’d love to see this Pilsner trend continue and evolve into new waves of traditional lager styles. I’d be ecstatic to see brewers fully embrace and explore the complexities and layers of malts, beyond the safety of their usual, favored base ingredients. And I hope that consumers continue to support these breweries and promote a new era and attitude toward lager beer.

The hazy, dank New England IPA craze has a few more gasps of breath left in it. And that’s fine. There should always be a wide range of styles available to suit every person, mood, and occasion. For too long, however, traditional lager styles were denied a place at the table. It’s time for Bock, Doppelbock, Helles, Maibock, and others to get some real respect from beer geeks.