Putting on the pilsners

"Southeastern Pa. is pilsner heaven," says Mike Scotese, who schooled Craig LaBan.
"Southeastern Pa. is pilsner heaven," says Mike Scotese, who schooled Craig LaBan. (CRAIG LaBAN)
Posted: May 31, 2013

When the Inquirer decided to focus one of the two categories at this year's Brew-vitational on a single style of beer, the choice was easy: pilsner.

Pennsylvania's brewers have become known as specialists in the classically crisp and hoppy lager with roots in the Czech and German traditions - perhaps more than any other region in the country.

"So many of the greatest pilsners in the world are made here, I rarely drink any from Europe anymore," says Mike "Scoats" Scotese, owner of Hop Angel Brauhaus and the Grey Lodge Pub, both of which are hosting pilsner events for Philly Beer Week. "Southeastern Pennsylvania is pilsner heaven."

Learning to love pilsners, whose delicate hop characteristics can be light and subtle, is a tricky pursuit. Scoats and some other experts agreed to help.

"When you start getting into craft beer, people gravitate towards the stronger, bigger, extreme IPAs," he said. "But then you come back around again."

Culturally, Pennsylvania's passion for pilsners makes sense given the region's deep German roots.

"My family came [to America] in 1733, but English was still my father's second language," said Ed Stoudt, whose Stoudt's brewery in Adamstown launched the local pils resurgence in 1990.

By the mid-1990s, Stoudt's was joined by acclaimed pilsners from Victory, Sly Fox, and Troëgs. At this year's Brew-vitational, 10 local brewers competed, with Tröegs taking first place for its German-style Sunshine pils.

The genre is an anomaly in the ale-centric American craft brewing world, in part because the slow, cold fermentation of pilsner (and lagers, in general) can take twice as long as ales, occupying precious real estate most small new breweries don't have.

In addition, pilsners have gotten a bad rap from mass-produced versions like Miller High Life and Budweiser that have come to epitomize bland and boring swill.

Even some of the most renowned European examples, like Pilsner Urquell from the Bohemian city of Pilsen, the Czech town where pilsner was invented in 1842, simply do not travel well, losing both vibrance and complexity, with little more than austere bitterness to show.

"I never liked this beer," Scoats conceded about Urquell. "Bitter beer."

The difference between that standard Urquell and a special unfiltered edition they occasionally produce with more traditional methods - which must be drunk within weeks of its release - is like night and day.

The American craft-brewed renditions at their freshest, however, can be a similar revelation.

A bottle of classic Stoudt's pils on the table in front of Scoats, for example, had a toasty malt aroma balanced by a long, elegant finish of Saaz and Hallentauer hops. A Lagunitas from Petaluma, Calif., with a soft, round nose and lingering lemon tang, showed an uncharacteristic West Coast restraint.

The ability to appreciate that kind of soft-spoken delicacy isn't universal.

"The nuances between pilsners are more subtle, and I dare say it's a more sophisticated form of beer than some of the IPAs out there," says Bill Covaleski of Victory Brewing, which, aside from its Prima Pils (named by the New York Times as America's best pilsner), makes the Braumeister draft-only series that each features a different single hops. The Braumeister with Tettnang hops won second in this year's Brew-vitational.

There are also two basic distinct schools of pilsner worth noting, he says - the Czech style ("more aromatic and grassy; more sweetness and body") and the German style ("more herbal and mineral," with northern styles being the most "brittle and dry.")

Either way, the hallmarks of a great pils are consistent, says Covaleski:

It should be crystal-clear - unless it's an unfiltered "keller" pils.

The refined pale head should be fluffy and light.

The nose should be grassy, herbal, or mineral.

The malty sweetness should be earthy, but light.

If it doesn't finish dry and make you smack your lips, "it probably isn't a good pilsner."

Such success is often a fine line. And when a pils goes wrong - a recent can of flat Mamma's Lil Yella Pils from Oskar Blues, and a skunky pint of Bitburger at Frankford Hall come to mind - the austere style is unforgiving.

"There just isn't a lot of wiggle room with pilsner," says Scoats. "It's either great, or it's not."


Contact Craig LaBan at claban@phillynews.com or on Twitter: @CraigLaBan.

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