At this time of year—which is to say, Oktoberfest time—whether I’m celebrating Oktoberfest in Munich or closer to home at Snowbird or elsewhere, I enjoy doing so with a cold pilsner (also called “pilsener” and shortened to pils, or Plzensky in the Czech Republic). Pilsner is a beer just about everybody can love, and chances are you already do. If you’ve ever drank Beck’s, Amstel, Heineken, Stella Artois—or Budweiser, for that matter—you’ve had pilsner.
The name comes from the Czech city of Pilsen, where bottom-fermented lager was first produced. That’s also where what is probably the world’s most popular pilsner, Pilsner Urquell, is made. Bavarian brewer Josef Groll gets credit for brewing the first bottom-fermented (which added to the lager’s clarity and longevity) pilsner, in 1842, at the Burger Brauerei in Pilsen. What distinguishes pilsner from other pale lagers is the presence of Saaz noble hops, which lends a more definable hop character to pilsner than to other pale lagers. In Beer for Dummies, which I helped write, I called pilsner “crisp and aromatic.” Its lightness makes it a versatile partner for food, especially poultry, pork and dishes with lighter sauces.
While Pilsner Urquell pretty much serves as the gold standard for pilsner worldwide, there are many different styles, including German—which tends toward a bit more bite on the tongue—slightly sweeter Belgian and Dutch pilsners and even refreshing Mexican pilsners such as Pacifico and Bohemia, the latter of which was named for the famous beer-brewing region of Czechoslovakia.
While some of my very favorite pilsners aren’t easy to track down—Beersel Lager from the Czech Republic, Montreal’s Elixir Celeste, Braumeister Pils from Victory Brewing in Pennsylvania, Germany’s Rothaus Pils and Mahr’s Pilsner, and Maes Pils from Belgium, for example—there is a pretty good variety of pilsner available in our state liquor and wine stores. Here are a few that I’m familiar with and enjoy.
Until recently, I’d never tried Peter’s Brand Pilsner ($1.39/500ml), made in Holland in the Dutch style and packaged in a 1-pint can. It’s very crisp on the palate, with a nice malt-to-hop balance—a good introductory imported pilsner for anyone who wants to venture away from American macrobrews. The aforementioned Bohemia ($1.84/334ml) from Mexico has long been one of my favorites: a very clean-tasting beer in a brown bottle with some sweet graininess, creamy mouthfeel and a nice tang of hoppy bitterness. Although it’s called Bohemia, I think of it more as a Vienna-style lager than a Czech pils. I also like canned Modelo Especial ($1.84/334ml) from Mexico on hot summer days and when I’m in need of something super-cold to sip while manning the barbecue.
Turning to more serious styles of pilsner, my favorite locally available lager is Hofbrau Original ($3.49/500ml), a full-bodied, crisp, Munich-style lager with plenty of carbonation and an exceptional hop/malt balance. It finishes as clean as a whistle; it’s a terrific beer that will satisfy the most discriminating beer lover.
For Czech-style pilsner, I’m a big fan of Midvale’s Bohemian Brewery’s Czech Pilsener ($7.99/six 12-oz cans), a full-bodied beer with subtle floral aromas, lots of carbonation and grassy hop flavors. In a blind tasting, I think you’d mistake this one for a real Czech Republic beer. Lev Lion Lager ($2.05/500ml) is another longtime favorite of mine, a well-made Czech pilsner with some toasty bread notes from the grains, along with unmistakably classic Saaz hops.
A few other noteworthy pils include Epic’s Pfeifferhorn Lager ($3.69/651ml), Stiegl PilsPinkus Ur Pils ($3.59/503ml), ($3.16/500ml) and Staropramen Lager ($1.46/355ml).
Got a favorite pils of your own? Let us hear about it!